Thursday 24 October 2013

Paying the Piper: Is Australia's First Tune Hotel Worth the Price?

At the risk of sounding trite, I want to suggest there are two types of traveller - those who spend a lot of time in their hotel room and care about its comfort and decor, and others who don't give a damn as long as the room is cheap and there's a clean bed.

I'm the second type.

On my first trip to London with my wife in 1990, I chose a pokey, joyless tourist hotel near Russell Square, where the only tip you felt inclined to give the gloomy staff was "Cheer up, it might never happen."

And during the recent AGM of the Australian Society of Travel Writers, held at the Gold Coast's extravagant Palazzo Versace, I stayed at a YHA hostel 200 metres down the road and walked between the two in my suit for the formal evening events.

Tune Hotel, Melbourne
In tune

If you're on the same wavelength as me, Tony Fernandes thinks he has your number.

The Malaysian businessman founded budget airline AirAsia. Following the lead of Ireland's Ryanair and the American Southwest Airlines, it made a success of selling cheap seats topped up with a variety of nominally optional charges.

Fernandes later applied the budget airline formula to a hotel chain, Tune Hotels, which now has numerous properties across South-East Asia and the UK, as well as footholds in Japan and India.

The basic offer of a Tune Hotel is a simple room with a low tariff, the guest able to add extra options for a fee. Each (squeezy) room includes a bed and what the chain likes to call a "power shower".

In Tunes Hotels in Asia you generally pay extra for airconditioning, TV, wifi, towels and toiletries; in Western countries the aircon is standard but the other options are in play.

We're about to find out if this airline-sourced model will fly here, as Australia's first Tune Hotel opened earlier this week in Melbourne's inner-city suburb Carlton.

With access to a tram line and within walking distance of the city centre, it looks on the face of it similar to the London Tunes - close to public transport though not in the heart of the city.

Room interior, Tune Hotel Melbourne
Tune test

So far, so good. But will Australians see Tune's "tariff plus extras" approach as a reasonable way to score a cheap hotel room, or a sneaky means of quoting an unrealistically low price which which becomes unavoidably more expensive?

As a test, in mid-October I dummied up a booking on the Tune website for a Wednesday in late November, after the Melbourne Cup Carnival but before school holidays. I was offered a double room for $85.

Clicking through, I found these optional extras: $2.20 per person for towel rent and toiletries, $4.40 for 24 hours of Foxtel TV, and $6.60 for 24 hours of wifi access per person. There were also options for early check-in and late-check-out, each covering both guests for a single charge of $22.

I know what my other half and I would choose if we were visiting Melbourne as an interstate destination: two lots of towels and toiletries (when would you ever bother packing these?), and two serves of wifi. Television we could live without. I hardly ever switch the set on when travelling, and there's plenty of interesting stuff to watch on our iPads.

If we were paying for the room and two lots of towels, toiletries and wifi, that'd be a grand total of $102.60 for our November night in Carlton.

But wait! An alternative choice is a Comfort Package of $11 per person combining all three options. That'd add up to $107 with the room rate. Without TV, therefore, we'd still be better off going a la carte.

Reception area, Tune Hotel Melbourne
Tunes may vary

But would we be better off overall? I consulted the sites of three inexpensive central Melbourne hotels (City Garden, Ibis Budget and Causeway Inn) with compact rooms for the same November night, to try to match type if not precise location.

At first glance they seemed competitive, with an average rate of $97.70 including towels, toiletries and TV. The cheapest (Ibis Budget) was in fact $71.10, significantly less expensive than Tune and with more amenities.

Where they fell down, however, was by offering sky-high Internet access. For 24 hours, one hotel charged $20 and another $24.95. The Ibis Budget threw away its lead by offering Internet access at an astronomical $20 per three hours.

So it comes down to personal preference. If you see Internet access as an essential, Tune stands out. If you can do without wifi, there are competitive choices which don't involve paying a fee for a towel.

Time will tell if the Tune Hotels model works in Australia. Personally, I've never minded Ryanair's way of doing things; I once flew from London to Poland for a penny plus taxes.

If nothing else, Tune's reasonable Internet rate may finally force down the insanely high price of Australian hotel wifi. We can only hope.

Details of the Tune Hotel Melbourne can be found at the Tune website.

Friday 18 October 2013

The Bed Report 5: Vibe Hotel Gold Coast Accommodation Review

On my way from Gold Coast Airport to Surfers Paradise on a local bus last week, I passed under a monorail that linked a casino to shopping and dining attractions.

Though on a smaller scale, it reminded me immediately of the monorail linking several casinos in Las Vegas, which I'd seen in action earlier in the year.

It was a reminder - if I needed one - that the Gold Coast is Australia's answer to the attractions of Vegas.

It's not that similar of course - the Gold Coast is less overtly given to insane architecture and in-your-face vice. But there are some parallels between the big-ticket extravaganzas and plentiful partying options of the two places.

