Justin Wastnage inspects the long-awaited renovation of this Collins Street masterpiece that has artfully enclosed a classic Melbourne laneway, capturing it within a vast atrium of cool glass and warm steel.

Melbourne likes to think of itself as a bit cool. A bit European. And more than a bit above Sydney with its brash megabars and shiny temples to consumerism. So it was with some trepidation that I booked a room in the recently renovated Rialto hotel on Collins Street for a romantic weekend with my wife.

The publicity around the Joseph Pang-designed $60m overhaul, which saw the hotel close for 16 months as it swapped management from Le Méridien to InterContinental Hotels, talked of expanses of glass and steel; all very Sydney. Worryingly so.

The charm of the Rialto lay in its quintessentially Melbourne laneway feel, chiefly because the communal spaces were situated in Collins Lane, which served as access way between the Melbourne Wool Stores and its office building.

Yet it is the glass itself that absolutely makes the Rialto; the vast atrium that spans the laneway has been preserved largely intact as part of the renovations. The refurb has made better use of the openness and vertical space that a ten-storey glass ceiling affords. Natural light during the day is replaced by cool blue at night. Clean lines accentuate the long, narrow dimensions of the bar and restaurant area.

In truth, InterCon couldn’t have tampered with the atrium even if it wanted to. The two buildings that make up the present-day hotel were considered masterpieces even when the renowned St Kilda architect William Pitt finished them in 1891. TheFederalCoffeePalacethat completed Pitt’sCollins Streettrio was the city’s tallest building and a showcase for the neo-gothic style that became known as Marvellous Melbourne.

As the city tore down some of Pitt’s other works (including the Coffee Palace to make way eventually for Melbourne’s new tallest building, the Rialto Tower), the National Trust slapped a preservation order on the hotel and its faux-Venetian façades.

The grandeur of the building adds to a sense of style as we arrive, fresh from one of Melbourne’s modern architectural triumphs, Southern Cross Station onSpencer Street. Yet once inside, you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were in a boutique hotel.

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The hotel lobby, such that it is, is tucked away inside theWinfieldBuildingthat was once the wool board’s office complex. Here ceilings are low, the concierge and check-in counters manned by effusive staff in smart uniforms.

The delight of the atrium is instead held in reserve for when you arrive in your room, most of which look out onto the old wool store, its arched loading bays beautifully renovated to provide a mosaic view of brickwork from each wrought iron balustrade balcony. Well, they would if 21st Century health and safety regulations and the hotel’s air conditioning system did not conspire to keep the French doors to the balcony firmly shut.

The rooms are extremely pleasant; modern Eurochic bland rather than anything uniquely Melburnian. Fabrics on the walls soften the look and a couch breaks up the boxy room. Facilities are what you’d expect in a hotel in the centre of the CBD: desk with broadband access, a multitude of pay-TV options on the flat screen and a one-touch master switch for the lights. Curiously, the Bose CD clock radios that feature in every standard room fail to play CDs, which some would argue is a fairly major design flaw. A check with the hotel technician confirms that a last-minute cost-cutting measure ensured that 200 disc-less clock radios were ordered, much to his chagrin as the recipient of frequent bemused complaints.

InterContinental also copped some flak after the reopening for only having showers, rather than baths, in standard and deluxe rooms – a little unfairly, since this is not only what you’d expect in a business hotel, but the design of the shower, with two heads and a multitude of pressures and speeds, is far more entertaining than any tepid pool could ever be.Much is made of the rooftop pool/spa and its somewhat perfunctory gym, but in truth the pool suffers from its inherited pre-infinity design, which fails to make the most of its panoramic location. Instead, the standout point of the new hotel has to be its Bluestone bar.

In the original cobblestone laneway previously hidden in Le Méridien’s basement, the InterContinental Rialto has created a stark modernist bar in contrast to the cosy bars in neighbouring lanes. Surrounded in a cool wash of soft blue light from the near buildings, it has retained an intimate feel. Geeks will marvel at the Enomatic automatic wine dispenser that allows the bar to offer almost all of its wines by the glass, the first of its kind of the Italian design in Australia. So too will the cocktail set and whisky buffs, both of whom are well served.

Glass and marble may sound like a Sydney monstrosity, but the new Rialto shows just what the Southern Capital can make with theHarbourCity’s best ideas.


DETAILS // Standard rooms from $295, suites up to $1500. 495 Collins St, Melbourne. + 61 3 9620 9111 www.ichotelsgroup.com

* Like all AT reviewers, Justin visited the Rialto anonymously and paid his own way. He booked a room through Take-A-Break.com and the cheapest rate he could find was $378, but then again, it was Valentine’s weekend.

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