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Its views are quintessentially Sydney, but the city's newest five-star hotel could be anywhere but Pyrmont, writes Sarah Maguire.
STANDING by the outdoor pool on the fifth floor of the Darling, it's hard to believe this is the former industrial suburb of Pyrmont. The adult guests for whom this part of the hotel is exclusive get to lie on deckchairs and lounge suites and order caprioskas from bright young things in funky uniforms. The day is steamy and the marble bar is 20 metres long, its blue tiled wall lined with shelves of liquor. The scene is so reminiscent of a tropical resort, it's a surprise to register that the building just beyond is the Pyrmont Coles supermarket.
On the night I stay, it is less than a week since the 171-room Darling, a key component of Star casino's $870 million redevelopment, welcomed its first guests on October 28. Stevie Wonder has gone home after performing at the Star's lavish official opening, held in the Darling, as has Olivia Newton-John, headline act of the soft-opening bash. I see no celebrities, even though Leonardo DiCaprio is reported to have taken over an entire floor, with his own butler and access to a jet.
But an $1800-a-night suite is enough to make anyone feel like a star. In the spirit of things that must be done when staying in such a place, I fill the spa bath. It has a floor-to-ceiling view over Pyrmont to Barangaroo and the Harbour Bridge. Molton Brown bath products with names such as purifying ambrusca and plum kadu are on standby. The scene is perfect. Yet I am unable to turn on the spa jets.
It is sure to be an operator error. The thing is, the rest of the technology has been so easy to operate, so idiot-proofed against the legions who struggle with remote controls and complex lighting systems, that I'm surprised by the glitch. People I know who have given up a long search for the right switch in their five-star hotel room and gone to bed with the light on would relish the labelling here. Switches marked "on", "off", "living" and "entry" leave no doubt as to which lights up where.
Using so-called "Control 4" technology, one remote control allows you to turn on the TV and, via icons on the screen, operate the blinds, the temperature and the lights. You can preset a range of wake-up alarms, be it the TV turning on automatically or the blinds opening themselves. I choose the latter and, sure enough, at 6.45 the next morning, they glide open to let the light slowly in.
There is an air of excitement about the Darling in these early days. The staff seem genuinely chuffed to be employed there, for reasons beyond its Australia-first hotel-room technology. Perhaps because in terms of hotels and hospitality in Sydney, the Darling is a big deal, even more so for the bigger complex of new restaurants, bars, cafes and shops of which it is part.
"I love coming to work here every day," says one staffer, who indeed can't wipe the smile off his face as he helps with my bag upon checkout, more than happy to walk all the way back to the Fairfax building with it, if I'd like.
Upon my arrival the day before, two young men in crisp blue and white shirts are at the entrance, one each to swing open the two glass doors. At the adjacent porter's desk there are three more staff carrying out luggage duties beneath a sculpture of a red swallow, two cherries in its beak, that soars spectacularly above the entrance.
Resident manager Tom Snell says the Darling wants its guests to see "a level of service they haven't seen in a long time".
"You can teach people how to work the computers," Snell says. "What you hire is the smile, the passion, the attitude."
As part of the service, each guest is shown to and around their room. In the case of the Adored suite - which sits midway in the room scale; above the Darling rooms and Jewel suites and beneath the Stellar suites and five penthouses - there is much to show off. Mine is a corner suite, the floor-to-ceiling windows running along the entrance hallway and curving around the living area and into the bedroom.
The interior design is inspired by European drawing rooms. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest the bling and neon of a casino are just next door. Everything is in neutral shades, with splashes of signature purple in the sheets, towels, even the hairdryer.
I am in my room when the turn-down service arrives. Three staff bearing chocolates troop past me and into the bedroom to arrange, just-so, the custom-dyed 400-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets and goose-down comforter.
Outside, 11 floors below, Pyrmont office workers are making their way home. It is a workaday view of Sydney and its harbour, more gritty than the sparkling blue scene from the Park Hyatt at Circular Quay, for example - one of the Sydney hotels, along with the Four Seasons and the Observatory, that Snell nominates as the Darling's competition.
Alongside its luxury, the Darling has energy-efficient credentials: there are narrow windows that open for natural ventilation - a rarity in modern hotels - and its "leaving room" sensors mean 30 minutes after a guest has left the room, everything will automatically shut down.
Despite these features, by the end of my stay, I feel I haven't done the environment much good. How small a carbon footprint can decadence really hope to achieve? When the spa bath fails to work and I can't get the water hot enough, I guiltily take to the shower. But which one? There are three to choose from, one overhead and two on opposite walls.
Later, in the 16-room day spa - an exquisitely lit and fragrant warren - a reservoir of water is emptied over me. I am in Sydney's first hamam and therapist Ava is the real deal: she trained on the job in Istanbul 10 years ago and is instructing fellow therapists at the Darling in the ways of the Turkish bath.
Walking into the hamam, I wonder how I can bear the heat, even more so when the marble slab I'm told to lie on feels as though it's burning a layer of skin off. Then Ava begins pouring bowls of water over me and I get it. Between cooling me with the water, Ava scrubs my skin so hard with sea salt, it sometimes hurts. Then, using Turkish soap and a cotton bubble maker, she creates suds to use in a massage.
Those ablutions done, I sit up and Ava brings a bowl of grapes. An empire surely about to fall somewhere, she washes my hair in organic shampoo, massages my scalp, then brings another platter of fruit to be grazed upon at leisure.
When I walk out, it is on a cloud; I've hooked into some of that stuff that's making all the staff seem so happy. I may never step foot in an Adored suite again but the spa will be a different story.
The writer was a guest of the Darling Hotel and Spa.
Where The Darling, The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont. thedarling.com.au.
How much A standard Darling room is $399 a night; suites range from $1200 to $15,000.
Top marks The lobby, designed as a gathering point for Sydneysiders.
Black mark The water temperature — I couldn't get the spa bath hot enough, nor one of the showers cold enough to stand under.
Don't miss Dinner at Stefano Manfredi's Balla restaurant, including the chance to select your wine using an iPad. 1800 700700, star.com.au.