There’s an art to nailing the right hotel escape in your own city.
On one hand we appreciate any chance for a luxurious indulgence, but on the other, we’re not big fans of packing an overnight bag to stay in a cookie-cutter hotel room a few blocks away.
No, if you’re going to go to all that trouble, why not aim for a staycation a little left-of-centre we say.
That’s why we’re heading to the Q Station this weekend, the former Sydney Quarantine Station-turned Accor Hotel that sits a mere 15km from 50 So What’s office in Milsons Point, but a world away on some of the city’s best harbour front real estate.
We’d often made the drive past the tourists hordes in downtown Manly to enjoy the stunning views and trails on North Head.
But had never taken the right turn off North Head Scenic Drive to discover the Quarantine Station, its engrossing history, and rebirth as one of Sydney’s most unique hotel stays and conference centres.
To help preserve the site’s heritage, and enhance the feeling of a bygone era, guests park in a secure lot near the check-in office and are taken by shuttle bus to their nearby accommodation.
We choose to walk our way back back in time – it’s downhill just a few hundred metres – to soak in the ocean vistas and revel in the city-side solitude in Sydney Harbour National Park.
To think just a few minutes ago we were battling stifling traffic and tuning out the screams from Luna Park, and now this.
Why did it take us so long to find you Q Station?
Our comfortable room in a converted barrack-type block has a shared balcony but has a generous ensuite bathroom – and with million-dollar views like these up the harbour we don’t mind the company.
Pack your running shoes
With just a few hours until our reservation at the on-site Boilerhouse restaurant – the site of the venue’s original boiler room – we lace up the trainers for a jaunt through the 30 hectares, stopping to marvel at every turn at the beautifully restored heritage buildings – some 65 in all – dotted around the hillside.
Grab a map at check-in to get your bearings and do poke your head into the beautifully styled communal rooms where you can kick back with a library book and a glass of BYO wine.
Make sure you also factor in time to visit the free on-site museum next to the visitors’ centre and excellent water’s-edge cafe.
Stacked with period artefacts, it’s here that the sombre history of this idyllic spot really hits home and makes you stop to think.
From the 1830s to 1984, migrant ships arriving in Sydney with suspected contagious disease stopped inside North Head and offloaded passengers and crew to protect local residents from a myriad of often fatal diseases.
After such long perilous journeys from the other side of the world, it’s sobering to think that many of these excited new arrivals never left the confounds of this now four-star complex.
Some internees are even said to be still in residence – the Q Station is supposedly one of Australia’s most haunted spots – and the hotel organises nightly 8pm ghost tours for those who want to put that reputation to the test.
Top class dining
More than a little anxious at the prospect of a close encounter, we quaff an extra glass of wine at the Boilerhouse for dutch courage.
Dinner here is worth the trip to the Q Station alone. In the warmer months you can dine outdoors on the terrace, enjoying the stunning sunset over Quarantine Beach, whether ordering from the Boilerhouse, or the more relaxed adjoining Engine Room Bar
Tonight it’s brass monkeys so we’re huddled down on the restaurant’s stunning mezzanine, tucking into a sumptuous selection from a small-plates style menu.
We ease into the spirit of the occasion with the roasted heirloom carrots/almond/brown butter yoghurt/nasturtium ($16) and the zucchini fritters/smoked scamorza/truffle aioli ($16) for our ‘entree’, which are both divine.
Our ‘main’ is a shared cone bay barramundi/celeriac/cavolo nero/caper/macadamia ($26) with a plate of grilled broccolini/fermented chilli butter/panko ($12) on the side. Perfection.
We really should leave it there but with another 30 minutes before the ghost tour why not kill it by sharing the vanilla bean panna cotta/fig/rosella/kataifi pastry ($16) and vegan caramelised pineapple pavlova/whipped coconut/wild rice/cashew ($16) desserts.
It’s hard to imagine a more heavenly end to a meal, and a better fortifier for a 2.5 hour ghost tour around the dimly lit buildings.
After a short briefing and some historical background on the more ghoulish elements of the site from tour guide Chris, we join 17 other guests all hoping to see things that go bump in the night.
Things get off to a promising start in our first stop, the Autoclaves room which houses two giant industrial size pressure chambers used to sterilise the internees’ luggage with high-pressure steam.
Within minutes a woman in the back swears she feels a cold breeze on her legs. The power of suggestion after Chris has regaled us with stories of the supernatural? Or, has someone new just joined our group tonight?
Chris needs no convincing. He tells us there are two regular ghosts in this room, including a little girl in a pink dress with ribbons and red boots he claims once slammed the heavy cast iron door of an autoclave shut on three disbelievers who had gone inside in a show of bravado.
I ask him later as we make our way around the compound if the ghosts are happy with us wandering through the sites so late, disturbing their peace. They don’t mind if we don’t linger, and are respectful, he says. Some don’t even know their dead; others will go out their way to interact with the tourists, he says matter-of-factly.
By the time we reach the climax to the evening, a stop at the cemetery cottage, which Chris tells us is one of the most haunted buildings of them all, we are resigned to the fact they’ve taken the night off. For the briefest of moments, my heart skips a beat when a shadow at the back of the cottage moves past a rear window, but alas, it’s just a straggler from our group.
As we walk back to our room, we chat to one woman who is also disappointed that she didn’t have a paranormal experience, five years after her 50th celebrations here also left her without a ghostly story to tell.
There’s always next time, we share in a consolatory tone, and so bloody what, we both agree, it was a fascinating night.
The next morning as we stroll back up the hill to the car we realise we are returning home true believers in one thing after all – the recuperative powers of a precious few hours in our new favourite Sydney bolthole.
- 50sowhat.com.au stayed at the Q Station as guests of Accor and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.