Travel writer Bill Bryson once suggested the marketing slogan: “Canberra: why wait for death?” Indeed, Australia’s staid capital has endured sneers from all directions ever since Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin won the chance to design the city in 1911. However, when Hotel Hotel popped up in the recently created cultural precinct NewActon a couple of years ago, it almost singlehandedly made Canberra a destination. Now, the hipster vibe NewActon brings to the city, with its bike-shop-cum-cafe and community vegetable patch, has been noted by arbiters of cool from The New York Times to Time Out.
The 68-room hotel is situated in the industrial-chic Nishi building, which houses apartments and commercial spaces, and won International Project of the Year at The Building Awards in London in 2015. It is guided by sustainable practices and, despite the alfalfa-sprout-peace-and-love ethos, no expense is spared. It’s incredibly luxurious, undeniably stylish and really rather special.
The dramatic staircase that leads you to the foyer is made from 2250 pieces of sleek, recycled timber from all over, including a nearby basketball court. Almost 100 Canberran creatives, from architects to furniture makers, collaborated to create the public spaces. Hotel Hotel prides itself on using local resources, which means almost everything within the hotel is sourced from ACT artists and makers.
You’ll find warm, contented people clustered around the lobby’s incredible fireplace, drinking coffee or bespoke cocktails, depending on the time of day. The dimly lit reception area is an open-plan foyer/bar/restaurant and hotel-dwellers make good use of its nooks, sofas and benches. The faint scent of popcorn follows guests into the corridors of the hotel; it comes from the Palace Electric Cinema, which shares the Nishi building – it’s not an unpleasant smell, though it does make one slightly peckish.
Taking as their inspiration the quintessential Australian shack (though we’ve never seen a shack quite so well equipped), Hotel Hotel’s designers have created suites with soft lighting, raw-wood accents and minimalist decorative elements for a space that is not just incredibly chic but feels warm and comfortable. The rooms fall into four categories: Cosy, Original, Creative and Meandering. All have clay-rendered walls and beds made from salvaged oak, plus fabulous reupholstered Mid-Century Australian furniture and original artworks.
There are enormous pump packs of Aesop products in the bathroom: no piddling little single-use toiletries here. Guests can pad barefoot into the bathroom (the floor is heated), lather up with fragrant body wash (“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly,” the dispenser informs bathers) beneath the overhead rain shower then apply a decadent layer of Geranium Leaf Body Balm. Don a linen robe (made in Melbourne by Elizabeth Pertile) and recline on a sofa with a glass of red from the minibar, which is stocked with local wine and snacks.
The few items in Hotel Hotel’s rooms that aren’t locally sourced are tech essentials, including phones and iPads loaded with hotel info. Things happen at the flick of a switch here: blackout blinds open and close and there’s no need to put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door – just press the button on the bedside console.
And, joy, the windows at Hotel Hotel actually open!
Before dinner, perch on one of the cushion-topped benches enclosing the open fire and try Monster Kitchen and Bar’s Red Hill cocktail (rum, grilled pineapple, smoked cinnamon, sweet spices and orange peel). Fascinating portraits adorn the walls of the saloon and dining room, telling stories of Australian immigration. The menu tells that story, too, wandering from China to Greece and everywhere in between, all in perfect harmony.
Monster serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, has a late-night bar menu, and coffee and baked goods can be had at any old time. During our stay, the restaurant is packed with locals: there’s a table celebrating a 21st birthday, friends sharing pulled-lamb shoulder with yoghurt, vine leaves and pomegranate and tables of two savouring pork-neck bao. If you only try one thing from the menu (impossible!), it’s got to be the yabby jaffles with horseradish and crème fraîche.
Nearby, Mŏcan & Green Grout offers an ever-changing menu of seasonal dishes with that hole-in-the-wall espresso-café vibe that Melbourne has perfected. The coffee is fair-trade and the produce so local that some of it grows mere steps from the front door. Breakfast and lunch are all about eggs from Temora, NSW, sustainable seafood from that state’s south coast and bacon from free-range pigs near Young. Dinner is a multicultural menu of share plates that changes regularly. The place is designed to feel like you’re eating in your best mate’s kitchen – and it does, if your best friend is a bit like Jared Ingersoll.
Also in the NewActon precinct is A. Baker, which serves bistro-style food and killer pastries; delicious Italian at Bicicletta; and Parlour, a go-to for tapas and vino.
The NewActon precinct, north of Lake Burley Griffin, was completed in 2014 and today it’s a favourite among locals and visitors alike. It’s close to the heart of Canberra and a short drive – or bike ride – away from the city’s major museums.
But there’s also plenty to do in NewActon. First up, there’s Palace Electric Cinema, which includes a Prosecco bar and the Electric Espresso Café, and screens movies in the courtyard during the warmer months. The Nishi Gallery and Soma Day Spa are also worth a visit, plus there are a handful of great bars and restaurants.
It’s really not necessary to leave Hotel Hotel if you don’t feel like it. There’s plenty to keep you busy, including the aforementioned Monster Kitchen and Bar, Palace Electric Cinema, Roji hair salon and a library full of books about design, art and architecture from small Melbourne outfit Perimeter Books.
If you want to get moving, there’s a well-equipped gym and free yoga classes on level eight of the Nishi Building, meaning you can watch the flag flapping atop Parliament House as you run through your asanas. Guests are also welcome to borrow one of Hotel Hotel’s bicycles for city touring.
There are also regular workshops at Hotel Hotel. Called Fix and Make, they focus on everything from the practical (how to make a bee-colony house) to the philosophical (panel discussion on “the ownership of things”).
In their cool utilitarian outfits and complexions made radiant by fermented radish, activated almonds and local honey, staff on the Hotel Hotel front desk are a picture of hipster health. I jest, but the staff really are extremely friendly, helpful and well dressed.
The loose-fitting outfits made by Melbourne label Kloke are customisable – a deliberate move because of “the hierarchy uniforms tend to provoke”, explains the hotel’s site.
They’re full of suggestion for bars, a bite to eat or a must-see museum.
If you have the resources, splash out on a Meandering room. They’re the largest of the lot: you’ll find twin showers, double vanities and polished concrete bathtubs. All Meandering rooms overlook the fern-filled atrium.
Location: NewActon Nishi, 25 Edinburgh Ave, Canberra
Perfecct for: Leisure and business travellers
Number of rooms: 68