Photo: Facade of The Merchant Hotel in Belfast

The Merchant Hotel in Belfast is located in the lively Cathedral Quarter.

Photograph courtesy the Merchant Hotel

The most authentic and unique hotels in Northern Ireland, chosen by National Geographic Traveler editors for the 2011 Stay List

Ardtara Country House, Upperlands, Co. Londonderry
A magnate's mansion in one of Ireland's oldest linen villages, next to 250-year-old linen mill. Rooms with converted gas fireplaces, big bay windows, crisp linen sheets (natch). Straightforward Irish menu of local lamb, beef, salmon in skylit dining room. Try an Ulster Fry (Irish power breakfast). Get briefed at nearby linen museum, then shop local villages for best buys in Irish woolen and linens. Cliff-walk the Antrim coast 20 minutes away. 9 rooms, from $200, incl. breakfast.

Belle Isle Estate, Lisbellaw, Co. Fermanagh
This lady of the lake occupies a 450-acre estate on a bridge-linked island. Centerpiece is David Hicks-decorated castle, kept toasty warm by blazing fireplace (and enviro-friendly wood-pellet burner). Russian art, minstrel's gallery in grand hall; rooms with handcrafted pine furnishings. Coach house, cottages, lodge for self-catering. Big draw: Chef Liz Moore's cookery school. Staff encourages a car-free day exploring estate on footpath or in one of its wooden boats. 24 rooms, from $193.

Bushmills Inn Hotel, Bushmills, Co. Antrim
A whiskey-minded way station on the Causeway Coast. Open peat fires warm 400-year-old stonework of this coaching inn and mill house. Gaslights illuminate Victorian bar. Signature dishes: Ulster beef flamed in Bushmills whiskey, sticky toffee pudding. Cottage-style bedrooms overlook River Bush. Search for secret library. (Spoiler alert: push on false bookcase.) Try a tutored whiskey tasting in the hotel, then tour world's oldest whiskey distillery. 41 rooms, from $222.

The Merchant Hotel, Belfast
Temple of commerce transformed into monumental hotel: 1860 Italianate architecture, glass-dome ceiling, Corinthian columns. (Carbon offset policy compensates for design inefficiencies.) Stately restaurant occupies former banking hall. Big rooms with huge TVs. New jazz bar will complement world-renowned cocktail bar. Triple-glazed windows cut down party noise generated by this lively Cathedral Quarter location, city's cultural heart. 26 rooms, from $237, incl. breakfast.

Newforge House, Magheralin, Co. Armagh
Bucolic alternative to Belfast, 30-minute drive away, on 40 grassland acres edged by River Lagan. Sixth-generation owners running this restored 1785 Georgian house place local history books in drawing room, search hill and dale for organic ingredients for seasonal menu, and steer guests toward a pottery-making lesson or Irish linen factory tour. Authentic rooms—black iron fireplaces, sash windows, mahogany antiques—kept spick-and-span with natural plant extracts. 6 rooms, from $185, incl. breakfast.

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