In a city with hotel occupancy at a 20-year high, the opening in inner-city Sydney of five new hotels and another three following dramatic makeovers in the past year is cause for surprise and celebration. The flurry started with the $30 million renovation of The Langham Sydney, followed by the long-awaited opening of The Old Clare in Chippendale, a four-year transformation of the old County Clare pub and the Carlton & United Breweries administration building by Singapore boutique hotelier Loh Lik Peng (featured in GT's November issue). And then, in the space of three months, another six hotels have opened, with good bones, a sense of place and real character.
PRIMUS HOTEL SYDNEY
There's nothing glamorous about drainage, and yet the good citizens of Sydney once would enter one of the city's most splendid buildings to pay their water bills. Built in 1939, the Art Deco headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board on Pitt Street appears perfectly suited to its new role as a five-star hotel.
Bought by the Shanghai-based Greenland International Hotels Group for a reported $110 million, and two years in restoration and construction, this is one of the city's most impressive hotel openings in years. Rather than turn up the Deco dial, design firm Woods Bagot and heritage specialist GBA Heritage have kept the hotel's refit restrained and elegant, letting the restored original features shine. "There is simply no other space like it in Sydney - and there never can be," says Jonathan Bryant, GBA Heritage associate director. "It was created during a unique moment in time when classically inspired Art Deco-style architecture was just about to transition to pure post-war Functionalism. Incredibly lavish materials were used and generous spatial proportions employed that would never be repeated." He describes the building as "a marvellous artefact from 1939 that has been returned as a unique gift to the city".
The lobby is a show-stopper. It features eight scarlet columns of scagliola, a rarely seen plaster technique that imitates marble, which required restoration by a team of a dozen craftsmen from Italy. The eight-metre columns are crowned by a mezzanine level and massive panelled skylight, minus a layer of tar and a roof installed in 1960 to create more office space. The newly illuminated space in the lobby houses a bar and 120-seat fine-diner The Wilmot, with an open kitchen overseen by Korean chef Ryan Hong, formerly of Rockpool Bar & Grill and Black by Ezard, and an Asian-influenced, modern Australian menu. The hotel's 172 guestrooms occupy six floors of what were rather plain offices, now models of sober, masculine luxury with plush navy carpet, oak joinery, marble bathrooms and Deco-inspired details.
A treat for guests only is the chic rooftop terrace, once a war-time rifle range, with a long marble bar, 20-metre pool, water features and cabanas. Eventually this terrace will be overlooked by Sydney's tallest residential tower, a 240-metre project being developed next door by the hotel's parent company.
"It was important for us to bring the building back to life and celebrate Sydney's history at a time when new developments are in full force," says Primus Hotel Sydney's general manager, Daniel Muhor. It's the Chinese company's second Primus; the other is in the city of Shenyang in north-east China.
We like The three original porcelain water bubblers preserved in the building, including one inside the otherwise grand entrance.
Rooms from $290; 339 Pitt St, Sydney, NSW, (02) 8027 8000
The cavernous warehouse that was until recently a rather sombre lobby and sepulchrally lit bar is barely recognisable in the hotel's new guise. (I recall stumbling inelegantly in the gloaming during check-in at Blue Sydney a few years ago, and having breakfast in a morning twilight.) The Hong-Kong based Ovolo Group bought the century-old Woolloomooloo wharf-front hotel for $35 million in 2014, and has spent another $20 million renovating its 100 rooms and public spaces.
The industrial-heritage features remain but the shadowy central chasm has become a multicoloured laneway of lounges, bars and dining nooks arranged around an avenue of brightly lit faux trees. It's part office for millennials, part grown-up playground with pool table, a couple of retro video-game tables, slouchy sofas and banquettes for two with pull-down privacy screens. Walls and corridors are hung with contemporary Australian art and installations, and graphic printed-fabric bedheads are a strong design feature of otherwise simply styled rooms. There are two rockstar-themed split-level suites, named ACDC and INXS, that give free rein to the hotel's sometimes over-eager, are-we-ready-to-party design brief.
Ovolo founder Girish Jhunjhnuwala has developed an all-inclusive service model for his hotels based on "all the things that irked me about hotels I've stayed in". Ovolo hospitality extends to nightly happy hours (actually two hours, from 5pm), free snacks and minibar, continental breakfast, 24-hour gym, Apple TV in every room and self-service laundries. "The number-one requirement of travellers - business and leisure - is to stay connected," says Jhunjhnuwala, so Ovolo hotels have always had free high-speed WiFi with no limits on data or devices and an oversupply of USB charging points - including at every bedside.
We like The bedhead art in five designs, each playing a droll joke on a framed artwork hung beside it.
Rooms from $379; 6 Cowper Wharf Rd, Woolloomooloo, NSW, (02) 9331 9000
OVOLO 1888 DARLING HARBOUR
The second Ovolo to open in Sydney in the past few months occupies another landmark heritage building. Like its sister property in Woolloomooloo, the former woolstore in Pyrmont has handsome old industrial features teamed with bold contemporary art. All 90 rooms and suites are hung with details of a primary-coloured mural by Sydney artist Jasper Knight, the street-art look particularly striking teamed with 1888's high ceilings, deep windows, distressed walls and ironbark beams. Many of the rooms and suites occupy odd-shaped spaces and the design solutions show flair - a good example is the glass bathroom in one of two split-level penthouses, one of which has private street access and a cocktail bar.
