With a sterling reputation as a luxury French hotel, Melbourne’s Sofitel on Collins has nothing to prove… but a whole lot to live up to, writes Georgia Rickard

Last year, the Ritz-Carlton on Florida’s Amelia Island made headlines when a holidaying American family, upon returning home, discovered that their son had left behind his beloved stuffed giraffe, Joshie, in their hotel suite. Faced with a tearful child, the parents assured their son that Joshie was merely taking an ‘extra long vacation’ at the resort and would be home soon.

As it turned out Joshie did return home shortly afterwards; but he didn’t come alone. The Ritz-Carlton staff, who’d gotten wind of the parents’ white lie, also sent a folder of pictures detailing exactly what Joshie had gotten up to on his holiday: driving a golf buggy, lounging by the pool, having a massage at the spa, socialising with other stuffed toys…

A nice story? Sure. But as US commentator Carolyn McLean Robbins pointed out, it’s also “a great example of a luxury brand proving why people would want to pay extra to stay in a hotel of this class.” In a world of cost-cutting and discount room rates, true five-star hotels are a rarity. Some might even argue that they never made it to Australia. After all, we’ve never been privy to the centuries-old opulence of Europe or Asia; nor have we a US-sized economy.

Among the few hotels on this continent considered genuine luxury, however, Melbourne’s Sofitel on Collins is arguably one of them. Or so the experts say. UK publication The Telegraph declared it an “international five-star” hotel; the kind, they wrote, that delivers “that sense of occasion you expect in a big five-star hotel”. AT’s own Travel Treasure Ita Buttrose decreed it her favourite Australian hotel earlier this year. The chain’s French heritage and solid financial backing from hotel juggernaut Accor don’t hurt its credentials, either.

And, first impressions are relatively in line with its reputation. The exterior is not new, nor particularly flashy, but it’s grand in a conservative, well-maintained manner: manicured gardens, crisply attentive bellboys in head-to-toe black, a giant glass atrium overhead. The conservatism continues inside, both in terms of the reception – groomed, polished, efficient – and the styling of my Junior Suite, a corner room on the 45th floor. If some hotels are designed with naught but showmanship in mind, this is the delightful opposite.

It doesn’t feel like Ken Done threw a party here; there are no trendy paintings on the walls, no plastic. A combination of cream, solid furnishings and dark wood feels masculine and plush, as if a French businessman came here, arranged the hotel to his tastes, then quietly left. Indeed, the most spectacular sight is the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows, which wrap around half the suite and look out to Melbourne’s MCG, gardens and beyond. Mais bien sur.

Treatment of the views elsewhere, however, is decidedly Italian. Onsite restaurant No. 35 (on the 35th floor) might be styled in the manner of an opulent French bistro, but is totally eclipsed by the twinkling city lights, which are framed by sky-high glass with all the exuberance and flashiness of a Dolce & Gabbana show. A floating hot air balloon cheekily drifting by the window is the perfect touch. I order a second glass of Billecart ($25).

As befits a traditional five-star hotel, a major pillar of Sofitel excellence stems from service and in this, the hotel is almost faultless. Reception, if perhaps a little more formal than Australians are accustomed to, is warm and polite. Room service is quietly efficient. After dinner back in-suite, I’m greeted by name by the gentleman who clears my empty plates, at which stage I’m also willing to concede points for the surprisingly good in-room food.

It could be the ‘09 Katnook cab sauv’ I’ve raided from the mini bar, but my pumpkin gnocchi, which comes pan-fried with mushrooms and a delightfully rich Napoli sauce, is almost excellent.

And then there is the bed. The MyBed, actually; a ‘Sofitel experience’ which includes a trademarked mattress, base and featherbed and has me far too relaxed to consider ordering a specific pillow from the complementing menu. For all the excitement of staying in a trendy, novel hotel, it’s nice to come back to blue chip comfort.

There are some minor gripes. My room is filled with lovely, solid furnishings, but signs of scuffing can be seen by those who care to look. Fittings are high quality, but no longer the style á la mode. Each of my eight windows is encased by wooden shutters, which would have cost a fortune to build – but next to the modern luxury of computerised blinds, they feel a little dated (and are a pain to open and close each morning and night). And herein lies the double-edged sword faced by every hotel that invests in quality: things last longer.

Still, these are forgivable complaints. As any self-respecting Frenchman could tell you, you can’t go wrong with good bone structure, and in this the Sofitel has the goods in spades. Location, service, food and comfort, with a serve of lovely, old-world style. Perhaps five-star made it here after all.

The Details

The verdict
Forget gimmicks or trends, this is a hotel that sticks to what it knows: the five-star formula. Style and substance.

The score
16.5; great, near excellent

We rated
The complimentary iced water and bread basket with room service, the excellent service and the views.

We hated
The dated building and attached shopping centre.

Where
The top 16 floors of the Telstra Tower, Collins Place; 25 Collins Street, Melbourne

Contact
03 9653 0000; sofitel-melbourne.com

The AT scoring system
Our review scores are based on a series of points, awarded across a number of categories including service, amenities, design, location, value, food and beverage offerings, and that elusive wow factor.
19-20 exceptional; 17-18 excellent; 15-16 great; 13-14 good; 11-12 satisfactory. Bias-free: All AT reviews are conducted anonymously, and our writers pay their own way – so we experience exactly what you would.

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