Author: fiona donnelly
Photography: sharyn cairns
Perched poolside on a white leather day bed atop the recently opened Emporium Hotel is the perfect vantage point to contemplate the changing face of Queensland's capital. Contemporary. Bold. Sexy. If designer digs are the requisite status symbol for any city on the up and up, Brisbane now has its own with this, the city's first truly luxury 'boutique-style' retreat.
And Emporium Hotel is all-out glam from the get-go. The flamboyant barrel-shaped lobby entrance, with its curved LED-lit plexiglass and polished stainless-steel sides, makes a dramatic statement. Inside it's all high gloss: polished light emperador Spanish marble flooring and back-lit scarlet-glass walls overlaid with laser-cut filigree screens in bronze and buffed stainless steel, which glint and flash in the sunlight. Work from local artists features in the hotel's foyer: the reception desk is a large cast-bronze sculpural 'boat' by Matthew and Daniel Tobin of Brisbane's Urban Art Projects (UAP). There's also an exuberant glass light fitting hand-blown by Greg Royer on the Sunshine Coast, and the inlaid walnut table sitting below it designed and made by Robert Dunlop Woodcraft of Brendale. This is all the shiny handiwork of Anthony and Francine John of the Anthony John Group, a property developer with work in excess of $1.4 billion underway in the city.
While UAP commissioned some of the works and produced others, the overall interior design was conceived by Francine John and Greg Harris of Greg Harris Design. Harris describes the foyer as "a little art statement".
"We made an effort to source work locally,'' says Francine. "And Matthew and Daniel Tobin of Urban Art Projects brought to life what we were trying to do. We're a boutique hotel - you need a bit of bling. You need to be able to stand alone."
The hotel sits on the CBD fringe, part of a dining and shopping precinct, also called Emporium. Just a few years ago, the entire site was a run-down bus depot. Now it houses, to name a couple, Cath Claringbold's Mecca Bah, Depot Emporium, a buzzy, alfresco spot to snack on Frank Camorra's MoVida tapas menu and the newly opened Belle Epoque, a Parisian-style bistro replete with a bevy of imported French chefs. Soon it will also provide a berth for Three Bistro, the new venture from the team behind the city's two-starred Restaurant Two.
Neighbouring retailers at Emporium underline the transformation of this rapidly gentrifying part of town.
At the bottle store, The Wine Emporium, the shelves hold grande marques Champagnes and back and current vintages of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Need a fashion revamp? Snap up a designer number from Brisbane duo Easton Pearson at Camargue or slip on a pair of Derek Lam's patent leather Brigitta platform heels at Jean Brown and you'll soon start looking like a local.
But back to the hotel. The Emporium Hotel boasts 106 studio suites, including 80 King Suites (38 with private spa bath). All rooms have the kind of cool white linen that makes you resolve to get the iron and starch out next laundry day at home. The top floor offers Emporium Suites with their own balconies.
Francine is a fan of the highly perfumed frangipani which flourishes locally in summer, hence the tree and its blooms are a recurring motif throughout the hotel. These appear as a stylised version of the flower or a tangle of leaves and branches. You'll find the motifs in the suites behind the huge plasma television screens in muted mochas and blacks adorning a back-painted glass panel. With chocolate-leather bedheads, the feeling is relentlessly urban, a little exotic and totally luxe. In every suite, there is also a clever, smart-looking marble-topped kitchenette complete with stainless-steel fronted dishwasher which may be tucked out of sight behind a folding door. You're unlikely to need to order take-away. The in-suite food (soon to be available 24 hours) is prepared by the Belle Epoque team (the restaurant is co-owned by the Johns) and prices are deliberately reasonable. Half a dozen oysters au naturel are just $12, while smoked salmon on potato blini with crème fraîche and salmon roe costs $18.
And for the fussiest of insomniacs, there's even an Exquisite Sleep pillow menu. It offers eight different options, including a rather extraordinary sounding Swedish memory pillow, a pregnancy choice and a satin beauty soft foam pillow, which apparently has been designed to "reduce pressure on facial bones while the silky satin cover helps maintain hairdos overnight."
"The pillow menu is important when you travel, and the business person is always travelling," says Francine. "They need comfort. When they walk into the room, everything has to work. We made sure the bedside clocks have big simple digits and there's nothing that's difficult to operate in the room." Other thoughtful touches such as an in-suite laundry tucked behind the bathroom door, on-call hair straighteners, a Bose sound system, free local calls, broadband connection and an iPod docking station make the stay all the more pleasant.
Concierge Murray Rowbotham is the man to see to organise anything from a romantic pillow turndown - complete with tea lights, scatted rose petals and chilled Champagne - through to a picnic in a Porsche. Some of the hotel's first high-profile guests were royalty from Dubai, a little nerve-racking not just because they were nobility but also because if anyone has nailed the luxury hotel thing, it's the Arabs. "They told me when they were leaving, 'Murray, that was a great experience - the Prince would like to come back one day with his family'. It was great to get feedback like that," says Rowbotham.
Breakfast is served at Belle Epoque. Perhaps a tartine or some thick toast spread with chef Gilles Debeze's house-made passionfruit and citrus jam. The long zinc-topped bar and all-French wine list help preserve the illusion. All the classics are here, from steak frites to salade composée, and the kitchen doesn't close until 11pm - still quite a rarity in Brisbane.
With all the enticing food options on offer, it's comforting to know that upstairs, alongside the expansive lap pool, there's a sauna and petite gym. For those more inclined to relax with a tall glass of something cool, there's the glam cocktail bar which adjoins the foyer. Here one of Anthony's passions is on view. To the right of the entrance is a 'wine library' complete with mirrored LED-lit shelving for the collection of premier and grand cru wines. The bar area itself is eclectic, with several different seating areas each with discreet personalities. An onyx cocktail bar glows and is lit from above by a large antique German chandelier. Behind this flickers a massive plasma screen. In another area with a low-slung black leather lounge, there's a leadlight window which started life in Paris, found its way to Buenos Aires and now forms a backdrop here.
"We wanted a discord of different things which would all work together, with a few classical pieces thrown into the mix," says Harris. "The whole feeling is of sophisticated luxury that's just a little exciting - something Brisbane has never had."
Relax in one of the armchairs or pull up a stool at the bar. When you catch the eye of mixologist Tze-Yuan Choo, or Chewie as he's known to regulars, raise your martini - or perhaps the exotic- sounding Rouge Lips or Elixir of Love - glass. There's much to celebrate.
The fine print
Qantas has daily flights from all state capitals to Brisbane. Call 13 13 13 or visit www.qantas.com for more information.
Check out Brisbane's latest boutique hotel offering eight degrees of pillow comfort. Doubles from $295. 1000 Ann St, Fortitude Valley, Qld, (07) 3253 6999, www.emporiumhotel.com.au.