Survival of the swishest for luxury hotels

Times are tough but that hasn't stopped a slew of luxury hotels and resorts from opening, writes Katrina Lobley.

Of all the people in the world, tough-as-nails New Yorkers are probably the hardest to impress. Yet celebrity hotelier Andre Balazs managed to do just that when he opened his latest venture this year. (Balazs owns the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, staffs his portfolio of hotels with stunningly hip young things and is most famous as Uma Thurman's ex.)

The Standard (standardhotels.com) is all clear glass and grey concrete and eye-poppingly built to straddle the High Line (an abandoned elevated railway that has morphed into a trendy urban park) on the edge of Manhattan's meat-packing district. Balazs bought the challenging plot from the Nebraska Meat Corporation in 2004 and - once he conquered the difficulty in incorporating the railway - immediately set to work creating his first hotel built from scratch.

The resulting building is crooked like an open book, giving each of the 337 rooms wall-length views of various NYC markers: the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and the dove-coloured Hudson River. Those who have already stayed can't help but note the brazenness in placing toilets, showers and baths right in front of those see-through windows (the less exhibitionistic can always draw the curtains).

Inside the Standard's 18 storeys, which are still undergoing their finishing touches, the interiors (co-designed by Hollywood set designer Shawn Hausman) become starker and more modern the higher you rise. In the lifts, cutting-edge video art will depict a heaven-to-hell-and-back-again scenario.

While commentators are calling the Standard "the boom's last great building" in NYC, Balazs says he expects to ride out the recessionary squeeze with his mid-point pricing on the swish digs. He told The New York Observer last month that the industry is in such a state of flux he couldn't even say what price his rooms would settle at once the place fully opens midyear.

Another luxury hotel that has been built from the ground up is the Hilton Melbourne South Wharf (hilton.com), set to open on April 20. Situated between Docklands and Southbank, a precinct that has yet to hit its stride, the hotel could become a drawcard for foodies with a thing for Spanish fare.

While the hotel is keen to highlight its sophisticated fine-dining restaurant Nuevo 37 - to be run by Michelin-starred Barcelona chef Ramon Freixa - there's also much excitement over Nuevo 37's "sister" eatery, Sotano Wine and Tapas Bar.

Drawing on a Spanish cellar design, Sotano has seven-metre-high ceilings dangling a 2500-bottle cellar. There's also a 4.5-metre-high charcuterie tower draped in cured meats and cheeses, as well as a patio overlooking the Yarra (not quite the Mediterranean but who will care after a vino tinto or two?).

When it comes to imagining you're somewhere else, it's hard to beat Atlantis, The Palm (atlantisthepalm.com), which opened with great fanfare - and 100,000 fireworks - at the top of an artificial palm tree-shaped island in Dubai in November. Far from re-creating the delights of another country, the $1.5 billion ocean-themed resort does its best to transport guests to an imaginary underwater world.

A tiny part of the gargantuan resort is known as the Lost Chambers suites. If you can afford to stay in the Poseidon or Neptune suites ($9300 a night), you'll find yourself staring through the bedroom window straight into the Ambassador Lagoon, modelled on the lost city of Atlantis. The 11 million-litre fish tank is stocked with 65,000 marine creatures - including a whale shark, rays, eels, piranhas and jellyfish - living in a maze of underwater halls and tunnels. Such is its magnitude that the resort employs more than 165 marine specialists just to tend to the aquarium. (Daytrippers can also visit the lagoon.)

More exotic creatures are to be found at a sleek luxury lodge in India's north-central highlands. Taj Safaris, a joint venture between andBEYOND (formerly CC Africa) and the high-end Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, opened Pashan Garh (tajsafaris.com) near Khajuraho in the state of Madhya Pradesh late last year. The dozen dry-stone cottages look rough and tumble from the outside; inside, the posh interiors are all sexy black silk, chocolate linen, lace chandeliers and Delhi leather furniture.

The jungle lodge is near Panna National Park, home to Bengal tigers, sloth bears, leopards, wild boar and antelopes. Along with interpretive game drives, guests can linger over gourmet Indian cuisine delivered to their cottage through a discreet butler hatch.

The signature beastie at W Hong Kong (whotels.com) is the butterfly, which can be spotted decorating nooks and crannies all over the latest property to open in the boutique hotel chain.

With a location on the gritty commercial waterfront in the West Kowloon financial district, the industrial-style views suit the boho vibe of this 393-room hotel. Australians have also played a part in creating the whimsical feel of the W. Don't go home without checking out Melburnian Fabio Ongarato's fantastic butterfly mosaic looming over the rooftop pool. Ongarato says his "enchanted forest" theme was inspired by Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree. Sydney designer Nicholas Graham was also let loose on the interiors, alternating floors with Japanese designer Yasumichi Morita.

While most luxury hotels pride themselves on a discreet service philosophy, W turns out to be most immodest. Take its Whatever/Whenever service, which it claims can fulfil a whole range of whimsies from a tailored suit to a chopper ride to a Macau gambling den or even a romantic sail on a Chinese junk: "Whatever you want. Whenever you want it (as long as it's legal)."

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