Hotel Hotel was for a time (and perhaps still is) Australia's most cutting-edge contemporary bolthole, converting many a Canberra sceptic to the concept of a visit or even, heaven forbid, a holiday, in the underrated national capital. Then Hotel Hotel, at least as a name, was suddenly no more with the Hong Kong-based Ovolo group, renowned for its quirky, decently priced establishments, taking over where the original hotel's visionary, Canberra-based owners, abruptly left off.
Now known as the Ovolo Nishi Canberra, with the second part of its title borrowed from the name of the innovative high-rise building in which it operates, the hotel forms part of the national capital's groundbreaking NewActon residential and cultural precinct. It is situated between the gorgeous bushland campus of the Australian National University and the serenely ornamental Lake Burley Griffin ringed by walking and cycling paths. Civic, the capital's compact central business district, is within walking distance, as is its brand-new 12-kilometre light rail system.
Hello darkness my old friend: light-drenched Ovolo Nishi is not but the paucity of natural rays does tend to add to the sense of cool that pervades this hotel with the expansive, retro-style furniture-stuffed lobby area invariably buzzing with appreciative Canberra locals and interstate house guests alike. One of the most striking features of the hotel, which prides itself on sustainability, is its take on the grand staircase with its version composed of a frenzy of horizontal strips of recycled, rough-hewn timber with the steps themselves leading to the rest of the Nishi complex which includes its cinemas. Elsewhere, the hotel's enclosed atrium is home to a small forest of tree ferns salvaged from the wilds of Tasmania.
Ovolo Nishi recently unveiled some of the smallest, though ingeniously designed, rooms in Australia, each at a mere 15 square metres and largely pitched at solo corporate travellers. The 17 inviting "snug rooms" were designed by Luchetti Krelle, the award-winning Sydney interior design firm, and feature an array of space-saving measures. Cute and cosy as these rooms may be, your reviewer's been upgraded to a much bigger, moodier "original atrium" king-sized bedroom, where natural light is again in short supply. Nonetheless, it's hipster heaven, replete with exposed concrete walls with clay and cork renderings, reclaimed timbers along with beautifully restored furniture and offbeat artwork. Guests who book directly via the hotel's website are entitled to a free mini-bar and snacks.
Regrettably, this is where a bit of the "oh" in Ovolo Nishi emerges. Among the other changes since Ovolo's arrival at New Acton has been the relocation of the Good Food Guide-listed Monster Kitchen & Bar from the spacious main lobby, or atrium, space, to its own room, complete with a stunning centrepiece circular fireplace encircled by plush leather cushions. The redesign is a stunning success, and the food is fine, but the service standards, at least during this reviewer's visit earlier year, are less so. Although the friendly wait staff mean well they have a sketchy understanding of not just the menu but also the wine list. One Canberra venue where you can't go wrong is Bar Rochford, these days Canberra's signature wine and cocktail bar, located in the historic Melbourne Building in Civic, with a fine sharing menu for dinner and, crucially, impeccable service.
Despite the knockers, Canberra is a knockout for culture-vultures considering its stellar array of museums including the National Portrait Gallery, recently reopened following renovations. The National Gallery of Australia's blockbuster Monet: Impression Sunrise exhibition concluded recently but there's another NGA blockbuster in the works, just in time for summer, with the launch of Matisse/Picasso, which explores the relationship between two of the world's greatest artists and rivals. If that's not enough the National Museum of Australia is just a short drive from the hotel.
Even with its freshly minted name and management group, as well as a few quibbles, Ovolo Nishi remains the choicest, most distinctive accommodation option for those willing to embrace a new, cooler and more contemporary Canberra.
Doubles start from $225 per night. Ovolo Nishi, NewActon Precinct, 25 Edinburgh Ave, Canberra. Ph: (02) 6287 6287. See ovolohotels.com.au
The hotel's brave, if not flawed, interior design makes for a memorable stay.
The restaurant and some confusing car-parking arrangements disappoint.
Anthony Dennis stayed as a guest of Ovolo Nishi