Hotel Windsor: There's life in the old girl yet
Time-worn beauty ... a comfortable traditional room.
That grand bastion of elegance, the Windsor, deserves a spruce-up, writes Lindy Percival.
Like an elderly aunt who has inexplicably taken up some newfangled hobby, the Windsor Hotel has been on our minds lately. Melburnians collectively are a little concerned that the old girl's dignity might not survive a $260-million revamp designed to bring her into the bright, shiny glow of the 21st century.
The thing is, we love her just the way she is. A little faded, perhaps, and seemingly impervious to the changes that have swept past her Spring Street door, the Windsor has nevertheless always been there for us. She has welcomed the city's newly wedded, spoilt Melbourne's mums with her afternoon teas and looked the other way when we've rushed to sample the comforts of her more modern neighbours.
Iconic Hotel Windsor's new designs
The Windsor redevelopment, worth $260 million, will include a 25-storey tower adjoining the heritage-listed 1883 hotel.
But her best days, it seems, are behind her. Citing the need to "recreate the Windsor as one of the world's great hotels", owners the Halim Group and architects Denton Corker Marshall recently unveiled an ambitious redevelopment plan that includes bigger and more luxurious rooms, a 25-metre swimming pool, gymnasium and spas and updated function rooms.
The “Duchess of Spring Street” will be joined by two bold modern structures – a 92-metre rear “curtain” that will screen out some of her more unsightly neighbours and a funky-looking "floating" box that will replace an ugly 1960s annexe on the corner of Spring and Bourke streets.
Like the thousands of other Melburnians who have spent their wedding night here, we reserve a place in our hearts for this bastion of elegance. So it is with a certain heaviness of heart and a sense of nostalgia for something not yet gone that we step inside that glorious Victorian facade to find out how the old girl is faring. Initial impressions are reassuring, with a chirpy greeting from the splendidly outfitted doorman and a notice at reception declaring the hotel's heritage will be safeguarded during the coming renovations.
But it doesn't take long to see why the changes are needed. Inside one of the hotel's smaller, “traditional” rooms, the decor is looking tired. The muted blues and yellows are fading, wallpaper is curling at the edges and the carpet has seen better days. The skirting boards are scuffed and there's even a section of piping visible beneath the bathroom sink. Dark-timber furnishings and ornate drapes add to the room's sombre feel.
Wandering around the hotel's various hallways and landings, the sense of ageing grandeur is amplified. The famed grand staircase can't help but impress but the hallways appear barren and lifeless. The odd potted palm does its best to enliven things but on the whole the impression is of a grand old lady whose charms have faded. And while the Towers fitness centre boasts an unbeatable view that takes in Parliament House, St Patrick's Cathedral, the Treasury Gardens and the Dandenongs beyond, a handful of machines squeezed into two small rooms is hardly what most five-star gym junkies would expect.
On the plus side, the hotel still does most things incredibly well and the service is prompt and impressive. When reception is informed that only one bathrobe has been left in the room, a second appears in just over a minute. The queen-size bed is gloriously comfortable, with crisp cotton sheets and a cosy Doona. And after chuckling over the much-trumpeted 10-pillow menu – swapping jibes about who should request either the "anti-snore silent knight", or the line-reducing "caress massage pillow" – we decide the current fluffy offerings will do just fine.
A bottle of Chandon sparkling wine – part of the Melbourne Affair package that also includes buffet breakfast and valet parking – eases us into the spirit of Saturday-night indulgence as we order from the in-room dining menu.
Again the service impresses, with dinner arriving at precisely 7pm, as requested. The tasty food is delivered direct from the kitchens, with chips still crisp and salad crunchy, and is accompanied by elegant linen and silver cutlery.
The indulgence continues next morning during a sumptuous buffet breakfast, with fresh fruit and crunchy muesli through to scrambled eggs, sausages and hash browns. To sit by a window in the hotel's restaurant with the sun streaming in from Spring Street, emptying an endlessly refilled cup of tea and pondering whether to go for another serve of smoked salmon or move on to the pastries, is to experience a sense of just how grand the Windsor once was.
Built in 1883 by shipping magnate George Nipper and his architect, Charles Webb, the hotel has held her head high as owners have come and gone and as renovations have in turn hidden and then uncovered her glorious original features.
Hers is the history of Melbourne itself, its changing fortunes and fashions told in every page of her long and well-thumbed book – the decadent-looking Moorish Lounge that became the Christian Science room in the 1920s, the celebrities and politicians who have spent time beneath her towers, the demolition-crazed 1970s that saw the Windsor temporarily placed on Whelan the Wrecker's to-do list. Happily Melburnians still have a Windsor to worry over and after a night spent once again in her warm embrace, I walk away with a sense of renewed affection coupled with a surprising thrill of anticipation. Let's see what our favourite elderly aunt gets up to next.
Weekends Away are reviewed anonymously and paid for by Traveller.
The Windsor Hotel
Address 111 Spring Street, Melbourne.
Bookings 9633 6000, www.thehotelwindsor.com.au.
How much The Melbourne Affair package includes accommodation, buffet breakfast for two, a bottle of sparkling wine and valet parking for $290. Valid until December 31.
Summary A bigger, bolder and more luxurious Windsor is on the way but, for now, a night here is still one of the nicest ways to savour the marvellousness that was — and is — Melbourne.
The score: 19-20 excellent; 17-18 great; 15-16 good; 13-14 comfortable