Sleek, modern, minimalist: it’s been called all these things. So Elisabeth Knowles is surprised to find that this hotel is one of the comfiest stays in Canberra.

I’m a bit confused by Hotel Realm, one of only two five-star stays in Canberra (the other is the Hyatt). Since it opened in 2008, some guests have criticised it for being too minimalist for its own good, possibly due to the use of ‘hard’ industrial finishes such as concrete and granite, and the lack of art in the foyer and rooms.

Until I finally got a chance to stay at Realm earlier this year, I was imagining something that resembled a Cold War bunker, like WikiLeaks’ Swedish HQ. Instead, I find a sophisticated, comfortable, mid-sized business hotel. There is even a bit of art after all: an immense mobile of red squares that hangs like bunting around a central atrium, bringing colour and drama to the vast foyer space.

Sure, there’s no traditional wall-hung art on display – but I don’t think pastel landscapes or moody city scenes would add to the already homely ambience in my room. It’s a Realm Room, the most affordable option, and it’s quite cosy enough, thanks to its king-size bed, fat mattress, plump cushions, soft throw rug, leather furniture, upholstered walls and sheer, white, light-amplifying curtains.

The decor is beautiful, the textures and colour scheme varied; hardly minimal. Besides, I don’t think any room that features padded walls could be called minimalist – unless, of course, it has no other furniture in it, and is located in an asylum.

Given that Realm is primarily a business hotel, its masculine, neutral colour scheme of rich brown, tan and charcoal is not surprising. But the decor is softened by lots of curves: oval designer bedside tables, a scooped easy chair, and rounded floor and desk lamps. Camel houndstooth wool carpet is soft underfoot. In the bathroom, golden brown glass mosaic tiles look sophistcated and expensive. Natural stone floor tiles are as nice to walk on as the bedroom carpet; not cold, and not slippery. I recommend not wearing the slide-in slippers.

In short, my room resembles a contemporary, interior-designed city studio apartment, but without a kitchenette. Which reminds me that I should have thought about food earlier, because when I go downstairs both the bar and restaurant are packed with Friday-night revellers. It’s a fun atmosphere, and one you don’t often find in hotels. It seems locals come here too.

Unable to secure myself a table, I head back to my room, order in-room dining and sit up in bed, watching pay-per-view movies and eating a tasty pizza calabrese – such a guilty pleasure! In fact, I’m so stuffed after eating the entire thing I can do nothing more but get out my notebook and write the rest of the article in point form:

Good stuff:
• Realm is within easy walking distance of Capital Hill, the NGA, National Portrait Gallery and lakefront. Next time I visit Canberra, I plan to hire a bike to do the circuit of Lake Burley Griffin.
• There’s a mass of free, good-quality toiletries on the vanity: shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, scrub, body lotion, shaving kit, shower cap, toothbrush, toothpaste, loofah and shoeshine.
• Internet connectivity is simple – ask reception for a wireless password and you’re set. At $10 for 24 hours, it’s relatively well priced – though I still don’t understand why hotel internet isn’t included in the room price, especially in a business hotel. To put it in perspective, the night before I’d paid a ridiculous $24.95 for 24-hour access at the otherwise pleasant Novotel.
• Complimentary Byron Bay Cookies. The best flavour, too – you know, the white chocolate and macadamia ones. Brilliant idea. Two thumbs up; two kilos on.
• Late check-out is standard: 11am.
• A special shout-out goes to the hairdryer – it’s powerful and actually dries hair reasonably fast, instead of making you stand there looking at yourself for half an hour like a doofus before you realise just willing it to happen won’t make your hair less wet.
• The breakfast. Typical continental offerings: yoghurts – passionfruit, berry or Greek – plus Bircher muesli, cereals, Danishes, muffins and croissants, range of toasting breads, juice and tea. Nothing unusual but a nice, comfortable sun-filled space in Konoba, which turns into a Mediterranean restaurant for lunch and dinner. Plenty of lounge-style patio seating available too, shared with the Ostani lounge bar next door, which has a tapas and pizza menu.

Bad stuff:
• There’s no obvious place to put your bag for unpacking. There’s a wide-bottomed armchair that could accommodate a carry-on business bag, but because it’s made of rather nice leather it best serves wide bottoms. You could put your case on the marble-topped console cabinet, but you might knock the LCD TV when you flip up the lid.
• Similar problem with where to put the kettle. The marble-topped console is too far from the powerpoint and I don’t like the idea of putting the kettle in the bathroom, so it sits on my desk, perilously close to my laptop (I’m a klutz).
• The full-length shower door opens outwards, leaving no space for the bath mat. You have to balance both your bath towel and the bath mat on the edge of the sink so they’re within reach when you get out.

Weird stuff:
• Each night, between midnight and 5am, the hotel doors are locked. You can enter between those times using your key, but it made me worry about who they want to keep out. Parliamentarians?
• In the information compendium, they note that: “Hotel Realm Rooms and Suites do not contain minibar items.” And yet, when I open a door in the TV cabinet, I find two tubes of Pringles, a bottle of 2008 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet, and a bar fridge with Kit Kats, Mars bars and soft drinks in it. And a price list.

THE AT Verdict

Elisabeth Knowles, who paid her own way and visited anonymously, says:
Hotel Realm has a nice, low-key ambience with a sophisticated edge. Despite all the talk of minimalism, I found the fit-out to be warm and cosy. Maybe it helped that I stayed in a cheaper, small room, because solo-travelling friends who’ve stayed in suites here have complained of feeling lost and alone, they’re so huge. In which case, I recommend saving yourself some money and going for the comfy Realm Room.

What’s the gossip?

“Channelling a minimalist, somewhat 1960s vibe in parts, the hotel foyer, in shades of dark grey complementing the gunmetal and silver exterior, relies on the glorious capturing of light by its architects for character.” Julietta Jameson, Sydney Morning Herald

The Details

18 National Circuit, Barton, ACT.
Notes Realm Rooms are priced from $235, which is what Elisabeth paid for a Friday-night stay. Being a business hotel, prices are higher midweek. The two-storey penthouse Terrace Suite, which has a gourmet kitchen and a large balcony with views to Parliament House, costs from $1225 per night.

(02) 6163 1800;

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