From the moment you step into the lobby of the Hilton Melbourne South Wharf, it's clear that this 19-storey, 396-room hotel is more boutique than its mainstream Hilton siblings at Melbourne Airport and in East Melbourne. This hotel is a different beast, more akin to its sleek sister in Sydney's George Street.
The lobby sets the tone: contemporary, moody, very Melbourne. Dimly lit, it has a modest row of black light fittings and organic pods of seating dwarfed by towering ceilings and an expansive array of urns. Tempting aromas from the café/bakery waft from one side of the lobby; a giant wall-hanging made of Brillo pads by Spanish-Australian artist Dani Marti dominates the check-in area.
There's nothing like this lobby on the Australian hotel landscape. It's all about helping you to "transcend normality", according to Nik Karalis, director at Woods Bagot, the firm that designed the hotel in a joint venture with NH Architecture for the Plenary Group consortium. The hotel is integrated with the new Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC) next door, and the buildings are central to the $1.4 billion redevelopment of the South Wharf area, until now an isolated slice of the river that links Southbank to up-and-coming Docklands.
This is just one of many new hotel developments in Melbourne, part of a billion-dollar tourism infrastructure initiative designed to help Melbourne snare a larger portion of the $3.25 billion spent worldwide annually on conferences. Gregory Hywood, chief executive at Tourism Victoria, says conference delegates typically spend five to six times more than leisure tourists. Victorian Tourism and Major Events Minister Tim Holding says the new Hilton "underscores the confidence in Melbourne as a global city".
The new Crown Metropol, which is scheduled to open next year, will add another 658 rooms to Melbourne. It's part of a wave of developments and refurbishments that will bring a total extra 2162 new or revamped four- or five-star hotel rooms to complement the MCEC. "Most of the new hotel developments in Australia are happening in Melbourne," says Hywood.
Other developments include the Grand Hyatt, which recently unveiled its new $45 million facelift, and the InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto's $60 million refurbishment, which mingles gothic style with hotel designer Joseph Pang's eye for modern detail. Hilton on the Park Melbourne, at one time the glamour hotel of the city, is also about to undergo a facelift.
But back to the Hilton Melbourne South Wharf. Once you leave the almost self-consciously chic lobby and find your way to your room, the views are an absolute knockout, even from the lower floors, thanks to the hotel's location and narrow design. You'll be surprised how different the city appears from this perspective, looking out to the Yarra and across Docklands to the Bolte Bridge and the bay in the distance. Standard rooms are nearly 20 per cent larger than their equal at the Hilton Sydney or the original Hilton on the Park.
Upgrade options include "relaxation" suites, Yarra suites and apartment-style two-bedroom suites, yet the extra 8-10 square metres you get in the standard rooms over a typical room elsewhere really makes a difference. There's room for larger, open-plan bathrooms, more storage and more bed space.
NH Architecture's design director Hamish Lyon says the overall design is a culmination of thousands of hours staying in hotels around the world. "We wanted to make people feel like there was a Melbourne quality to the hotel," he explains. There are sensory surprises everywhere: textured wallpapers, sublime solid blue gum timber panelling and fine art to take in.
Plump beds are made up with quality linens, there are ingenious pop-out reading lamps in the bedheads, and desks for business travellers are long and functional. The bathrooms feature Aliseo magnifying mirrors, plenty of Caesarstone and bespoke wooden cabinetry. Every suite and apartment has an espresso machine, and the room service menu features cheese and charcuterie boards from the hotel's tapas bar, Belgian waffles for breakfast, and even popcorn for late-night movies in bed.
Downstairs, Nuevo37 is a modern Spanish-themed restaurant with a menu devised by Michelin-starred Spaniard Ramon Freixa, and Sotano Wine and Tapas Bar is a collaboration between Sydney bar consultant Grant Collins and Master of Wine Dr Ron Georgiou. Sotano serves more than 30 wines by the glass plus refreshing carafes of sangría, and classic and new-wave cocktails. Snacks cover tapas as well as cheese and cured meat boards, all taken from the cheese and ham "towers", purpose-built larders that store hams up to 40 months old.
"The charcuterie tower is really pulling people in," says general manager Michael Bourne. "And we're so busy already that we need to get a third sommelier." Perhaps South Wharf won't be so isolated after all.