Belfast’s Five Star hotel is the last word in opulence.
I knew he was going to propose the moment he lifted his coffee cup to meet mine and toasted our future. We were seated in the Great Room of The Merchant Hotel. A pianist navigated the keys of a grand piano and waiting staff delivered sumptuous breakfasts to the guests. The scent from bouquets of roses mingled with sizzling bacon and the peppery cologne worn by a gentleman at the next table. The dome above allowed Spring sunshine to illuminate the putti on the ceiling; they looked as though they were in on the secret. I was distracted by the statues on the frieze representing science, poetry, sculpture and music. They spoke to me of the beautiful collision of art and science, design and commerce. I looked at my breakfast partner and knew I would say yes.
A Commitment to Detail
We ate our way through fresh pastries, omelettes and slivers of salmon smoked to perfection. Everything from the polished silverware to the plush Victorian surroundings suggested opulence and a commitment to the finest details. Something about the roses, the smell of an Ulster Fry and the starched white napkins took me back to my grandmother’s house. Her kitchen opened onto a patio flanked with Amelia Roses and it was here she sat every morning with a plate of soda bread, potato bread, black pudding, bacon and eggs. I picked petals for perfume while she ate.
The Great Room, in which breakfast, lunch and dinner guests fare sumptuously, was once the floor of the Ulster Bank. A young Glaswegian architect, James Hamilton, won a £100 competition to design the bank in the 1850s. It was his vision of stone pillars, ornate steelwork and an interior that inspires visitors to look up that makes this Grade-A listed building such an iconic masterpiece. Over the last decade, the hotel has been refurbished to an exceptionally high standard. The upstairs that once housed the Chief Cashier and the bank’s five safes has been extended to accommodate bespoke hotel bedrooms. The underground vaults are now strobe-lit as a nightclub and the hotel boasts several restaurants, a luxury spa and a rooftop hot tub.
The Heart of Commerce
As I sipped the dregs of my coffee I wondered about the proposal. Would he get down on one knee? Would the patrons surrounding us swoon and clap? How would I word my acceptance? Then he asked for the bill and I thought that perhaps I had got it wrong. We paused on the hotel steps to button our coats against the wind. The bustle of The Cathedral Quarter must have looked quite different when these steps led to and from a bank. This was the heart of commerce in Belfast in the 1800s. Waring Street was named after a successful local merchant and the junction at which it meets Donegall Street, North Street and Bridge Street was the place from which all milestones in the city were measured. From where I stood it was 170 km to my home in Dublin North, the place to which I would return if a Northern Irish anaesthetist did not make me a better offer.
To the Beach
We left the magnificence of The Merchant Hotel and its impeccably dressed Concierge and went to the beach. This is one of the most wonderful things about Belfast – you are never too far from soft sand and the Irish Sea. The North Down coastline spans from the beach front of Holywood, through the forests of Crawfordsburn and onwards along meadows, farmland, pebble shores and the harbours of Bangor, Groomsport and Donaghadee.
His proposal of forever almost disappeared in the wind across Belfast Lough. I caught the tail of it and have been holding on ever since.
I love this! You have captured romance, both personal and civic, and have reminded us to seize love and beauty whenever it comes.