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What's New On The Hospitality Scene in Sydney

Aug 17, 2007
Sydney buzzes with the vibrancy of a true city of the world. It has the largess of New York's skyscrapers, the warmth of the cafes and bistros of Paris, the sparkling skyline of Tokyo. Uniquely, all its own, it touts one of the most beautiful natural harbor's of the world, fixed by the stunning architectural feat of the Sydney Opera House, it's white roof rising like the sails of the foreign ships that grace the bay. There is no debating it; it's quite stunning.

As I write this, I am sitting at the Icebergs Restaurant over-looking the panoramic vista of Bondi Beach. It's a "crowded" day, but everything's relative. Crowded on Jones Beach in New York, means you can't find a place to spread your towel. Crowded here, means you can hear your neighbor's conversation from a few meters away. There are, apparently, nets that are supposed to keep the sharks out, but every once in a while, I'm told, you'll hear them sound the shark alarm, signaling that a wayward, headstrong one has made its way through the barrier. I think that's just to spice up the excitement on the beach, but I'm not eager to test the truth, so I'm watching the action from above.

Below me is the Icebergs Club and Pool, which is a salt water pool that literally gets its salt water from a pump nestled in the rocks from the adjacent ocean and from the waves that from time to time cascade over the side of the pool. It's just exquisite, and apart from the black lines that mark the swimmers' lanes, with the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks and the side of the pool, you feel almost as if you're in the ocean, minus the threat of sharks (all but the very, very ambitious once, at least).

As a home base, I chose the Blue Sydney, primarily since it just celebrated its one year anniversary, having recently changing hands from the "W," a Starwood Group, to Taj, under the genteel auspices of General Manager Kottarapurath Mohanchandran ("Mohan" for short), whose last posting was Udaipur, where he served as GM for the Taj Lake Palace.

For those of you who have not seen the property, it is a brave and ambitious choice for Taj Structurally, it is quite different from any Taj I know, having been converted from a warehouse that once processed and stored wool. As it is a Heritage Landmark, the base structure remains unaltered, a modern hotel, reflecting its historic wharf roots.

The first thing that strikes the visitor is, "What is this?" By that, I mean that despite the 11 meter ceiling, exposed corrugated iron and timber from the original frame of the building, and defunct conveyor belts, there is a rather funky, chic bar in a vast space that is the very first hint that the purpose of the structure includes recreation and imbibing. It does not, however, appear to be a hotel, as the reception area is out of sight to the right as one enters and up a flight of stairs. Not exactly the curb appeal that screams, "hotel," and perhaps that is part of its mystique and appeal, but for the traditional among you, be advised.

The hotel sits on Finger Wharf in Woolloomooloo (no, I did not make a mistake, it really has eight "o"s, and is thus on the outskirts of the Commercial Business District or "CBD" as it is known. The wharf was constructed in 1910 during a period of expanding wool, wheat and import trading which lasted from late last century until the 1930s depression. Changes in the nature of international shipping after WWII rendered this once modern facility increasingly redundant for cargo handling.

In 1956, Shed NO. 7 was modified to handle the growing passenger trade, however this too diminished with the completion of the Circular Quay Passenger Terminal. With the exception of minor modifications, the wharf structure remains in its original condition. In the 1990s, perceived as redundant as a passenger terminal, the wharf was redeveloped as a luxury marina, entertainment and apartment complex (now hosting the likes of Russell Crowe, John Laws, and Lang Walker).

In 2000 the warehouse was converted by "W" into a luxury hotel, and the surrounding space into boutique restaurants that line the marina, offering indoor and outdoor dining with a lovely view.

Parking continues to be a challenge for the property, as is the unique challenges of maintaining a property that sits on piles drilled into the harbor bed, but those aren't challenges the guest needs to confront. Not much has changed since the hand-over to Taj, although the hotel may close for a short time to give the place a Taj lift, adding hanging silk draperies in the massive cafes area to soften it and add a touch of decor from the Indian Ocean, if only in the nature of the fabric chosen. They'll also expand the bar menu, which is fairly limited at the moment, although the cocktails offered are quite unique and inspiring, even before your opinion has been influenced by the generous alcohol pour.

