Thoughtful travelling

Sydney’s alternative side gives a weekend away the feel-good factor.

Sydney, to me, has always seemed like a party town; a kindred spirit with Dubai or Malibu, a place for cocktails, sunshine and pure fun. But deep in The Rocks, the harbourside area sandwiched between the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, sits the Holiday Inn Old Sydney offering a rare combination of heritage, social responsibility and chic.

“This site was a dairy farm, a catholic mission and a petrol station, before it was turned into a hotel in 1983,” says Jenny Quinn, business development director, who meets me at check-in. She is also keen to reference the land’s original owners, the Cadigal, the aboriginal people who were the first to live in close contact with the European settlers. “Holiday Inn acquired the hotel in 2000, and as it’s a listed heritage building we’ve had to be very respectful with the way we treat it.”

You won’t find the lurid green neon most associated with Holiday Inn here. A brass nameplate sits out front and inside the cavernous reception area you can enjoy an internal view of the full eight storeys, with its exposed brickwork and muted colours. 

“It’s a lot of maintenance, and it made sense to build in other contingencies,” Quinn says, noting that their electricity consumption is on average 57 per cent less compared to other hotels of the same size, and water consumption is 38 per cent less. “Our recycling rate is 93 per cent – it’s very important to us.”

In fact, parent company IHG, who own hotel brands such as Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and InterContinental, have an established programme of implementing environmental sustainability measures when refitting or retrofitting their hotels – one of the many big companies realising that looking after the planet also looks after their pocket book. This runs in tandem with an intensive programme of corporate social responsibility in the shape of the IHG Academy, designed to help people gain the skills they need to become more employable in the hotel industry, and a disaster relief fund financed by staff globally to help colleagues and local communities in times of need – Fiji was a recent recipient of help. 

It’s great that you can be a conscious consumer and still enjoy luxury – the days of gratuitous extravagance are surely numbered. 

Round about The Rocks

The careful maintenance and thoughtful splendour of the hotel matches a pattern in the area. An important space historically, The Rocks has seen a rapid regeneration in recent years making it not just a great spot for tourists, but a place that offers a supportive community for locals, particularly artisans, foodies and creatives.

Behind the hotel, Mill Lane and Playfair Street are host to a variety of eateries and galleries, while Jack Mundey Place is home to the Friday Foodie Market, where we find a quick spot of breakfast to accompany our expertly made macadamia milk flat whites from the Playfair Café. We drift in and out of shops and find ourselves talking to Graham Atwell, owner of the Atty Gallery.

“I only opened in October,” says Atwell, who used to be apolice officer in London’s anti-terrorism squad before moving to Australia. He was keen to change the pace and began creating beautiful, colourful, modern screen prints of animals.

“My youngest customer was 9 years old. He bought a print for his bedroom and agreed a repayment rate with his mum, interest free over two years,” Atwell smiles. “My oldest customer was in her 80s. It’s been phenomenal. I started as a pop-up but I’ve just taken up the lease permanently.”

Atwell’s art isn’t the usual touristy affair, and he finds people making their way to his gallery deliberately, having heard about him from friends or seen him online. This is the nature of The Rocks – once a place where tourists could gawp at the old gaols and ‘Ten Pound Poms’ could marvel at their adopted country’s roots, it’s now become a destination for those interested in style, culture and history. 

In The Rocks Discovery Museum, we find a well-curated and beautifully presented series of exhibitions about the Cadigal people, the early European settlers, the murky stories about the ‘criminals’ sent over by the British Empire and even discovered some Māori history – there was a group of Māori whalers who lived in Sydney and traded with the Europeans. Wearing traditional feathered korowai and with full facial ta moko, they were as much of a curiosity to the Europeans as their wares. 

Handmade highlights

As the afternoon cools we enjoy some time in the hotel’s fabulous rooftop pool. Later that evening we take a train to St James, where we find a beautiful garden restaurant, Bodhi, serving an all-vegan pan-Asian menu under the stars.

Saturday couldn’t drift by without a visit to the infamous Rocks weekend markets, and it really is a sight to behold. We find handmade goods galore, from paper models of the Sydney Opera House to handstitched bow ties for cats. My favourite, though, is AHW Studio, who make industrial- and steampunk-inspired jewellery from reclaimed analogue watch parts and know the story behind each piece. In a similar vein, Pulseiras offer beautifully printed bangles made from recycled wood, while Argyle Glass offer hand-blown creations made in the traditional way before your eyes. Live music, local produce and a view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge complete the scene.

In the afternoon we take the mandatory stroll around the Sydney Opera House with an ice cream from Messina, a gelato place with more than 40 handmade flavours, 10 of which are dairy- and egg-free. 

Sunday is, of course, a day of rest, so it’s a good excuse to get myself down to Endota spa for a long-awaited facial. The first Endota spa was opened in 2000 by Melanie Gleeson – they now have a network of 90, the largest spa company in Australia and 100 per cent founded by women. The name is an indigenous word meaning beautiful, and Gleeson wanted to encourage women – who so often put the needs of others first – to invest some time in ‘becoming their best me’. All their spas are designed to offer a feeling of freedom, a calming space where you are greeted with tea and a signature scent to start you off on a sensory journey. 

After enjoying a signature Endota organic facial, a nourishing and relaxing skincare treatment made from certified organic native Australian ingredients, I find another sanctuary in the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Overlooking the harbour, it has occupied its art-deco building since 1991. I enjoy some quiet reflection in a Tatsuo Miyajima installation, a beautiful collection of visual pieces using light and numbers. I then make my way downstairs to the slightly more interactive collection, where sound and video are stimulated by audience presence. 

Ten years ago, when I first visited Sydney, it was all fast food, big drinks and late nights. Retrospectively, I think I missed out. This new face of Sydney – the culturally sensitive, locally produced and conscious face – is one I much prefer and is increasingly becoming the norm for this bustling eclectic city. A city that moves fast, but certainly has its feet firmly on the ground.

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