Stay the night: The Merchant Hotel, Belfast
The former financial institution oozes luxury, but it needs better soundproofing, says Fiona Sturges
Sunday 21 November 2010
At first glance, the Merchant Hotel seems to tick all the boxes of the luxury city base.
Liveried doormen: check. Gleaming marble lobby: check. Enormous, decadently furnished rooms: all present and correct. But what this five-star hotel can't promise all guests is that most basic requirement: a good night's sleep.
The Merchant opened in 2006 and occupies the site of the former Ulster Bank headquarters, an imposing Victorian building in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter. What was once the main banking hall, where tellers sat behind windows, is now the Great Room, one of the city's grandest restaurants complete with crimson banquettes, chandeliers and a glorious Neoclassical ceiling. The subterranean vault, where the cash was once stashed, now houses a private dining room and a wine cellar.
Last month, a new £16.5m extension was unveiled with 38 extra rooms and a spa and gym. But what the owners have apparently neglected to invest in is extra soundproofing in the original part of the building, an oversight that led me to lay awake until 2am with pillows clamped over my ears due to the music pumping from Ollie's, the newly renovated nightclub in the basement. When I blearily raised the issue with the manager the next morning, she arranged for me to switch rooms and conceded that there was a problem with noise which the hotel was "looking to address". Until then, guests would be advised to request a room on the other side of the building. Or, at the very least, pack some earplugs.
The new bedrooms have a sleek Art Deco theme with mirrored headboards, ebony furniture and some startling prints of 1920s ladies in their underwear. The bathrooms are spacious and elegant and come with oversized showers, roll-top baths and pretty turquoise tiling. Meanwhile, the hotel's original rooms retain the aesthetic of a plush Victorian boudoir with damask silk-panelled walls, rich wool carpets, antique mirrors and dark marble bathrooms. All rooms have flat-screen TVs.
The food and drink
Guests needn't set foot outside the hotel to eat some of the best food Belfast has to offer. The seriously upmarket Great Room offers the full fine-dining experience, with two-course set menus starting at a reasonable £16.50 for the early sitting. Preferring something more informal, I went for dinner at Bert's, the hotel's bustling new bistro that hosts jazz bands after 9pm and where I had a terrific fillet of hake with lobster bisque. The Merchant is particularly proud of its cocktail bar, where awards line the shelves and the master barman, Sean Muldoon, offers a dizzyingly extravagant menu, including a classic Mai Tai cocktail made with a rare rum – a snip at £750.
If you're after VIP treatment, the Merchant provides airport pick-ups in a shiny black Bentley. The new spa in the basement offers a variety of relaxation and beauty treatments; there's a steam room in the gym and the nail bar provides a complimentary glass of champagne with your manicure. Rooms have tea and coffee-making facilities as well empty fridges where you can store your own drinks and snacks.
The hotel has full wheelchair access. Pets are not allowed. Children are welcome and under-fives stay free.
Deluxe double rooms start at £150 per night, with prices rising to £455 for suites. Fiona Sturges travelled to Belfast as a guest of easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.co.uk), which offers flights from Gatwick, Stansted and Luton from £18.99 one way.
The Merchant Hotel, 16 Skipper Street, Belfast BT1 2DZ (028-9023 4888; the merchanthotel.com).
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