Banks can be stressful places. Explaining your overdraft and that little black dress you just had to buy doesn’t always sit well with the manager.
o it was with the biggest ironic smile that I arrived at the former headquarters of the Ulster Bank for a night in what is now a five star hotel. The Merchant Hotel has been open since 2006, located in this historic ‘A’ listed building with a dramatic frontage on Waring Street in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.
the The irony of being in Belfast to pamper myself in the former home of the banking institution that kept me on my financial toes in the 1990s only made this little indulgence that much sweeter.
Arrival & location
Arriving in the Cathedral Quarter, the hotel was easy to find and the check-in process at reception, located on Skipper Street, was quick and courteous.
The wait staff had my wheeled bag and me up to my second-floor room within minutes, pointing out features including the spa area and gym along the way.
If you are coming from Dublin, the Enterprise train from Connolly station takes you to Lanyon Place, about 2km or a 10 minute taxi ride (my fare was £5.60/€6.76) from the hotel. For an extra €10 per trip, you can treat yourself first class (be sure to book online – I paid €59 return, but it would have been €99 at the station). I arrived and found no first class carriages on the 9.30am train, but the return journey was without a hitch – although there was no catering on board. 8/10
Service & style
The historic building was upgraded with a £16.5m / €19.9m extension in 2010, and guests will find themselves in between. An evening at The Great Room restaurant or the Cocktail Bar, with its antique Baccarat chandeliers, for example, could be followed by Bert’s Jazz Bar, which has a 1930s New York vibe, a French bistro menu and live jazz. direct seven evenings a week, and on Sunday afternoons (there is a supplement of £10/€12 per person on Friday and Saturday evenings). There’s also a spa with Elemis and Voya treatments, a hydro pool, gym, and rooftop hot tub with city views. 8/10
The rooms are Victorian style at the front of the house and Art Deco style in the extension. I ended up in one of the latter – bright and airy, the two white leather and steel armchairs were homages to the Bibendum by legendary Wexford-born furniture designer Eileen Gray. While I suspected she might have moaned at the sight of the metallic leather bifold wardrobe, it offered a generous hanging space, bathrobes, a good steam iron, ironing board, mirrored dressing table and a safe.
The walls were decorated with black and white fashion photographs and although there was a super king-size bed with an array of plump pillows, it was the bathroom that really stole the show in the room 222. I had requested a room with a bath rather than just a shower. Yes, I’m one of those people who likes to soak in the tub on a break and, on happy days, because The Merchant loves tubs too. A glass door led to a turquoise marble bathroom with Art Deco-style chrome taps, mirror, fittings and a very generously sized free-standing bath. Over the next 20 hours I took no less than three baths and also used the marble walk-in shower, with seat. I came home brilliant! 8/10
Dining alone can be grim but, to be honest, I was looking forward to this experience because I had company – the room. The Great Hall is one of the most ornate and highest-ceilinged dining rooms on the island, and the former Banking Hall has four Corinthian columns framing the Victorian interior with a frieze of fruit and foliage , a glass dome and a giant chandelier. I wore my golden Dries Van Noten coat to fit in. The diners around me were mostly couples, and the noise from a group of people I couldn’t see, but could definitely hear, didn’t last too long.
Conor, the restaurant’s assistant manager, guided me through the a la carte menu and I ordered a starter of local scallops followed by a filet of Irish beef Rossini. Both were delicious and I paired the beef with a glass of Côtes du Rhône Réserve Des Armoiries, one of the pairings suggested on the restaurant’s six-course tasting menu (€84 pp plus €42 pp for five wine pairings).
After pausing to digest (and admire the plump, cherubic silhouettes on the ceiling a little more), I ordered a selection of Irish and French cheeses with assorted condiments.
Breakfast the next morning was an opportunity to walk around The Great Room in daylight and browse the newspapers and magazines available via a QR code on the menu. Naturally I had the Ulster fry, with potato bread and soda farl — but I did, I admit, momentarily flirt with the idea of the morning special order of a Parma ham and goat cheese omelet. I didn’t drive, so I had no hesitation in also ordering porridge served with Irish whiskey cream and honey. Totally yum. 8/10
The bottom line
This is a destination hotel and I’m sure there are guests who hardly go out during their stay with all that is on offer. That said, I have to say that Belfast is very navigable on foot. The shopping district around Victoria Square is a short walk away and if you have shopping therapy in mind visit the Anthropologie store on Arthur Street, and for designer fashion Envoy of Belfast is a gem and located on Wellington Street near Town hall.
There are plant-based tasting, dinner and lunch menus as well as vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and nut-free afternoon teas.
Belfast is very navigable on foot. Turn left out of reception for a short walk to City Hall and the shops of Victoria Square.
The Spring Awakening offer includes B&B, a bottle of Prosecco and use of the hydrotherapy areas from €125 pp midweek or €192 weekends. Bairbre was a hotel guest. themerchanthotel.com