Review by Fiona Duncan, published 25th November 2007.
I am standing in front of the jagged red-brick bulk of this famous old seaside hotel and my hopes are high. It's just been voted the best hotel in Ulster by the local television station UTV and it's recently undergone a multi-million-pound refit, including the addition of a state-of-the-art spa with bedrooms above, and the refurbishment of all the existing bedrooms.
It's in a spectacular position where "the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea" and the famous Royal County Down golf course is next door. I'm hoping for great things.
We are ushered into a glittering, marble-floored lobby. After checking in, we are whisked to our room, one of the new ones above the spa that turns out, in keeping with the lobby, to be white-walled and classy, with a view of Dundrum Bay. No complaints there, and certainly no complaints when we descend minutes later in the "spa lift" to the superb Espa Spa, spread across two floors with languorous swimming and vitality pool overlooking the sea, plus sauna, steam room, gym, café, juice bar and treatment rooms, all gracefully presented.
Two hours and one wonderful treatment later, we return to our room ready for what promises to be a glamorous evening. I dig out a pair of heels, Andrew finds a tie and we descend, in search of a stylish cocktail bar.
We don't find one. That's because, despite its swanky spa, there's nowhere in this landmark, four-star hotel where a waiter will bring you a drink. Instead, there's a small, sparsely furnished "drawing room" that wouldn't even pass muster as a dentist's waiting room, since it contains not one book, magazine or even daily newspaper.
And there's a sort of open-plan pub, not a nice one, with a long bar where we order drinks from a barman who doesn't understand English. I'm faced with a choice: a nasty glass of Sauvignon blanc or a nasty glass of Chardonnay.
By now we've clicked: Slieve Donard's much-vaunted spa has been tacked on to a third-rate four-star hotel and the ground floor make-over stopped at the entrance hall.
Worse is to come. The food ranks as the most unpleasant I've had for some time. A starter of chicken Caesar salad consists of a bed of lettuce, a layer of chicken pieces and a lick of bottled dressing, while the tomato and mozzarella salad has slices of rubbery processed cheese bunged into a flavourless tomato and drizzled with bottled pesto sauce. My aubergine and goat's cheese bake is unbelievable: alternate slices of almost raw aubergine and tomato glued together by… oh, I can't go on.
The self-service, canteen-style breakfast the next morning, in the same unlovely Victorian room with red curtains and clashing, wildly patterned blue-and-beige carpet, is equally dire. "It reminds me of a station buffet," says Andrew. "That's because it was built as a railway hotel," I tell him, "in 1898, by the Belfast and County Down Railway, as an end-of-line luxury destination."
That was a long time ago. The food, service and reception rooms of the hotel need shunting into the 21st century. Bunging on a lavish spa might bring in the punters, but it makes for a strange experience once they are there.
Newcastle, County Down, Northern Ireland (02843 721066; www.hastingshotels.com). Doubles from £150 to £450 per night, including breakfast.