May 27, 2012
Heart of happiness ... the hotel's courtyard.
A stylish refit breathes new life into an old hospital, writes Elicia Murray.
Some of the earliest visitors to the site of the Harbour Rocks Hotel didn't arrive in the best shape. Scurvy-ridden, typhoid-ravaged and dysentery-stricken, the newcomers had barely survived the voyage from England. Being convicts wouldn't have made them feel any better.
My husband and I endure no such hardships on our weeknight journey to the newly refurbished hotel in The Rocks. He is dusting off the last cobwebs of jet lag but we check in pictures of health compared with the patients of Australia's first hospital, located around this site. The ramshackle medical facility shifted to more stately premises in Macquarie Street in about 1815, though there's still evidence of its history in Nurses Walk, a pedestrian strip at the back of the hotel.
The three-storey building itself dates back to 1887. It was originally constructed as a wool store smack-bang in the middle of the colony's commercial district. After various incarnations, it was transformed into a hotel in 1989 and purchased by Robert and Ruth Magid in 2007.
The Magids, wealthy property-developers-cum-hoteliers whose portfolio includes the nearby Sebel Pier One and swanky Hotel Lindrum in Melbourne, set about giving the joint a high-end makeover, stripping back the layers to reveal convict-hewn sandstone bricks and timber beams. The 59-room hotel remained open during the 10-month refurbishment, with the last builders leaving the property only days before our visit.
In the lobby, couches are clustered around a low coffee table, with a wall of bookshelves in the background. Timber floors and low lighting add to the warm vibe. It feels more like arriving at a rich - and very stylish - relative's house than what it actually is: a hotel managed by Mirvac.
Most of the rooms are located off a central atrium, which is gently illuminated by a stunning hanging light feature. The Harbour View suite, where we're staying, is on the top floor, accessible via a labyrinthine route of corridors and fire stairs. I'm out of breath by the time we get there but it's well worth the hike. From a decent-size balcony, there's a magic view of the Opera House and, if you stand on tiptoes, you can just see a sliver of the Harbour Bridge. The hotel is roughly in line with the Museum of Contemporary Art, about halfway along the western edge of Sydney Cove. A staff member later tells me the suite was recently booked for New Year's Eve. What a spot.
Inside, the walls are painted dark taupe, a look softened by white window frames and a cool cream and beige zigzag-patterned carpet.
The elongated rectangular shape of the suite's footprint is slightly awkward, leaving a narrow space for the living area. A television is mounted on a pole. A kitchenette off the living area contains the bare essentials - a microwave, tea bags and instant coffee, and a bar fridge stocked with room service basics. A big bathroom has a tub and rain shower. The room is gleaming white and gorgeous, and there's a choice of bright lights or a single flattering low light. In the bedroom is a firm king bed, small wardrobe, writing desk and television. A tan leather chair and bed runner in a South American pattern break up the dark colour scheme with style.
We dine at Scarlett, the hotel restaurant set in a basement space previously used for storage. Original sandstone walls, timber floors and exposed timber beams give the room an edgy, industrial look. Like elsewhere in the hotel, there's a warmth to the hip vibe. The menu is a mix of Mediterranean, Asian, Italian and mod-Oz dishes.
A fillet steak arrives cooked to perfection, but a pappardelle pasta with pumpkin, cavalo nero and currants is too al dente for my taste. Overall, the standard is streaks ahead of your average hotel restaurant, but not on par with many fine-dining options in The Rocks.
We burn off all the calories from dinner, and then some, on the trek back upstairs. It's only once we climb into bed and switch off the lights that the suite's most obvious drawback becomes apparent. There's an airconditioning unit not far from the window and the walls act as an echo chamber. "It's louder than an A380," my husband says as I reach for my earplugs. At least the bed is comfier than any flat-bed seat.
The writer was a guest of The Harbour Rocks Hotel.
Where The Harbour Rocks Hotel, 34/52 Harrington Street, Sydney, (02) 8220 9999, harbourrocks.com.au.
How much Heritage queen rooms from $209 a night; Harbour View suite from $459 a night.
Top marks The art work. The walls are decorated with a thoughtful and beautiful collection of old photographs, maps, letters and diary entries evoking the site's rich history.
Black mark The lack of a guest lift. There's a small luggage lift, but if you accidentally leave your wallet behind in the Harbour View suite, do some stretches before you head back upstairs to grab it.
Don't miss A pre-dinner drink on the terrace overlooking Nurses Walk. With its chi-chi lighting and lush bamboo, it's a heavenly little slice of The Rocks.