Oh dear. I think the work experience girl was left in charge of the front desk. No eye contact. No smile. Not even a "Hi, how are you doing? Checking in?" Silence and a blank stare. Not good. Could she book me a table at the restaurant while I quickly showered? "Probably not - it's too late." Not good at all.
County Down, Northern Ireland. One of the most spectacular seascapes in the British Isles: a great sweep of beach beyond which is the glittering, silvery Irish Sea. The small town of Newcastle is around the bay to the south west, its line of whitewashed seafront houses shines brightly in the morning sun under the overhanging khaki rise of Slieve Donard Mountain (well, hill really).
The staff completed the tasks for which they were paid but with little eagerness to serve or make guests feel welcome. With some exceptions (the concierge and my Eastern European waitress at breakfast) they seemed disgruntled and not all happy to be working at such an otherwise good hotel and in such a wonderful location. This is an idyllic location in an emerging destination, but luxury hotel guests need more than that - they need intelligent humans to smooth their journey through the hotel.
Hard to explain exactly why, but I felt completely at home in my room here. It was a good size with a sumptuous bed and a more than adequate bathroom but what stole the show was the bay window at one end. For almost an entire day I sat on my blue sofa, staring out at the Irish Sea and the beach as the tide retreated and returned and began to retreat once more. Better than sleep.
How to get to Coney Island. This is the small peninsula of land made famous by the Northern Irish singer and composer Van Morrison. The song appears on his album Avalon Sunset and describes a day of simple pleasures in County Down, including a visit to this magical and mystical spot. The concierge knew all about it and gave me directions and said he wished he could go with me.
It is the lack of a scene that is so welcoming here. There are corporate types in town for a conference and golfing Americans in town for a round or two at the Royal County Down course - one of the best in Europe - but there is no pretentiousness and there are no gimmicks. The only other regulars are the spa junkies. The hotel's spa is world class and attracts not only international travellers but plenty of locals who purr up in their black Range Rovers for shiatsu and hot stone therapy.
A thorough pummelling from my Polish masseuse followed by a bake in the excellent sauna while gazing through the picture window at the clouds scudding across the sky and clinging to the summit of Slieve Donard Mountain. Then taking a bracing stroll along the sands with the courting oystercatchers and returning for delicious grilled tuna and a cosy evening.
The lack of enthusiasm from most staff (minus the exceptions mentioned above).
I am recommending Northern Ireland to everyone I know. It is an emerging destination with some of the most poetic scenery known to travelling-kind. I am also recommending they stay for at least a few nights at the Slieve Donard, take spa treatments, eat fresh fish and oysters, walk the sands and commune with the oystercatchers. Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, Downs Road, Newcastle, County Down, BT33 0AH, UK, +44 28 4372 1066. Doubles from approximately Dh750. @email:www.hastingshotels.com.