A tiny but ultra-cool retreat where guests are encouraged to buy any décor that takes their fancy is bringing a grown-up touch back to Sydney’s favourite vineyard region.
Unless you have toddlers, a scrawled doodle left on the wall isn’t something you’d expect in a $300-a-night hotel. But, far from being something I’m later informed of via a mysterious “cleaning charge” debit to my credit card, this unexpected graffito was a welcome surprise.
“Massage at 12 o’clock” read the note on the blackboard – with some sunflowers, an approximation of a green frog and what may have been a snake sketched around the letters (although with all the long grass around I kept this last guess a secret from my ophidiophobic wife). A reminder of the switch to daylight saving was added as an afterthought, nestling somewhere in the chalk-drawn nature scene.
Secret notes on walls and pre-emailed door entry codes are all part of the deal at Tonic, a collection of futuristic pods perched next to a pond about as far down the track in the Hunter Valley hamlet of Lovedale as it’s possible to go. Hotel California may be the place that pioneered checking out any time you like, but ultra laidback Tonic takes this to a new level. A midday massage in your own cabin is therefore blissfully free from the likelihood of frosty housekeeping staff interrupting to check the mini-bar.
There is a mini-bar, of course, but in laissez-faire style it’s on an honesty basis. Refills can be taken from the communal lounge cabin, the only place you’re likely to run into another soul. The fridge has a twist, however; between the de rigueur vintage Moët and the hotel’s eponymous mixer, there is food. A lot of food.
Rather than traipsing over to a canteen before 9.30am, gourmet breakfast is left for you to cook. Thus, an exquisite mushroom ragout and crisped bacon rashers need only be warmed (as per helpful instructions left in the fridge door) and served on toast (surely you can manage that on your own) one day, or you can scramble the eggs and add the smoked salmon, lime zest and shallots the next.
In other words, you need never leave your corrugated iron, glass and wood cabin. There are many reasons why you wouldn’t: each one is interior-designed to within an inch of its life, replete with risqué friezes, beds at jaunty angles and ironic stuffed toys. Music is handpicked to be the cool albums you meant to buy before you got too busy working, eating and sleeping.
Everything within is for sale and owner Nici Stanford sells so many artworks, sculptures and trinkets that she has to stock up twice a year on shopping trips to Bali, Melbourne and Sydney. “It helps keep the place fresh,” she says.
This is completely out of keeping with the area, however. The Hunter Valley is somewhere you go to interact with others, sample wine, linger over cheese and meet up with friends. It’s somewhere to drink too much at a restaurant and have to get a taxi back. It’s about slightly kitsch, homely guesthouses and tired hotels.
It need not be, explains Stanford, who moved here from Sydney six years ago after buying ten hectares. “The philosophy is just to be somewhere a bit groovy and cool.” she says. “It’s a grown-up hotel.” The fact that it happens to be in the Hunter is almost a coincidence, it seems. It’s a bonus, too, Stanford concedes, as occupancy for the six double cabins and sole two-bedder is approaching 100 percent most weekends. Midweek creative writing workshops and yoga classes are planned if weekends away aren’t your thing.
Tonic has its faults; the pool is small and walking around is best avoided, thanks to the aforementioned snakes in the otherwise wonderful native grasses. The help-yourself DVD library collection errs on the side of style over substance. Also, Stanford admits, a few people don’t get the self-cooking breakfast concept when paying 800 bucks for a weekend.
But these are small matters. Tonic does what it sets out to do: create a place of uninterrupted relaxation in opulent minimalism. So much so that you’ll probably feel compelled to add your own note on the wall back to Stanford when you leave. We did. And as the place bans all under-15s, we couldn’t blame the kids.
Where: Talga Rd, Lovedale, near Pokolbin in the Hunter Valley.
Best months to go: Avoid the oppressive heat in mid-summer. Lovedale long lunch, a progressive lunch around the township’s wineries takes place on May 17 and 18.
Cost: $395 per night per cabin. Two night minimum stay on weekends. $850 per night for two-bedroom apartment.
Phone: 02 4930 9999