So was I going to get that wild party-town gambling-spree vibe at Vibe? Well no, as it turned out, and that was all to the good. On the western edge of the nightlife hub that is central Surfers, it was a peaceful haven to retreat to at the end of a day out.

The Vibe chain makes a virtue of necessity, in that it takes old accommodation buildings and refreshes them via its vaguely retro decor. This works quite well, as I remarked of the Vibe Hotel Sydney in a previous review.

In Vibe stays in Sydney and Melbourne, I'd noticed the chain's preference for lime green. Here in Surfers however, the dominant shade was aquamarine, perhaps a nod to the nearby Pacific Ocean:

There were also splashes of the colour here and there through the room, along with some burnt orange cushions and a spot of abstract art:

The other blue-green that could be seen was best viewed from here, my 20th floor balcony:

As far as comfort levels go, the room was spacious and full of natural light, though the bathroom was relatively small.

I did arch an eyebrow at the pricing for the mini-bar. Some items were priced perfectly reasonably, eg orange juice for $3; others were quite ambitious, ie a bag of jelly snakes for $7.50 (an item which, curiously, you could buy for half the price at the hotel's own vending machine on the ground floor).

Also, wifi access was only available on the ground floor, and was only free for 30 minutes before charges applied.

In the evening I headed poolside, where the bar served food. It was very reasonably priced (eg fish and chips $12), and I scored a chicken parma and beer for a happy hour special price of $15. The parma was made without ham, which seemed to me as odd as a capricciosa pizza missing anchovies, but otherwise it was good, straightforward bar food.

And the setting, as you can see, was very pleasant indeed:

Just the Facts:
Vibe Hotel Gold Coast
42 Ferny Ave, Surfers Paradise QLD 4217, Australia
Phone: 07 5539 0444 (International +61 7 5539 0444)
Rates: From $120 per night

Disclosure time... for this stay I was hosted by the Toga Group. To read previous accommodation reviews, click on The Bed Report label below.

Friday 11 October 2013

History on the Gold Coast

I suspect the title of this post is causing a few raised eyebrows in Australia.

The Gold Coast, stretching north-south along the Queensland coast south of Brisbane, is a relatively new entity, having grown out of several seaside towns which merged into one big conglomerate over decades.

So, it being fairly young, "history" isn't the first thing you think of when you hear the city's name mentioned.

On top of that, the place is known for something else - a hedonistic offering of beaches, dining, shopping and nightlife. So again, we're not thinking history.

Queensland in the postwar decades was also notorious for being pro-development, to the point of bulldozing attractive historic buildings in the middle of the night.

So I'm wasn't sure what there'd be left to see when I took a historical walk in Southport, one of the Gold Coast's key business-orientated suburbs and an early seaside destination for weary 19th century Brisbanites.

When I have some time to spare in an Australian regional destination, I like to see if there's a self-guided walking tour available online. This time I found the Southport Heritage Walk, outlined in a slick PDF produced by Gold Coast Heritage.

It directs the user around downtown Southport, pointing out both existing historic buildings and several which have disappeared.

I have to say, it was more challenging to follow than expected. For a start, there was this going on, the building of the Gold Coast's (much-needed) first tram line:

But with a bit of weaving and dodging, I managed to get around the trackworks and have a look at what history remained under the gaudy veneer of modern commerce.

One of the gems still in place was Cecil's Hotel - and note the clever subscript to Cecil's name added by the business currently in the premises:

Across Nerang Street on the other side of what will be a major tram stop were two extant gems.

The first was the former Southport Town Hall, a marvellous piece or Art Deco architecture which has survived all the Gold Coast changes since 1935:

Next door was the former Southport Ambulance Centre, home to an ambulance service serving the Gold Coast from 1919. The building itself was opened in 1922 - check out the Maltese Crosses on the facade:

And within the building I found brand-new cafe Percy's Corner, thanks to the Beanhunter app.

Not only did the decor have a vintage touch that fitted well with the building's history, but the cafe had been named after Percy Raby, the first superintendent of the centre:

You'll note that the barista was sporting a vintage moustache, always a good sign when looking for a decent cafe in urban Australia. In apparent deference to the Gold Coast, however, beneath that black T-shirt he had on a pair of colourful Hawaiian shorts.

There was plenty more to see on the PDF but it was a hot day and the trackworks were hindering navigation, so I looped around to Scarborough Street to find the attractive Southport Catholic Church:

... and finished up in a nondescript stretch of street next to where the Southport Railway Station had stood until the train service from Brisbane was cancelled in the 1960s.

As I stood pondering the abandonment of rail 50 years ago and its noisy reestablishment just around the corner today, I glanced at the shops and the towers beyond. Their facades represented a lively mix of eras. There couldn't be a better illustration of the ever-changing look of the Gold Coast:

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of TravMedia and the Vibe Hotel Gold Coast.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

The Bed Report 4: Parkroyal Melbourne Airport Accommodation Review

There's something different about airport hotels.

