Three massive fish tanks cover a tall wall, metres high – a mesmerising kinetic backdrop to the hotel’s wide reception desks. The tanks house an energetic tableau of many bright-coloured tropical species darting among green aquarium plants, flashing their tails, soaring, diving. It’s a motif for this waterside resting place, unlike the city’s other, monolithic, asphalt-bound hotels: right off I know I’m in for something special. Earlier, a spectacular entrance: sweeping up the circular driveway to the porte-cochere, greeted by liveried staff holding my car door, swiftly taking my luggage and wishing me Bonjour! Bonjour? This is Sydney! Surely it should be “Good afternoon”?
Non. Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour, the city’s newest-built, five-star, outstanding 35-storey hotel, just two years old this month and part of the elite worldwide French Sofitel chain, continues its international tradition of acknowledging guests with a charming Gallic welcome. And so it is throughout: not force-fed French culture but just deft incidental touches of elan. Staff step back at elevators with hint of a bow and a Bonsoir; a magnificent scenic bar with abundant, true, Champagnes; lush Lanvin toiletries; its signature restaurant Atelier. For travellers keen to spoil themselves the ambience lifts a regular hotel stay into an “experience” when visiting Sydney for a show, event, romantic interlude, celebration, family gathering: beyond merely a hotel room, bed and sustenance … a “destination” in itself.
As the maxim goes, it’s all about location, location, location. Sofitel, on the edge of Darling Harbour, is at the centre of Sydney’s biggest concentration of restaurants, cafes and attractions: numerous dining options, bars and ice-cream bars in the adjacent Harbourside Centre; more options a promenade around the harbour edge at Cockle Bay Wharf (a “chocolate” cafe!) and next-along King Street Wharf; again more venues in outstanding Barangaroo, with its parklands; many featuring fresh Sydney seafood at indoor-outdoors spots on the water. More choices: close by in Pyrmont; at popular Chinatown a short stroll away; even picnicking waterside. Nearby: the Capitol Theatre, Broadway musical Frozen arriving next July. Within Sofitel, Atelier’s helmed by executive chef Eric Costille, credentialled on the French Riviera at Cannes, through French culinary schools, to international Michelin-star roles. Chef de Cuisine Jordan Hajek’s passion peaked at his most recent post, Copenhagen’s Noma, four times world’s best restaurant. The menu offers traditional dishes from the regions of France and contemporary takes appealing to Aussie palates, like the Marseille-inspired deconstructed bouillabaisse above (and children’s menus, and in-room dining). Meats are from (coincidentally, my former boucherie) Woollahra’s renowned Victor Churchill. Sofitel hums through from elegant ground-floor cocktail bar Esprit Noir to its infinity-edge pool and bar, Le Rivage, open to glorious harbour views. Children enjoy the hotel’s evening ritual, the “Lighting of the Candles” and many youngsters’ preoccupations close by, Cook’s replica barque Endeavour moored at the Maritime Museum (current exhibition: William Bligh), and Sydney Aquarium. Saturday afternoon high tea for kids (for parents: bubbles), with gift bags, is themed around Australian children’s book character Claris, the Chicest Mouse in Paris – chocolate fountain with marshmallows, pink lemonade, choux pastries, creamy profiteroles, raspberry macaroons on porcelain plates, strawberries, choc-coated madeleines, mini churros, mini sausage rolls, and plus. From $35.
The entire eastern “wall” of my lavish Level 30 room is sheer curtain glass offering a spellbinding vista of Barangaroo’s lofty towers, all the activity on the shores, tour boats and ferries plying about. The backdrop is the ever-fascinating profile of the city’s grand buildings, their glittering forest of fairy-like lights coming alive as the sun surrenders at dusk. My deep freestanding bathtub is sheer indulgence, set in a luxurious bathroom. It’s 20m from the hotel to the International Convention Centre, Sydney’s premier event complex, and ideal walking distance to CBD shopping. Light Rail’s adjacent too. Sofitel has a superb gift/clothing shop with unusual quality items at excellent prices, worth a trip there in itself.