Travel and COVID-19: Welcome to Hotel Pandemic 2020: Inside one of Australia's most luxurious hotels during quarantine

It's not often that you arrive at a normally bustling and inviting five-star hotel on an early weekday evening to discover that there's no sign of a top-hatted driveway commissionaire to greet you and that the sliding glass front doors are shut tight. What's more, the lobby itself is in virtual darkness. Occupied only by members of the police force who lounge, suitably socially distanced, of course, in its scattered leather armchairs.

Welcome, if that's the word, to Hotel Pandemic 2020, better known as the iconic five-star Sofitel Sydney Wentworth, part of the giant Accor group, and one of the city's original luxury hotels which opened in 1966. Nowadays, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, hotels like this one have unexpectedly  become elaborate halfway houses for quarantined Australian travellers.

I've been granted a behind the scenes, three-course dinner included, glimpse into how an establishment like this one operates in such historic and challenging circumstances.

It'll also be an opportunity to gauge how hotels - after a decidedly rough start when the Federal Government first introduced hotel quarantining of Australians travellers returning from abroad - are endeavouring to make their guests' protracted 14-day stays as comfortable, entertaining and endurable as possible.

As I wait outside for a staff member to let me into the locked hotel, concerned that the assembled police officers (and one naval seaman in blue and grey camouflage fatigues) may be wondering why I'm loitering outside,  I can hear the music from a band rehearsing in the Sofitel Wentworth's Garden Court open-air terrace above me.

Eventually the staff member – the head of guest relations – escorts me upstairs where the famed rock musician Diesel is about to perform three songs (followed by Soul Nights, an R&B band) as part of a live concert. It's been organised by the hotel as a way to entertain the 377 quarantined house-guests in the rooms of the semi-circular all-brick hotel building directly above the Garden Court.

"It's important for us that we look after our guests, even if they are here under quarantine," says Sam Panetta, general manager of  the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth.  "They're here for 14 days and the concert is a gesture of goodwill on our behalf, especially as this group is on its last week of quarantine."

Slowly the guests begin to emerge from inside their room and out onto their balconies, with those with only windows to watch from having the music ingeniously live-streamed to their suites. All ages,  the assembled guests are a microcosm of the Australian travelling public. Remarkably, after so much time spent in their rooms all of those visible seem to be cheerful enough, too, and ready and willing to party and dance even. 

The concert, which begins at 5 pm will coincide with dinner prepared by Boris Cuzon, the hotel's executive chef, and his team with the meals to be served – make that delivered - to outside the doors of guests' rooms from 6pm. But, as I pass through a darkened restaurant and into the kitchen, en route to the ballroom, I can see there's none of the customary fancy white plating and starched linen serviettes.


Health regulations governing the quarantined hotel guests demand that all meals be served in clear and disposable plastic containers. In fact, there are large quantities of them stacked above and in boxes on one side of the kitchen.

Inside the nearby ballroom, which is normally reserved for functions and events, hotel staff have arranged each dinner, packed inside scores of neat standard brown paper shopping bags, on top of large tables, according to room numbers, dietary and even religious requirements.

Mr Panetta says that the hotel, in its effort to provide as much comfort to quarantined guests, is even offering a choice of main course with each day's dinner with tonight's offering – "French night - being either Basque-style braised chicken or a roast Mediterranean vegetable tian.

I sample this evening's dinner with a tray placed before me at a table in the ballroom. I've visited, and even stayed in, the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth hotel on numerous occasions but, quelle horreur, I've never been served a main course here in a plastic Chinese takeaway-style container.

But who's complaining? This is war (well, close enough to it) and all three dishes – the Nicoise salad, the braised chicken and the vegetable tian are delicious. And, if I pop my head out the ballroom long enough, they are teamed with live musical accompaniment with an hour or more left to run of the concert for the quarantined guests. 

Anthony Dennis is travel editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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