Well, that's obvious. They're more likely than most hotels to have guests only staying one night, or maybe only a few hours. They're likely to have a lot of guests travelling on business. Oh, and there are these whacking great planes touching down nearby.

I'm off to the Gold Coast tomorrow for the annual general meeting of the Australian Society of Travel Writers, and am staying over at the Parkroyal Melbourne Airport before I fly.

Being a cheapskate at heart, I got here from central Melbourne by catching a train to Broadmeadows and then a 901 bus to the airport - a method I've described earlier on this blog.

It's a sunny day, so it was a pleasant walk to the hotel - and as I walked it seemed odd to not be feeling the slight tension that's usually present when arriving at MEL pending a flight.

Just across from the terminal buildings, the Parkroyal fits neatly into its surroundings, with a glass and steel look that resembles something out of a futuristic movie. I particularly like the way the hotel is set up high on struts above the airport parking:

One catches the lift up to level 4, where reception is. To one side is the restaurant and bar area, looking to my eye like a reasonably classy airline lounge:

The guest rooms, however, is where the airport decor analogy begins to break down.

The designers cleverly thought to overcome the glass-and-steel nature of airports with a generous dose of timber panelling, giving my room a vaguely Scandinavian look. Still clean, simple lines, but with a natural element as well:

I've also been pleasantly surprised by the bathroom. Instead of the usual austere all-white interior, the designers have gone wild with this aquamarine look:

And then, of course, there's the view from high above the terminal buildings, looking out onto the runways. This cannot be said to be your generic hotel view, with planes continually taxiing, taking off and landing.

You'd expect there to be noise, but the soundproofing is excellent. There's just a distant rumble as aircraft take off.

Given that the street outside my apartment in central Melbourne is currently having its tram tracks torn up and rebuilt over a series of nights, this is, oddly, the quieter place to be. And you can't fault that view. Looking forward to getting up there tomorrow.

Just the Facts:
Parkroyal Melbourne Airport
Arrival Drive, Melbourne Airport VIC 3045, Australia
Phone: 03 8347 2000 (International +61 3 8347 2000)
Rates: From $250 per night. Note the hotel offers flexible stays of three hours ($70); five hours ($90) and eight hours ($120); handy if you have a number of hours to while away between connecting flights, or have an evening flight and fancy getting your holiday off to an early start by putting your feet up at a hotel. A cheaper alternative is the use of the hotel's fitness centre for $30 (forget the treadmill - here I'm thinking 24 hour flight from London + desperate need for a shower ASAP).

Disclosure time... for this stay I was hosted by the Pan Pacific Hotels Group. To read previous accommodation reviews, click on The Bed Report label below.

Thursday 3 October 2013

All You Need: Ringo Starr at LA Live

On my last day in Los Angeles in June, I was awaiting one of those evening flights which leave you wondering what to do with the rest of the day.

I didn't feel like travelling far from my accommodation, the strange but marvellous Figueroa Hotel, so I was at something of a loose end.

Luckily, the hotel was right next to LA Live, a sprawling, relatively new entertainment complex containing music and theatre venues, along with restaurants and big outdoor screens.

It also contained the Grammy Museum, and I was pleased to note that the latest exhibition, Ringo: Peace & Love, had opened just a week before.

I decided to work down from the music museum's top floor toward my date with Ringo.

I was a bit surprised how much I enjoyed the place. I've never been that much of a music fanatic - I mean I like the music I like, but I don't really have favourite bands or anything like that.

But this was fun. There were alcoves devoted to specific genres, each with a detailed background of its rise and the greats who played or sang it, from gospel through to pop.

Along one wall was an interactive exhibition at which one could select a US city - Seattle, say, or New York or Memphis - and trace the times and ways in which they had been music epicentres.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the customised jukebox standing in one corner. Originally a German machine standing in some long-forgotten bar, it had now been fitted out with large screens which simulated the classic jukebox menu display, but which contained vast numbers of hits from various decades.

Whenever a number was selected, text would pop up explaining its musical significance while the song was belting out of the speakers. I could have stayed there all day.

The highlight, though, was the Ringo exhibition.

What made it special was the sheer amount of memorabilia on loan from the ex-Beatle, including original costumes from video clips and film shoots, and the bright pink uniform he wore on the Sergeant Pepper album cover (and yes, it was just as lurid in real life).

There were also excellent interactive sections with newly shot footage, in which Ringo would teach the visitor how to play drums via headphones and screen attached to a drum kit. You could also sing along with Yellow Submarine in a dedicated karaoke booth.

It was great fun. Almost as much fun as being in an octopus's garden in the shade.

Ringo: Peace & Love continues to 30 March 2014 at the Grammy Museum, LA Live, 800 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, USA.

Disclosure time... On this trip I was hosted by Fiji Airways and the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board.