Auckland's regenerated Britomart was once known for pigeons and prostitutes. Add a third "p" if you go right back and throw pedlars into the mix. Even when I lived in Auckland, before the turn of the new millennium, you wouldn't venture downtown unless you were looking for a strip club. Seediness aside, it lacked soul with little to attract tourists aside from the ferry terminal which whisked passengers over to Devonport and Waiheke Island.
Now the nine city blocks that were once the city's badlands are almost unrecognisable, buzzing with office workers, construction crews, tourists and locals. Restaurants and cafes are full, queues spill down the street for Giapo's legendary ice-cream and skyscrapers soar upwards.
"This area was very much a seedy part of town but now it's a whole new world," says Benny Castles, designer of New Zealand fashion brand World and signature design partner for the brand-new SO/Auckland. Even if the pun's intentional, it's an apt description.
Castles and Accor's SO brand – there are now seven in the collection including in Bangkok and Berlin – has worked with World to deliver bold and quirky flair to Auckland's latest five-star digs. World spent three years working on the hotel's design at a cost of $91 million for the refurbishment and fitout.
Dressed in floral pants, blue Converse boots and jaunty hat, the dapper Castles takes us on a tour of the hotel's trendy Britomart neighbourhood. It's summer but Castles carries an umbrella (ever prepared for Auckland's four seasons in one day) with an elaborately carved silver handle.
Standing outside SO/Auckland with its eye-popping orange Bentley parked in the porte-cochere, he says the key to what makes this "fossicky" end of Auckland different is to look up.
"You really notice the height of buildings and the sheer number of office workers streaming out of them." He indicates several construction sites neighbouring SO/Auckland, which is housed in the former Reserve Bank building and once housed the country's gold reserve.
"It's very much a boom time in Auckland right now; something like 80 to 90 per cent of all of New Zealand's cranes preside here."
Castles said the 2011 Rugby World Cup was the impetus for significant change for the City of Sails. The Auckland Art Gallery was redeveloped while the Britomart neighbourhood and retail precinct was created.
Today Britomart is a chic enclave of fashion, food and wine. Here you'll find international brands including Ted Baker, local fashion legends Karen Walker, Kate Sylvester, Zambesi and Trelise Cooper along with World's concept store.
Visitors can enjoy a Mediterranean-inspired lunch at Ortolana, sip shochu cocktails at the uber-cool Fukuko bar and dine on superb sake and sashimi at nearby Ebisu. Down a lane is Sid Sahrawat's contemporary Indian restaurant Cassia, while a couple of doors along from World you'll find Amano, the latest Italian themed restaurant, bar and artisan bakery by the Hip Group (the Kiwi equivalent of Justin Hemme's Merivale empire).
"What you see with Britomart's clever design is it all flows down to the waterfront," Castles says. One block back from said waterfront, with boutiques, bars, restaurants and galleries on its doorstep, is the home of the 16-storey, 130-room SO/Auckland which Castles describes as "the jewel in Britomart's crown".
Joining the line-up of celebrated fashion designers that have collaborated with Sofitel's SO brand, World joins Kenzo in Mauritius, Christian Lacroix in Bangkok and Viktor & Rolf in Berlin.
The innovative Kiwi fashion house's bold, energetic and playful style is evident in everything from the hotel staff's attire (jackets in burnt orange or gold brocade, T-shirts with a volcanic emblem and sneakers), wallpaper, suite art works and neon art installations.
Furniture and lighting installations by Dutch design house Moooi feature throughout the hotel while the foyer's whimsical Mixo Bar is home to the Mega Chandelier created by Marcel Wanders for Moooi.
Playing on the volcanic theme, blue-stone tiles line the walls, underfoot is fiery lava-like carpet while the buzzing HI-SO rooftop bar faces two dormant volcanos and Rangitoto Island. The new rooftop space, one of Auckland's highest, has been busy since opening with locals pouring in to drink up the cool vibe and tongue-in-cheek JAFA (Just Another F...ing Aucklander) cocktails. Downstairs, guests can stay in a choice of Vapour, Liquid and Solid themed rooms. An entire floor has also been dedicated to the striking penthouse suites, each with their own distinct style.
When it comes to food, guests won't be disappointed. Michelin-starred French chef Marc de Passorio heads up the 15th floor Harbour Society with its sweeping harbour views. De Passorio sold his Michelin-starred restaurant L'Esprit de la Violette to make Auckland his culinary home, now wowing diners with his signature vodka crayfish dish on a menu showcasing New Zealand's best produce.
The hotel's SO Spa wasn't quite ready when we visited, however on the menu are innovative offerings such as Himalayan detox therapy, Tibetan sound healing, chakra balancing and peeling Chlorella masks. A 20 metre indoor heated lap pool is found on the same floor, while a cafe is yet to be unveiled.
Castles says he knew from the outset this was a special project to collaborate on. The designer, who is also a judge on TV's Project Runway NZ, says despite the hotel's avant-garde looks, it feels personal, offering renowned Kiwi friendliness coupled with high service levels delivered with contemporary flair.
"Our role was to create an experience that helped guests leave the hustle and bustle of the city behind and welcome them in to a new world."
Soaking in my lavish bath with a glass of Hawkes Bay pinot gris (baths have handy in-built glass holders), I look out over Waitemata Harbour and the bustling Britomart below. It appears World has fulfilled its brief. SO/Auckland is a sensational base from which to explore this invigorated new world.
FIVE BRITOMART HIGHLIGHTS
Try the tart of the day or tasting menu at Auckland's first dessert bar, Milse. See milse.co.nz
Snag a (free) beanbag and enjoy an alfresco lunch or takeaway coffee on the lawn at Takutai Square. See britomart.org
Brave the queues for one of the creations from Giapo, Auckland's king of ice-cream. It's worth it. See giapo.com
There's no menu at New York style cocktail bar, Caretaker. Instead describe your preferences and one of Caretaker's talented bartenders will craft a drink just for you. See caretaker.net.nz
Book a personalised Fragrance Masterclass with SO/Auckland's signature designer and retailer World. Ask SO/Auckland's concierge. See worldbrand.co.nz
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Accor Hotels and Resorts and Virgin Australia.
Virgin Australia flies between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and Auckland daily.. See virginaustralia.com
Rooms from $NZ469 a night. See sofitel.accorhotels.com