Colonial charm in a boutique hotel

HERITAGE VALUE: The low-lit, bookish lobby, a leafy terrace and the hotel's location promise so much.
HERITAGE VALUE: The low-lit, bookish lobby, a leafy terrace and the hotel's location promise so much.

Helen Anderson finds colonial charm and contemporary cool in a redesigned boutique hotel.

A Rum Corps soldier has a musket in one hand and in the other the shapely bottom of a working girl, quivering in her old-fashioned bustier. They're leaning, giggling, against the bar of the Hero of Waterloo pub in The Rocks.

It's an early Saturday evening and a platoon of similarly uniformed soldiers is drinking and laughing, eyeing ladies in bonnets and gloves and girls in jeans and hens' night frippery. A band plays ragtime jazz in the corner. The beer is boutique and expensive.

I gather there's some kind of Old Sydney dress-up event under way. No one else seems to find the mix of colonial and contemporary odd.

We've strolled here from the site of Sydney's first hospital, known in its latest incarnation as the Harbour Rocks Hotel, through a warren of alleys lined with souvenirs and bratwurst stalls, where gents in colonial costume mingle with tourists and roving bucks' parties.

Tonight The Rocks captures what I think of as the essence of Sydney: outlaw history, the beauty of convict-hewn sandstone, waterfront glamour, trashiness and raw energy.

In the heart of it is this boutique 59-room hotel, redesigned with care and style a couple of months ago, arranged around a central atrium with exposed beams and original sandstone and brick walls, interesting art and a nod to the site's relics.

The low-lit, bookish lobby, a leafy terrace and the hotel's location promise so much. So I'm disappointed when shown to my not-inexpensive heritage deluxe room ($359 on this Saturday night) on the first floor, facing Harrington Street. It's a generous size and furnished simply and comfortably and with a gleaming new bathroom, but subject to the noise of an armada of buses. Where's the double glazing?

There are no other rooms available in this category that don't face the street, I'm told, but I'm shown a larger studio on the ground floor at the back of the building - for $100 extra. I haggle the price to $50 for the promise of sleep; at $419 it's a large but pricey open-plan room, particularly with pay-per-view movies on the flat-screen television (though the remote control doesn't work and requested assistance doesn't arrive) and wi-fi for $20 for 24 hours. (I learn by chance next morning that wi-fi is free in the hotel's public areas with the purchase of a drink or snack.)

The hotel is brilliantly located for gallery viewing, pub-hopping and grazing (Lord Nelson, Hero of Waterloo and Sailors Thai, in our case). But by the time we retire to our studio facing the pedestrian-only Nurses Walk, the revellers are merely warming up. Again, there appears to be little noise protection inside. Rubbish bins are dragged across the cobblestones at 1.30am and 4.30am. And just as I'm drifting into a deep sleep, staff begin setting up breakfast in the in-house Scarlett Restaurant, just beyond an open door from our room.

It's pointless trying to get back to sleep, but my spirits are buoyed by a good-quality breakfast served in the sandstone-warm, light-filled restaurant. For $30 a head ($20 if you commit and pay at check-in), there's bircher muesli, yoghurt, fruit, cold cuts, breads, filter coffee and hot dishes to order (eggs benedict, pancakes, omelets).

Fortified, I step into a brilliant Sunday morning. The best of Sydney - harbour and history - is just beyond.

Weekends Away are reviewed anonymously and paid for by Traveller.

Sydney Morning Herald