The all-inclusive Ovolo package is offered here; complimentary continental breakfast and nightly happy hours are served in the ground-floor lounge. Catch one of the glass lifts to better appreciate the vertical beauty of the old store and for aerial views of the lounge. The two Sydney properties are the newest in Ovolo's portfolio of eight hotels, including one in Melbourne's Little Bourke Street. Reduced rates at both Sydney hotels are offered to entrepreneurs in the start-up phase of their dream project - they'll be the ones pitching over cocktails downstairs.
We like Takeaway tote bags printed with a detail from Knight's mural; the room numbers cast as wallshadows.
Rooms from $260; 139 Murray St, Pyrmont, NSW, (02) 8586 1888
Though it has ocean glimpses rather than views, QT Bondi feels like a beach holiday waiting to happen: relaxed, sunny, friendly and across the road from Australia's best-known patch of sand. Part of the Pacific Bondi Beach development and occupying prime real estate on the old Swiss Grand Hotel site, QT Bondi's 69 spacious one- and two-room apartments - the smallest is 40 square metres - are built for a proper holiday. All have QT's king-size "gel" beds, well-equipped kitchenettes, washer-dryers, storage, sofa beds and big bathrooms with bath, shower and double basins. Some have balconies; others have windows and louvres opening to a leafy atrium.
A wave of blond wood curls from the lobby to the lifts and bears a Bondi-inspired work by artist Shaun Gladwell, and his video art appears on pillar screens. Upstairs another wave of wood extends from lifts to corridors lined by pastel-coloured doors and cheery polka-dot carpet. Though there are splashes of colour in rugs and soft furnishings, QT's designer of choice, Nic Graham, has created less theatrical interiors than seen in sister QTs, the calmness enhanced by flattering backlit mirrors, parquetry floors and plenty of light flooding in through sliding doors and windows.
Though there's no restaurant or bar in the hotel, the neighbourhood is awash with food and drink, and that's before the Pacific complex is filled. The focus, says QT's PR director Stephen Howard, is on building partnerships with locals involved in art, fashion, design, hospitality and retail, and allowing guests to "tap into Bondi's strong sense of community". Residents include the hotel's concierge, Alex Robertson, and QT's founder, AHL managing director David Seargeant.
We like Finally, a boutique beach holiday at Bondi.
Rooms from $310; 6 Beach Rd, Bondi, NSW, (02) 8362 3900
Palomas are being poured at the bar; bossa nova and the smell of wood-smoked short ribs and brisket are in the air. Two levels of lounges, bars, parlours and dining rooms at Hotel Harry in Surry Hills have been cleverly styled by maverick designer James Brown to evoke a cinematic version of old Havana or Guadalajara while retaining the century-old building's dark-timber joinery, stained glass and eccentric layout. New in the kitchen is a big Australian-made Silver Creek wood-fired smoker, with Icebergs' head chef Monty Koludrovic and Belles Hot Chicken's Morgan McGlone consultants for the barbacoa menu. Recently opened upstairs are 20 simple, comfortable and well-priced rooms that deliver on management's aim to "provide everything you need and nothing you don't". This runs to thick royal-blue carpet, a few pieces of heavy oak furniture, Evo toiletries, free WiFi and well-appointed bathrooms, with styling by fashion designer Anna Hewett. There's a boozy minibar in each room, too, though part of the charm of staying here is returning late and settling into a booth at Harpoon Harry downstairs for drinks, empanadas and Caribbean-disco.
We like The long-stemmed rose in a vase by the bed.
Rooms from $165; 40-44 Wentworth Ave, Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 8262 8800
There are just nine guest rooms in this pint-sized 1915 hotel, refurbished and reopened after a seven-year closure. Since last drinks, I had forgotten how spectacular are its harbour views, high above The Rocks and Barangaroo, and its proximity to the Harbour Bridge. Wharfies, soldiers heading to war and tradies who built the bridge once drank at the bar and climbed the narrow staircase to stay upstairs.
The top floors are now a split-level cocktail bar named for the engineer who built the hotel, Henry Deane, with fancy cocktails to match the views - a Stone Fruit Cobbler of manzanilla, prosecco and peach shrub, perhaps. Interiors throughout were designed by stylist Sibella Court, whose richly layered, bower-bird approach works to great effect with the hotel's solid heritage features. The ground-floor Public House bar and Parlour Room dining space have original green tiles, vintage beer-label mirrors and bare walls that look their age. Downstairs there's the likes of Young Henrys natural lager and cider on tap and chicken and tarragon pie in the diner; upstairs in Henry Deane's are share plates along the lines of sardines on toast and lamb tartare by Joel Bennetts, formerly of Three Blue Ducks. Rooms in nautical navy, pale grey and white feature ocean murals by Sydney artist Neil Mallard and harbour views over Barangaroo or Millers Point. There's a lot going on - linen bedheads, marble splashbacks, tasselled light switches, industrial-style lamps - and yet the effect is calming rather than confusing.
We like The little things - tie-dyed, leather-tassel room keys, vintage crystal glassware, the old Champagne bell just outside the bar.
Rooms from $280; minimum two nights, 35 Bettington St, Millers Point, NSW, (02) 9018 0123