They also intend to move the lobby from its out of the way location, to front and center, which I believe will be a logical and welcomed change. If there are additional changes in mind, Mohan is not saying, and we'll just have to wait for the unveiling.

The Blue has 100 deluxe guest rooms, including 36 loft rooms with city and harbor views. Be careful to request the marina side of the hotel, as it is clearly more picturesque, facing the lovely yachts, park, and city. The rooms on the other side of the hotel, while technically facing a harbor, are relatively unexciting views, except when the occasional naval vessel is docked.

The rooms are a modern, sophisticated design, with muted beiges and white, accented with blue chairs and couches, brown linen, and the occasional red pillow. There is an oversized work desk in most of the rooms, wireless high-speed access, cordless phone, 27" T.V. (soon to be converted to Plasma), Bose CD Player, VCR, king-size beds with pillow-top mattresses, 250 thread count sheets, goose-down comforters and pillows. There are even some pocket-sized office supplies in the work area: a tiny stapler, scotch tape and highlight pen in a sleek brown leather box came in very handy as I wrote my article and organized my materials.

There are seven different room categories: The Wharf Room (575 AUD), the Woolloomooloo Room (675 AUD), the Pier Rooms (775 AUD), the Marina Rooms (875 AUD), the Pier Lofts (775 AUD), the Marina Lofts (875 AUD), and the Ultra Loft (2000 AUD). I stayed in the Ultra Loft, a huge duplex with skylights and windows running the entire length of the room and overlooking the yachts below and a bedroom above with a small bathroom (Aveda travel-sized products), but managing a bath and separate shower and a small closet, the latter being inadequate in relation to the largess of the room. I personally didn't care for the separate space, going up and down the stairs rather continuously for something or other I forgot to bring up or down the stairs, or trying to turn off 12 lights without a master switch.

I preferred instead, the Marina Room, with equally panoramic views (marina side) and much larger bathrooms, despite the fact that there is no separate living space and the overall space is considerably smaller. Without doubt, it is the best value room, with identical amenities to its big brother counterpart. Rates may vary during high season. Guests I met were charming, and demographics are approximately, 50% Australian, followed by the United States, New Zealand, India, and Asia, in varying percents and in descending order.

In short, staff is friendly and efficient, housekeeping, including turn-down service, quite sufficient, Mohan is a soft-spoken, sophisticated treasure, and the anticipated changes in softening the ambience will be anticipated. Guests may be put off only by small bathrooms and closets in huge suites, the ultra-modern and somewhat disorienting entry, and the lack of an on-site restaurant, but there are plenty of lovely restaurants just outside the front door, lining the marina, a reasonable room alternative for guests in which a large ensuite is desirable, and as for the historic roots as a warehouse for wool, one can either reject it as an architectural concept, or revel in man's capacity to adapt structures for alternative use, when the initial function no longer suits.

Pleasing alternatives are the Park Hyatt Sydney, a location over-looking the Opera House, with views of it from most rooms, and adjacent to the Rocks market, cannot be exceeded anywhere in Sydney. The InterContinental Sydney, despite its lesser location has spectacular views from the 31st floor Club InterContinental Lounge available to guests on premium floors with an additional cost. I particularly enjoyed the Mint Restaurant. Jeff Campbell appears to be Sydney's celebrated chef of the moment. Following a jet-set career that has taken him to Japan, London and France he has spent three years in the company of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver where he collaborated on many of the well known Naked Chef television programs and Naked Chef books. His creations are divine.
About the Author
Denise Hummel is an American, who moved to Italy with her husband and children for a one year cross-cultural experience that has expanded to three. Denise Hummel directs a communications business focused on tourism called Imagine Communications.
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