Review by Fiona Duncan, published 7th October 2007.
In hotels, lighting is everything: it has the power to transform. Waking under the tallest ceiling I have ever slept beneath, I felt as if I were regaining consciousness in a tomb. Acres of silk cut out any hint of light from the pair of immense windows and made it impossible to guess the time.
The rooms are adorned with elegant European furniture in a Napoleon III style
Memories of a strange night – deep sleep courtesy of a particularly blissful mattress, punctuated by raucous voices and drunken singing (there are pubs and clubs close by) filtered into my brain and I leapt out of bed, feeling that this room, wherever it was (I often can't quite remember) was decidedly creepy.
And then I switched on the lights. This is a hotel about which I cannot make up my mind. Judging by the comments on Tripadvisor, you either love it or hate it, but I feel both.
Electricity, in warm pools from ornate standard and table lamps, transformed the ancient, shadowy tomb into a gorgeous Napoleon III-style boudoir, with overstuffed sofa, piles of fringed cushions, a pair of elegant French armoires, antique European mirrors and tables and expensive patterned silk on the walls. Visible beyond double doors was the spacious brown marble bathroom, again with a floor-length window. Whisking me back to the 21st century was an enormous plasma-screen television.
The Merchant is Belfast's most significant hotel opening in decades, signalling the end of the Troubles and the beginning of a new prosperity. It's not cheap, but if you can usually get a room for £99 midweek, and it's by far the most memorable and interesting place to stay in town.
It has a grand, lavish and unspoilt listed interior, excellent food and a superb cocktail bar. And the rooms, whether suites or "deluxe doubles" feel, during daylight, like walking into a Keatsian autumn, full of mellow fruitfulness, with their burnt orange, dark gold and deep-red colourings. "Romantic Parisian, with a touch of Venetian decay" is how the designer has described the look.
And yet... It's somehow hard to love this former headquarters of the Ulster Bank, built in the mid-19th century with typical Victorian excess. The great hall, where tellers sat at the desks until just 12 years ago, is astonishing – its cornice a whirl of fat white cherubs amid gold-painted decoration, topped by an enamelled glass dome. In the raised middle of the room is the restaurant, with red-velvet seats. It should feel wonderfully naughty, but the pomposity and business-like nature of the bank wins through, particularly at breakfast. Best to stay cocooned in your room, although if you want cooked, it incurs a whacking £15 per person extra.
Most fun is the glittering cocktail bar. Master barman Sean Muldoon has created an encyclopaedic menu divided into Morning, Afternoon and Evening at the Bar. I could stay all day, starting with a Corpse Reviver or an Absinthe Drip, and ending with the world's most expensive cocktail: a classic Trader Vic's Mai Tai, using the original rum, which is now incredibly rare, at £750 a shot. Now that would be fun.
35-39 Waring Street, Belfast (02890 234888; www.themerchanthotel.com). Doubles from £120 to £220; suites from £220, including breakfast.
For information on Northern Ireland contact Ireland Tourism (0800 0397000; www.discoverireland.com).