Take an old 1960s surf motel on the far north coast of New South Wales, fill it with treasures unearthed the world over and a restaurant headed by one of the country's most exciting young chefs, and you have Australia's chicest new boutique hotel. It's also a labour of love. Halcyon House is the manifestation of a lifelong fondness for the small coastal town of Cabarita and its surrounds held by two couples. Sisters Siobhan and Elisha Bickle, and their husbands, respectively, Adam Flaskas and David Wadley, saw potential in the old Hideaway Motel, but originally for a different purpose.
"We've been holidaying and surfing there for over 20 years," says Siobhan. "The region is a little pocket of paradise. We'd always loved the property, and the initial plan was to buy it as a beach house for our growing families." Understandable, since between them they number 13.
But for a family rooted in hospitality and property development, and with Siobhan's preoccupation with fossicking for beautiful things, it could be said that Halcyon House was predestined. "We saw value in an opportunity for a unique boutique beach hotel in Australia," says Siobhan. "We also love to travel and we were inspired by the idea of intimate, relaxed luxury."
And it's perfectly pitched. The hotel sits just back from the pumping Cabarita Beach point break, screened by a row of majestic pandanus. It's just 40 minutes' drive north of Byron Bay, and such notable dining destinations as Fleet and Three Blue Ducks at The Farm, and less than half an hour's drive south from Gold Coast Airport.
Between Coolangatta and Cabarita, there's no shortage of holiday accommodation, but on arriving in the sleepy surf village of Cabarita, the sight of the pristine white structure of Halcyon House is most unexpected. The property is so strikingly at odds with the suburban surrounds, it transports you to Mediterranean shores.
Inside the 21 rooms, which include a pair of two-bedroom suites, there has been no compromise on design or luxury. The work of Brisbane interior designer Anna Spiro of Black & Spiro, each has walls padded and lined with elaborate patterned textiles in blue, white and earthy hues, inspired by the fabric walls in London's Ham Yard Hotel, where Siobhan and Adam had stayed.
The brief for Spiro was "to bring back to life the nostalgic feeling of the old Australian beach motel in a modern-day format", says Siobhan. "We wanted it to exude a luxurious, but low-key Australian feel that was whimsical rather than formal, and to curate an eclectic collection of antiques, furniture and art that will grow and stay within the walls of Halcyon House for years to come." And so, in pursuit of this vision, an 18-month-long, multimillion-dollar labour of love began, gutting, rebuilding and refurbishing the former motel bought four years ago.
Sumptuousness is key: the huge bedheads of the king beds are dressed in brightly patterned fabrics that contrast pleasingly with the walls. Large dark-blue denim tapestries form feature walls, while found artworks from the markets of Massachusetts hang salon-style above individual writing tables, alongside commissioned artworks by New York illustrator Wayne Pate. From Spiro's bespoke sofas in custom textiles to vintage lamps and accessories, everything is oversized, built to envelop guests in luxury, not least of all the freestanding bathtub which, when you're soaking neck-deep still isn't full.
With a desire to hark back to youthful days "when there were no rules", the couples have created a relaxed destination and base from where the region can be explored and enjoyed at leisure. A hike along the rugged coastline to Norries Headland through littoral rainforest begins at the hotel's doorstep, while you can take one of the complimentary bicycles to Kingscliff, a pleasant nine-and-a-half-kilometre ride away (wild dogs notwithstanding) on a flat dedicated track that runs parallel to the ocean.
The region is a focal point of a stay at Halcyon House, especially in the property's restaurant, Paper Daisy (named after the flower populating the nearby headland), which opens onto the pool area and looks out to the breakers beyond the pandanus.
Head chef Ben Devlin, an alumnus of Noma and Esquire, quietly promotes a strong regional focus in his menu of light, accessible yet cleverly conceived dishes designed to share for long, lazy feasts with friends and plenty of wine.
"We hope to be a good representation of the area," says Devlin, "be it through the ideas behind the food or the products we're using. We're in a pretty special area, and we want people to feel an attachment to our surroundings."
A case in point is a plate of pipis steamed with lemon myrtle and beach plants, served with housemade wattleseed and honey sourdough. "The traditional name for this area translates to 'place of many pipis'," says Devlin, "so we have a dish of local pipis. Or there's a dessert based on the idea of some of the great imported ingredients that grow so well in this area: a smoked custard of Tweed Valley vanilla with candied olives and Buddha's hand."
Devlin was a latecomer to the piece. His engagement fell at a timely juncture in his career, and it's been a "life-changing" decision for the chef. "It has been a learning curve to design food that's more relaxed and coastal than progressive and exclusive," he says. "And there are a lot more elements to this than anything else I've done - not just lunch and dinner, but in-room, overnight, breakfast and everything else. Plus now, instead of skateboarding to work in the city, I might be able to surf out the front of the hotel before work."
A kitchen garden in the hotel's forecourt is in its infancy, but plans are afoot to extend it to increase the amount of home-grown produce. "We're working on our produce and getting as much control over what we can grow at the hotel," says Devlin, "and I'm excited to see how we can make better connections with the people involved in providing us with the amazing things we have been using."
Amplifying the luxe factor is the newly renovated day spa, the interior of which also received Spiro's deft touch, and staff that genuinely strive to make your stay as idyllic and relaxed as the hotel's name would suggest.
"You can build a beautiful hotel," says Siobhan, who gathered the crew specifically for their enthusiasm for the region and the business of hospitality, "but you have nothing without passionate staff."
Rooms from $550 per night. Halcyon House, 21 Cypress Cres, Cabarita Beach, NSW, (02) 6676 1444