A night at the museum
I’m expecting good coffee and plenty of wind — this is Wellington after all — but not a life-size bull, fashioned from corn-beef cans, loitering in the lobby of my downtown digs.
A work by New Zealand artist Michael Tuffery, the muscular creature nattily doubles as a barbecue and is part of a large collection of contemporary art amassed over a quarter of a century by Wellington business identity Chris Parkin, who’s crammed the lot — limited edition motorbikes, a gun in resin, vast canvases — into a popular hotel near the city’s waterfront.
A January rebranding as the QT Museum Wellington is just the latest instalment in a lively story that began with Parkin moving the entire building on rails to its present Cable Street locale, “setting a land speed record for hotels”. Evolving from budget digs to informal art gallery and five-star hideaway, the former Museum Art Hotel was a well-loved institution popular with film director Peter Jackson’s “Wellywood” cronies. The moody billiard room with opium-den vibe and resident French restaurant Hippopotamus remain firm fixtures on the city’s social scene.
Parkin is the first to admit his eccentric art collection was displayed in a slightly higgledy-piggledy fashion. Enter QT Hotels and Resorts’ expert curatorial team.
The now beautifully hung, dark and moody gallery/ lobby forms part of a $12 million makeover by QT following the purchase of the hotel a couple of years ago. Staff uniforms have been jettisoned in favour of “costumes” by Broadway designer Janet Hine and all 63 guestrooms have had the QT treatment, decked out with groovy light fittings, super-comfy signature gel beds, coffee machines and quirky minibars stocked with local goodies.
It was no accident QT chose this particular hotel to launch its international portfolio. Parkin, who still lives in an apartment in the hotel, enthusiastically courted the group, going so far as to begin redecorating in QT style. “We identified QT very early on as the only brand that fitted with what were doing,” he says.
Pick of the guestrooms are the “harbour view” rooms with good size balconies cuffed with living walls of green and views across the water to distant forested hillsides. Inside, grey-flecked carpet echoes the steely skies; supersmart, grey-tiled bathrooms feature double showers (some with tubs) kitted out with Evo unguents.
But this moody, urban palette gets short shrift in Hip- popotamus, the unchanged third-floor bar and restaurant headed by French-born chef Laurent Loudeac. A lush, salon-style room with stuffed peacocks and chairs in myriad colours and textures from trippy 70s velvet to sparkly leather, the look is best described as French baroque meets 60s lounge. There’s a great cocktail list, crepes suzette made at the table with attendant flame and theatricality and an award-winning afternoon tea served in dainty Royal Albert.
The French-influenced menu features the best New Zealand produce; try the plump oysters, signature salmon sashimi and wild venison.
As an alternative to this fancy fine dining, QT is building an outpost of its recently opened Melbourne based Hot Sauce, a Korean/Japanese street food mashup.
Located across the road from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the hotel has forged strong links with this national institution and makes available a truly marvellous behind-the-scenes tour. Our small group is guided deep into the vaults to view a selection of the thousands of Maori treasures housed here including feathered cloaks, weaponry and rare musical instru-
ments. These vaults are not just a storage facility, rather a spiritual repository and generally the exclusive preserve of curators and elders, so it’s a rare privilege to be here and every tour begins and ends with a blessing. (Book through the hotel.)
For further sightseeing options I’m taking my cue from the zany minibar where I’ve just scoffed an entire block of salted brittle caramel chocolate handcrafted at the nearby Wellington Chocolate Factory.
A 10-minute stroll and I’m perched at a high table in HQ downing a superior hot chocolate while enjoying a mini master class led by a handsome young chocolatier. This is a fair-trade, hipster kind of joint where the labels are by local artists, discarded cacao bean husks are mulched by the Botanic Gardens and the tiny factory’s crew is so committed to being carbon neutral they sailed to Bougainville and back to collect the beans, before cycling them to the factory from the wharf.
How very Wellington, a city custom-made for the fashion-forward QT.
Christine McCabe was a guest of QT Museum Wellington.
Art adorns the walls of QT Museum Wellington, top; groovy Hippopotamus restaurant, centre; comfortable guestroom, above left; hotel exterior, above right