A new hotel has opened at Melbourne's Crown development and the early buzz hints at surprisingly funky interiors. I'm dubious. Many things come to mind when thinking of Crown, but funky isn't one of them.
As the cab eases into Crown Metropol's porte cochère, with its sleek silver roof clad like jet fuselage, and parking valets sporting tailored grey hoodies, I am prepared to suspend judgement. It's a wise move because one glimpse inside suggests this is a hotel trying very hard not to be ordinary.
The foyer's carpet explodes in spirograph swirls of colour. Curved walls of white ash slats lend a Scandi sex appeal, and oversized artworks, such as Noël Skrzypczak's Good Time Garden Party, a 9-metre wall painting of what looks like melting gelati, make a memorable first impression. I can't wait to see the room.
No disrespect meant to the Bates Smart designers who clearly laboured long and hard to create distinctive guest spaces, but the first thing I notice on entering Luxe room 2442 is the view. The suite's glass exterior captures a panorama stretching east to the silhouetted Dandenongs and west to the high-rise heart of the CBD. A slick of Yarra flows through the middle; there seems to be activity everywhere.
The Metropol sits on the southern riverbank in the sprawling development of what might be called Crown Land, where you'll also find the ultra-posh Crown Towers and its business-class stablemate Crown Promenade. Of the three, Crown Metropol will appeal to hip younger things who find the competition too expensive or too corporate.
There are no balconies in the Metropol's 658 rooms, a sensible precaution in a casino hotel. Room furnishings are retro-modern. The spare timber lines of a chair and custom-made desk borrow heavily from mid-century Danish design, while a plump chaise longue in graphic black-and-white print harks back to a '50s salon. At the other end of the interior's time line, the king bed rests on a thoroughly contemporary cream custom-made base against a wall of stripes in gloss and matt black. Ryokan-inspired shoji screens divide the bedroom from the mirrored white bathroom with its separate toilet and shower (no bath) cubicles.
I like the room very much - it's individual and surprising without compromising comfort - but next day transfer to a Loft suite that I like even more. It is double the size and almost double the cost of a standard room, with plenty of added but perhaps unnecessary extras such as guest powder room, cloakroom, four-place dining setting, three LCD televisions, three vast windows (so triple the views) and a cavernous white bath I test-drive and can confidently rate five-star.
As with Luxe rooms, the Loft décor is essentially black and white with flashes of unexpected colour and art - in this case a sculptural whimsy of gunmetal bubbles and a cluster of black lamps and cords suspended above the table. The mod-vintage aesthetic works well, for the most part, but not everyone will love the baked-beans-coloured carpet. It's possibly a bit '70s-sienna-revival for some tastes.
Individual hand-coloured etchings, a collaboration between Victorian artists David Band and Fraser Taylor, adorn every room, in keeping with the Metropol's artistic bent. The hotel art, valued at about $1 million, comes as a surprise rather than a statement: ceramic versions of paper cranes greet guests outside the lifts on each floor, while Chan Yu's pop collage of faces makes an intriguing welcome to 28, the Metropol's glamorous private lounge.
This penthouse club lounge is arguably the hotel's most memorable feature, even more so than Gordon Ramsay's first-floor restaurant, Maze (read Michael Harden's Melbourne Maze review). Its defining characteristic is a glass wall running the length of the room that frames a glittering diorama of Melbourne, especially at night when it's lit up "like fairyland" (as I hear rocker Angry Anderson comment when he drops by for a look). Metropol general manager Harley Moraitis plans to open 28 to hand-picked members of the public on Friday and Saturday nights. For now, entry is restricted to premium guests, though mere mortals can buy access by paying $110 per night on top of their room rate.
Breakfast is served to members at the east end of 28. If you arrive early enough, you can see the sun rise and, on calm days, watch a dawn cloud of hot air balloons drift into view from the Yarra Valley. I dine here both mornings and lap up the superb sheep's milk yoghurt with blueberry syrup, and pulled beef hash with shredded potato and crisp, double-smoked bacon. It's got to be one of the tastiest breakfast menus in town, though the extensive buffet at Maze Grill, the relaxed partner restaurant to Ramsay's Maze, is a worthy challenger.
At the other end of the penthouse floor is the bar, a good-looking set-up of alligator-skin seats and embroidered leather bucket chairs that opens onto a sheltered and heated terrace furnished with Mark Tuckey stools. I spend hours out here, chardonnay in hand, gazing at my hometown from on high. The smartest time to visit is during the bar's happy hour-and-a-half, from 5.30pm to 7pm, when guests get complimentary drinks. "You can drink as many gin and tonics as you like in 90 minutes!" a staffer explains cheerfully. He has no idea how attractive that sounds.
Between bar and breakfast is the lounge with its cosy designer furniture - highlights are the origami-pleated dove-grey and dusky-blue bucket chairs - set around a central fireplace. A massively macho flat-screen television dominates one wall. Beside it a surreal bookshelf by artist David Sequeira is stacked with dozens of all-blue books. The effect is striking, but book-lovers may regret that the novels have been glued together and can't be read.
It's all very impressive but the real OMG gasp of 28 is the west-end view over the 27th-floor swimming pool. Five-metre-long beacon lanterns hover above neat rows of bright sun loungers beside a 25-metre pool with infinity edge and drop-dead views - part bird's eye, part fish eye - all the way to the Macedon Ranges.
So how is it in the water? I wouldn't know. I didn't bring my bathers. Stupid.
But I do pop my head into the neighbouring gym and find it heaving with exercisers, then slip into one of Isika spa's 10 treatment rooms for a back scrub. As a male, I find spas unfathomable and daunting, but my misgivings dissolve as a pocket strongwoman exfoliates and pummels my back into submission. Her bedside manner is so compelling, I even let her baste me in mud and wrap me in plastic like a marinating chook. The experience is enjoyably bizarre. After the cooking demo, she flips me over to attack my face with cleansers, scrub and a gel mask. "What's the main concern with your face?" she asks. "It's old," I say. There's nothing in her armoury of high-end skincare products that can help me there.
I don't eat at Maze, but I do order room service from the same kitchen. A perky-sounding Scottish guy takes my phone order for a Maze burger.
"And how would you like that kooked?"
"Um, medium, I guess."
"Good choice. You still want some flavour in it!" he says brightly. The burger arrives within 30 minutes. Hiding beneath a silver warming lid is a white bun cradling a chubby meat patty and a modest garnish of avocado, lettuce, tomato and beetroot. It is satisfying but, frankly, I'm too busy staring out at the city lights to give it much thought. Ramsay's menu proves no match for Melbourne by night.