Australia’s Historic Hotels: Why They Endure

Photograph © David Simmonds / www.simmonds.com.au

If you look at hospitality trends worldwide, you might get the sense that history and tradition are moving steadily down the totem pole. All of the clicks, shares, likes and Tweets are focused on hotels carved from ice, or glass cubes perched in the treetops, or minimalist (Air)BnBs converted from derelict warehouses. Cool and contemporary rule supreme, while the styles of old are yesterday’s news. Why book a room in a drafty old mansion when you can stay in a cave, a teepee, or a renovated lighthouse?

And yet, the value and charm of historic hotels—our most timeless examples of hospitality—cannot be denied. The Australian landscape features many such properties, and as we celebrate our heritage this Australia day, it’s worth turning our attention from ‘what’s trending’ to what has stood the test of time.

Barry Stone’s fascinating book, Great Historic Australian Hotels, groups our nation’s historic accommodations into six categories: 1) CBD Hotels, 2) Suburban Hotels, 3) Homesteads, 4) Country Towns, 5) Grand Mansions, and 6) By the Sea. If you want more depth, by all means get your hands on the book. But if you’re looking for a bite-sized glimpse of Australia’s rich tradition of hospitality, a handful of examples should do the trick.

Our first stop is Brisbane, where the stunning Treasury and Land Administration buildings—dating from the late 19th century—now comprise the five star Treasury Casino and Hotel. The design is admired worldwide, recalling the great Italian architecture of the 16th century. It’s easy to imagine James Bond rolling up in his Aston Martin and flinging the keys to the valet. The living quarters feature mosaic tile floors and other classical flourishes, while the bathrooms have a spotless modern feel.

Moving to Western Australia, we find the historic Faversham House in the town of York. A sprawling colonial mansion completed in 1840, this property has undergone careful renovations to create a luxurious and traditional country feel. The furnishings are strictly Victorian and Georgian, retaining the house’s original sensibilities. Guests can wander into classical drawing rooms, libraries and lounges with log fireplaces—not to mention several rambling acres of manicured gardens. Was life before Twitter really all that bad?

Heading down into South Australia, in the quiet town of Padthaway, we arrive at the Padthaway Estate. This is an example of a charming homestead created by a family (the Lawsons) who were successful in wool production at the turn of the 20th century. What used to be the shearing shed is now a well-regarded winery; and the shearer’s quarters have been transformed into quaint, comfortable guest accommodations. The local stone, from which all the homestead’s structures are built, adds a unique charm. This is a true slice of local history with all the comforts of a well-appointed home.

Back in the city, across from the Parliament House in Melbourne, sits the world-renowned Hotel Windsor. Dating back to 1883, this is a legitimate and enduring example of classic Victorian architecture. This list of famous guests is long, including some of the 20th century’s most acclaimed actors (Lawrence Olivier, Meryl Streep, Sir Anthony Hopkins). The Grand Staircase, Grand Ballroom and Cricketer’s Bar are well-known features, while the guest rooms and suites have a distinct aura of history, class and sophistication. Despite the Owner’s ongoing battle with the State Government to allow this property to be redeveloped (and allow the truly historic nature to be preserved), with it’s high standards of service, the Windsor is widely considered one of the finest five star properties in Australia.

And finally, the former Hotel Canberra (now the Hyatt Canberra) was built in 1927 to coincide with the opening of Australia’s first parliament house. It still retains that 1920s charm, with porters dressed in keeping with the history and is placed within view of Old Parliament House. Large rooms, boundless gardens and a relaxed ambience all evoke a memory of times past.

The list could easily go on and on – small hotels adjacent Sydney’s cobbled lanes, Perth’s Treasury Buildings and Brisbane’s Stamford Hotel. Even Barry Stone’s book, which dedicated solely to historical accommodations in Australia, has to leave out dozens of celebrated properties. From country cottages to grandiose blocks in our biggest cities, there is truly much to be explored in the way of history. Chances are, there’s an interesting historic accommodation near you. The future of hotels is exciting and buzz-worthy indeed; but a taste of Australia’s hospitality heritage is like a glass of aged wine. It delivers a rich and full-bodied experience that simply cannot be found anywhere else. 

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