Many castle hotels have a ‘resident ghost’ but few choose to publicise it.
Not the four-star Ballygally Castle.
Overlooking the sea on Northern Ireland’s stunning coastline, its owner, Hastings Hotels Group, takes a more playful approach – much to the entertainment of guests.
A six-page hotel brochure informs guests that it has not one but three ghosts, the most famous of its otherworldly visitors being a certain Lady Isabelle Shaw, wife of James Shaw who built the castle in 1625. Isabelle, who sometimes walks the corridors of the castle’s oldest wing, has been a ‘permanent resident’ for almost 400 years.
Guests can even tiptoe up the winding staircase to the ‘spine-tingling’ room and write about their experiences in a special notice board on a wall in the lobby entitled simply, ‘The Ghost Room,’ a particular treat for children.
I was highly amused to read notes such as that of a guest signing himself as ‘Casper from the UK,’ who wrote, ‘I saw and felt her. She heavily breathed on me…but then I turned around and it was my dog with a bedsheet over his head.’
Elegant and enticing, Ballygally Castle offers much more than just a friendly phantom.
Mere minutes after arriving from Belfast, just 26 miles away, I found myself donning a comfy room robe and walking the short distance across the hotel’s car park to Ballygally Beach and straight into the water for an exhilarating sea swim.
My efforts were duly rewarded an hour later with an enjoyable dinner of seafood and smoked bacon chowder and cajun spiced chicken fillet with bean chilli and tempura vegetables while my companion chose a Caesar salad and oven baked Atlantic salmon.
While front rooms offer views along the coast and across to Scotland, the back of the hotel provides an equally relaxing yet contrasting environment – a walled garden with a charming gazebo and a murmuring stream meandering to the sea under a wooden bridge.
Ballygally castle dates back to 1625 and was built with local stone and in the style of a French chateau, with high walls, a steep roof, dormer windows and corner turrets. It is the only 17th-century building still used as a residence in Northern Ireland today. With 54 rooms, including six suitable for families, it is one of the largest hotels along this coastline and borders the foot of what’s known as the ‘Nine Glens of Antrim’ that radiate down from a plateau between the towns of Larne and Ballycastle.
In recent years, tourists have flocked to Ballygally Castle for its proximity to the ‘Game of Thrones’ filming locations, which can be seen on the hotel’s curated tour. An intricately engraved wooden door made from fallen trees of the iconic ‘Dark Hedges’ that represented Kingsroad in the popular TV series adorns the entrance to the restaurant.
Breakfast illustrates the hotel’s penchant for local products. Its porridge oats are from White’s, a local farmer’s co-op; handmade granola, a blend of oats, honey, apple sauce and whole almonds, is from the farmhouse of Jill and David Crawford in nearby Portaferry; free-range eggs are from the town of Crossgar; its honey from Waggle Dance in Portadown in Armagh; and its black and white puddings from Gracehill Fine Foods in Antrim.
Events, both personal and business, are catered in the hotel’s Kintyre Ballroom with its panoramic coastal views, accommodating up to 200 guests, together with conference and banqueting suites.
Hastings is Northern Ireland’s premier hotel group, its collection comprising seven high-end properties, each set-in key locations across Belfast, Derry, Down and the Antrim Coast.
Ballygally Castle is convenient for many activities in the area. Twelve miles south of the hotel is the Gobbins Path, a marine cliff walk initially built in the early 20th Century with sea stacks, caves, bridges and a waterfall, as well as the chance to see an assortment of fauna including seals, otters, puffins, kittiwakes, pinkie whales, dolphins and cormorants. Less than a half hour from there is Carrickfergus Castle, one of the finest examples of a Norman castle in Ireland, and beyond that the capital city itself offering cultural highlights such as Titanic Belfast, the Lyric Theater, Grand Opera House and the Ulster Museum.
North of the hotel is the ‘Causeway Coastal Route’ offering views over the Irish Sea to Scotland and over the Atlantic Ocean to Donegal. The Giants Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage site, comprises around 40,000 thousand mostly hexagonal basalt columns descending gently into the sea.
Active travellers will enjoy walking across the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, a visit to Sheans Horse Farm, a horse-riding centre in nearby Armoy or archery and zip-lining outings – all of which can be arranged through the hotel’s concierge.