New York's new Williamsburg Hotel is designed to look old

Things have always happened fast in New York, but construction of the William Vale seemed to happen overnight, the hotel springing up like a giant white mushroom in an old industrial stretch of North Brooklyn.

I first noticed it while standing on the roof deck at Output, which is perhaps New York's best nightclub space. The William Vale, with its white zig-zag exterior and darkly tinted glass, looks as though it had strayed away from Manhattan, or even Miami, and got lost in the far reaches of Williamsburg – where it certainly did not belong.

But what does belong in Williamsburg? Given the neighbourhood's centrality in New York – a sort of halfway point between the sprawl of Brooklyn and high-rise density of Manhattan – it is an important place on the city map. It is also booming at the moment: new residences are opening up in converted spaces like an old Domino sugar factory. As more people move in, including travellers, what makes the area distinctive as a neighbourhood?

Williamsburg is a dive bar at the corner of North 3rd and Berry Street, called the Levee, where the bartender serves bowls of Cheetos and the music is so loud that conversation is impossible, though the dog doesn't seem to mind. It is the Nitehawk Cinema, on Metropolitan Avenue, where a waiter will serve you beer and buffalo wings during a midnight screening. It is Artists and Fleas, where you can buy a digitally printed silk photo scarf, and Goorin Bros, where you can buy a fedora hat. It is Vice Media, and skateboards, hipsters, fried oysters, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, fancy bourbon, and expensive straight-razor shaves.

It can be glimpsed in miniature each Saturday at the East River State Park, where a food market called Smorgasburg becomes a community hub – and a gourmand's dream place – overflowing with eccentric doughnut flavours and ramen burgers.

All of this was on my mind recently when I visited another hotel that has just appeared in North Brooklyn not far from the William Vale. However, unlike that strange space invader, looming over the industrial skyline, this one gets it, and is, in fact, so determined to fit into the neighbourhood that it has even borrowed the name: The Williamsburg Hotel.

The Williamsburg, which launches this month, is a brand new build that is meant to look old, or at the very least lived in. The idea is that the brick, glass, and Corten steel exterior will become indistinguishable in a few years time from the surrounding factories, just another part of the waterfront landscape. So seamlessly do the owners want the hotel to meld with the neighbourhood that a cascading terrace is designed to start right on the street, drawing you inside to a double-height lobby.

The lobby reminded me of the belly of a ship, with large portals spilling light down into a space that is occupied by teal banquettes and a circular bar. Here, again, the local neighbourhood provides inspiration in the form of a stunning art piece of multicolour yarn by Eric Rieger, who famously decorated parts of the Williamsburg Bridge with wool.

There is also a restaurant, Harvey, by executive chef Adam Leonti. This being Brooklyn, the restaurant will focus mostly on vegetables, and grains milled at Leonti's Brooklyn Bread Lab. What does that mean, exactly? Flour, I'm informed, made "the old-school way, pre-industrial revolution". Everything old is new again.

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There are 150 guest rooms, all designed by Michaelis Boyd Studio in leather, brass and wood. These are remarkably bright and airy, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows, and finished with paper chandeliers and a sprinkling of kitsch: flamingoes, astroturf on the balconies. In a nice touch, the hallways feel more like a loft apartment building than a hotel. Extra flourishes include a private bar for hotel guests and a tiny, bunker-like lounge, with access through a nondescript staff entrance, that will open next year. A giant ballroom for up to 400 people is a first for Williamsburg, and will no doubt became a regular wedding spot for tattooed brides and grooms.

But the real draw is the roof deck, which highlights the fact that Williamsburg has some of the best views in the city. Off to the north-east is, again, the William Vale, but looking west offers a jaw-dropping panorama of midtown Manhattan across the river. The roof is more than 325 square metres, and when it opens next summer it will offer the most desirable plunge pool outside of a multi-million-dollar private mansion. There is also a water tower, minus the water: the glass cladding will conceal a private 30-seat cocktail lounge.

Taken as a whole, the hotel is remarkably in tune with its chosen setting, right down to the quirky hotel car (if you can call it that). After I'd finished my tour, I was offered a ride back to the subway station in a customised tuk-tuk – that is, the kind of rickshaw you might expect to see in India or Sri Lanka, but America-size, so capable of seating six. The hotel will use it to race guests around the neighbourhood. As we chugged along Wythe Avenue, past a Scandinavian bakery, a cafe serving Moroccan tagines, and dozens of pedestrians, nobody blinked. It was just part of the scene.

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FLY

Various airlines offer flights to New York from most major Australian cities. For the most comfortable flight, take Qantas to Dallas-Fort Worth, connecting on to JFK. See Qantas.com

STAY

The Williamsburg Hotel offers five grades of room, ranging from a cozy hideaway with a queen-size bed to a spacious railroad-style suite with a terrace facing Manhattan. Prices start from US$375 a night. See thewilliamsburghotel.com

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