Beauty and Best; PHILIPPA CLARKE Discovers Pampering, Scenery and History in Northern Ireland

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THERE was a time when if anyone had suggested Northern Ireland would be the ideal place to take a short spa break, you'd have thought they were joking.

But now the Troubles are history and, with amazing hotels, glorious scenery, and Irish hospitality, how could you fail to be charmed? I had just three days to find out.

Coming into land at Belfast's George Best airport, you can't miss the towering cranes of the once world renowned Harland and Wolfe shipyard, where the Titanic, among other ships, was built.

From 1861, this shipyard was the employer of the majority of Belfast's menfolk. George Best's dad worked here and George himself may well have followed him there were it not for his incredible footballing talent.

I set off first to Newcastle - a small town in County Down 30 miles south of the city, where the Mourne Mountains, sweep down to the sea. The Slieve Donard Resort and Spa had been erected by the Victorians in the golden age of railway hotels.

Set in six acres of grounds, it is bordered by a sandy beach on two sides, with County Down Golf club on the third and the mountains in front.

The Victorians enjoyed their water treatments here and the spa is still as important a feature of the hotel as it was last century. Charlie Chaplin stayed here - you can see his signature on the wall in the old guest book. The hotel itself is a haven of calm. Sitting in the sauna taking in the view, I felt that I could let all my worries drift out to the Irish Sea with the turn of the tide.

I was so relaxed after just a day. It was with some reluctance that I waved goodbye.

Heading back up north to Belfast, I moved on to yet more luxury at the Culloden Estate and Spa.

Set in 12 acres on the wooded slopes of the Holywood hills, it overlooks Belfast Lough and the County Antrim coastline. Built as a palace, this is one of the most elegant hotels you could hope to find.

The Spa Health Club has everything, including a full range of luxury treatments and a swimming pool with a beautiful domed ceiling. It is considered one of the best spas in Northern Ireland.

It is an easy trip into Belfast, a city which offers all the pleasure of shopping, eating and drinking. But it is impossible to ignore the unique history of Northern Ireland and its troubled past. …