With her horticultural hat on, Valerie O’Conner went north to Antrim to see a newly-designed Garden Spa.
I NEVER really got the whole point of spa weekends.
The thought of wandering around in a fluffy robe, slipping in and out of different types of watery places and steam rooms, well, it just seemed a bit boring and silly.
Sometimes life throws you a challenge just when you need it, and the challenge in this case was an invite to the other end of the country — to Galgorm Resort and Spa in the lush countryside of Co Antrim to check out their award-winning Spa and gardens.
Ballymena is more than a hop and skip for a weekend, depending on where you’re coming from, but when your destination has just been awarded best spa in Ireland and the UK then it’s worth a look.
I love a garden too and the term ‘spa garden’ was one I’d never heard before.
Arriving after a long drive from Limerick it was a Willy Wonka moment to drive up the long avenue to the estate’s main house, the road lined with mature trees and sleepy willows, lush and heavy with rain and the greenest of greens leaping out everywhere.
Galgorm is a special place — the grounds, the food, the breakfast, the little pink tarts at the Spa cafe, the fact that we can hear the river gushing from the bedroom.
In mainland and Northern Europe the need for spas and wellness is long recognised, a history of sitting in steaming rooms and cold baths is built into the culture of countries like Finland, while in Japan, people do bathing rituals as a path to better mental and physical health.
A fluffy robe is a wonderful thing, a bit like nudity for the prudish.
Personally I’m not a fan of being dressed in spa situations and, having lived in naturist-loving Germany for years, the sight of women showering in their bathing costumes still baffles me. But it’s chilly here even in summer, so the robe must go on.
The pool is nice and the sauna looks fine, I swim up and down a bit then I ask the pool guy where all the good stuff is, he tells me there’s a map to the thermal village outside.
Thermal ‘village’? I robe up and go outside and there before me is a cornucopia of steaming baths, modern wooden buildings fanning off a boardwalk with shuffling figures mooching in and out of rooms and pools and all set in a magical garden sloping down to the river Maine, complete with a family of ducks busily swimming up and down the river’s rapids.
So this is the spa garden, I dropped my shoulders and exhaled. I am here.
I’m new to appreciating gardens, in a way I feel that for a garden to work it almost has to be unnoticeable, but you can’t help but be struck by some spectacular features here.
As luck would have it, Ian McGarry who runs Caragh Nurseries in Kildare with his wife Jo, and who worked with the owners of Galgorm, brothers Nicholas and Paul Hill to create this magic place, were on site for the morning.
“The Hill brothers spend a lot of time traveling the world to see what’s going on in the world of wellness, and they bring their new ideas back here,” he tells me.
With the resort having just had a £10 million makeover, the brothers wanted to create a more connected feeling between the natural setting and the man-made.
“With the river running through the property and the mature evergreen trees on the other side, it was important for the garden to join up the old with the new.
“When guests check in here in January the environment needs to look as much as possible like it does in July, so we chose some very particular statement plants from across Europe that would make an impression, and mature well over the years in their surroundings,” McGarry says.
And he points out a stunning olive tree in the centre of the garden.
“This tree, which is 400 year’s old, was selected from Caragh’s partner nursery in Tuscany — the brothers loved it, and it was carefully trucked across Europe, then shipped and brought here for planting. It’s amazing to think that this tree now has it’s roots firmly in Co Antrim.”
The tree has a majesty and wealth of nooks, twists and turns and looks like it’s been there forever, I wish for it that it gets enough heat as it sits downwind of a giant, outside jacuzzi.
McGarry is an organic gardener, more in the sense of how he works, telling me that the whole concept for the spa garden was sketched out on a piece of paper and, once the specimens and plants had been gathered, it was all hands on deck to do the planting in a number of days.
“Initially we wanted to create a formal, Italian-inspired space, but that all changed when we saw the stunning natural environment, so we set about combining it with some indigenous Irish species.
“Plants and trees in the Spa garden include Strawberry trees, Mulberry trees and Cork oaks. There are four distinct zones outside and we wanted to make a natural path that would lead the guest from one spa experience to the next in a very easy, undefined way.
“There are several outdoor hot tubs outside, heated by oakwood burners and we wanted to create the sense of being in your very own private area, so we planted around these hot tubs.
“When you are sitting down low in the warm water, you have views to the river, the trees create a backdrop and you can feel the fresh air on your face. All that separates you from the sky and the water are the branches.
“I think we have successfully merged the elements of fire, air and water with living trees, it’s a very special space.”
The spa itself extends to 7,000 sq m and is set into four zones, each with distinct heating and cooling experiences.
Outside areas include a sauna, riverside yoga studio, a sheltered relaxation/meditation zone with open fire, and private tubs heated by their own log fires, all set on the banks of the River Maine.
My favourite spot was the Orangery, a beautiful and spacious conservatory, filled with green leather loungers and swing seats, the tone is calm, people are reading, chatting and snoozing.
“We are thrilled with what Caragh Nurseries have created for us”, said Nicholas Hill, “we wanted to create an instant mature garden and that is not easy to do.
"I think what Ian and Jo McGarry have done is remarkable, we had a very different theme in mind at the start but they steered us in a different direction and they were dead right.
“The landscape here is wild and beautiful and the spa really is about embracing the natural elements in a very easy, informal way. We feel that the garden is the pièce de résistance in the spa, our guests love it and often comment that it really sets the scene for utter relaxation.”
Personally I’ve eaten all my words (and all the fab food including tons of Abernethy butter) when it comes to the benefits of going to a spa resort for a weekend.
There are many top things to do here on my list but once you begin slipping in and out of different steam rooms, letting powerful jets give you a back massage; rubbing yourself down with ice and then sitting in a toasty tub outside in the rain — your own troubles just melt away.
The Celtic sauna experience is a one-off that has to be done — sitting in a cosy 85-degree heat with the music (just right), playing as you sit there on beautifully carved wooden benches gazing out over the river rushing by, mature trees swaying in the breeze.
If you book yourself in for the experience you will get a unique treat that involves two very fit men in sarongs escorting you into the sauna and telling you all about the hot oil essences they are about to fill the air with.
As Jack pours hot water on the stones and the air fills with a heady heat, he then powerfully flicks a heavy towel to push the air, like a desert wind, into your face, all I can say is, it’s really something.
If you can keep your eyes open, all the better, but it’s difficult as it’s quite intense.
After your hot sauna experience, the boys take you to the relaxation room for a guided meditation and relaxation while you lie, encased in your robe, on a giant beanbag in a wooden room over the river. Try not sleeping afterwards.
Then there’s the shower that imitates tropical storms, complete with sounds of parakeets and thunder, that’s my other favourite, I could go on and on.
Galgorm is a special place, it’s worth the drive and there’s no airport involved.
Sadly now I’ve been to the best place in the land— it’s all downhill from here, but I guess that’s a first world problem.
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