Capella Sydney is set to open this week, and it aims to remind its guests about the history of Australia’s indigenous people.
For many travellers who visit Sydney, it is often the beautiful beaches, kangaroos and koalas, famous landmarks, and delicious cuisine that entice them. In fact, you could easily go to the Australian city, best known for the Sydney Opera House and Bondi Beach, and not engage with its Indigenous culture. But one new hotel in the land down under is making sure every visitor learns about Sydney’s Indigenous roots.
The Capella Sydney, slated to open March 15, celebrates the heritage of Australia’s First Nations in a meaningful way. (Australia is home to 500 Indigenous groups or “nations” that are collectively recognised as the First Nations.) The 192-room hotel — the first Capella Hotels and Resorts property outside Asia — sits in the Sandstone Precinct, just minutes from the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was originally inhabited by the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, who were the First Australian custodians of the land.
The hotel’s historic sandstone building first served as the headquarters of the New South Wales Department of Education and was later expanded in 1930 to house the Department of Agriculture. And Capella Sydney’s long-awaited debut raises the bar when it comes to high-end hospitality committing to honouring Indigenous culture. That’s thanks, in part, to the generous wisdom of Aboriginal collaborators.
Take elder Aunty Margret Campbell: The 73-year-old founder of walkabout tour company Dreamtime Southern X is a partner in First Australian programming at Capella Sydney. Her roots in this very building run deep. Campbell worked in the building in the ’70s as a teacher and Aboriginal education advocate. She told Travel + Leisure that the landmark Aboriginal Education Policy released in 1982 was conceived in the building, which she jokingly called “that yellow sandstone cave” back in the day. (The policy improved educational opportunities for Indigenous students and prioritized educating all students about Aboriginal Australia.)
“All that energy, that’s why it’s gonna be great here [at the hotel],” Campbell said. “You can’t stop the lifeblood flow. You can’t make a change to the natural governance of those custodians that danced it into creation.”
Here’s a look inside the new luxury hotel opening in Sydney, Australia
Meaningful connection is truly at the heart of the hotel and is offered in a multitude of ways. There are the “Capella Rituals” in the hotel’s so-called Living Room — a guest lounge that is a staple at every Capella property. The space is home to 10 culturalists: In Capella-speak, a “culturalists” is a hybrid in-house guide and locally embedded concierge.
The Living Room hosts an “Echoes of Eternity” spotlight every evening. Along with sharing stories of local folk heroes, guests can enjoy a signature cocktail inspired by the subject of the evening. In my case, I learned about Arthur Stace, known locally as “Mr. Eternity” for anonymously graffitiing the word “eternity” around Sydney for 30 years. I took in the fascinating history while sipping the Eternity — an earthy-tropical cocktail made with Mr. Black and Starward whiskey coffee liqueur, macadamia nuts, passion fruit, and coconut, and strained through foraged herbs.
Complimentary programming at the hotel includes Campbell’s rotating Aboriginal experiences (think: Q&As, tastings, and performances); storytelling with history expert Max Burns-McRuvie; and a guided Saturday experience at Carriageworks Farmers Market where guests meet producers and makers while discovering native ingredients. Guests can also purchase experiences like a personalised day on the harbour in a restored sailboat with a cooking class or picnic, or a wine tasting on Shark Island. There is even kids’ programming and adorable amenities (such as starlit tent setups and a night sky projector) that my toddler was treated to in our room.
Capella Sydney has three drinking and dining destinations: Brasserie 1930, McRae Bar, and Aperture. Brasserie 1930 offers modern takes on brasserie classics made with local produce. McRae Bar — named after the building’s original architect, George McRae — is, as the name suggests, the hotel’s bar. Aperture is an all-day dining and afternoon tea spot featuring a 23-foot green wall. It’s in the courtyard, which also has a kinetic floral installation by Studio Drift. Under the soaring glass ceiling are 19 dangling oversized gossamer flowers — opening and closing in breath-like bursts.
During my stay, it wasn’t rare for a glass of Australian wine or a dish to prompt a story from the engaging staff. Tale or no tale, every culinary creation felt original. At Brasserie 1930, I feasted on glazed quail on whipped feta that tingled my tastebuds, silky coral trout with black olive dust and leek, and truffley crumpet eggs Benedict. You can also get spanner crab, whole roasted duck, or a 21-ounce Coppertree Farms rib-eye steak to share.
At McRae Bar, I sampled the dry “McRae-ini” that is meant to shake up the status quo in a martini-obsessed city with a combination of Four Pillars gin and a sherry-style wine from Adelaide, served with house-made pickles. The bar, which is enveloped in the swirling murals of popular Aboriginal artist Otis Hope Carey, focuses on local artisanal labels.
The hotel is also a feast for the eyes. Upon passing the double doors and entering the marble foyer, it’s impossible not to notice four storytelling panels on the building’s restored brass directory boards. The pieces, created by Australian Waanyi artist Judy Watson, tell the story of the first contact between Europeans and Indigenous people. (Singapore-based art consultants, The Artling, curated and commissioned 1,500 pieces of art from some 65 Australian artists, which weave throughout the property, setting a soulful tone.)
In addition to standard guest rooms, Capella Sydney offers three tiers of suites: Deluxe, Skyline, and Prestige. All three come with a separate living area, a deep soaking tub, double vanities, and a rain shower.
The curved-glass corner suite I stayed in was both elegant and spacious, yet endlessly cosy. There are black-and-white images of the neighbourhood, a wine fridge, and a craving-satisfying minibar that features Archie Rose whiskey and Young Henry’s Sandstone lager — both locally made just for the hotel.
Even the stone-clad bathrooms were appealing places to spend time, with velvety Frette bathrobes, smart toilets, soaking tubs, and spacious showers with bottles of custom toiletries made from seaweed to not pollute waterways or the ocean. Attention to detail at the zero-plastic hotel is thorough.
The original building’s top-floor art gallery now houses a wellness space with a 65-foot-long indoor pool that sits under copper-clad glazed roof lanterns. A heated pool with jetted massage beds plus an accessible experience shower (which has multicoloured lights and jets) occupies the dramatic space. Next door, the 24-hour light-drenched gym features a living green wall of native flora.
Capella Sydney also has a spa exclusively open to the hotel’s guests: Auriga Spa. It offers moon-inspired journeys timed to the full and new moons plus Connect to Country — a treatment that harnesses Indigenous knowledge using gathered Australian stones (with permission) plus a clapping stick ritual to realign the body, mind, and spirit. Guests with further interest in Aboriginal wellness can speak to elders who Campbell brings in for special sessions. And staying true to the hotel’s effort to honour the original space, the oak floors of the spa are restored and reused from the original building’s ground floor.
If there’s one takeaway Campbell hopes guests leave with, it’s that “they connect with the heartbeats of their landscape, their homeland.” She adds: “When we activate it in them from here, they’ll go back home and say, ‘I’m gonna go see where I was born and what that story is in the landscape.'”
Capella Sydney opens on March 15. Rooms start at USD 750 (INR 61,766 – at the time of writing) a night, and you can book at www.capellahotels.com.
Main and Feature Image Credit: Timothy Kaye
This story first appeared on Travel + Leisure India