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(CNN) — A must-do experience for anyone visiting Hong Kong, the Star Ferry has been cruising back and forth across Victoria Harbour for more than a century.
And now you can get a taste of the journey in an unlikely place — on land.
After a beast of a renovation, The Fleming boutique hotel re-emerged in Wan Chai late last year with a new look, inspired by the green-and-white cross-harbor ferries.
The design features contemporary maritime accents, such as porthole-like mirrors, industrial lamps and navy-striped rugs.
Then there are the ultraprecise details that encapsulate Hong Kong’s spirit in hotel form. From the red typeface in the hallways to the brass newspaper-holders, every detail has a purpose.
Even the furniture provides subtle hints: In the lobby, the sofa sports adjustable backrests which flip back and forth, just like the benches aboard the Star Ferry.
“We wanted to create something that is very Hong Kong, which embraces the city’s history,” hotel owner John Hui tells CNN Travel.
“I used to take the Star Ferry all the time as a kid, going with my parents over to Kowloon side. It’s usually the most convenient and the quickest way to cross the harbor, and I think it’s something very unique in Hong Kong — if you look at any photos of the skyline, the Star Ferry is in it.”
A landlocked voyage
Hong Kong’s beloved Star Ferry has been crossing Victoria Harbour since 1888.
From Hong Kong Tourism Board
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hui has been the city’s highest-ranked men’s tennis player (peaking at 157 in the world) since 2002. In 2004, he retired from professional tennis and transitioned into the family business and ran The Fleming for 10 years.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life traveling for tennis, living in a suitcase, and have a lot of experience in hotels — I know what an enjoyable hotel should be like,” says Hui.
Before the renovation, The Fleming was a serviced apartment-style hotel, aimed at long-stay business travelers.
John Hui, The Fleming
But in 2016, Hui felt it was time to take the place in a new direction.
The hotel partners teamed up with A Work of Substance (AWOS), an integrated brand and design agency, that steered the vision, design and, finally, the execution.
“We had three characteristics that we wanted to communicate: efficient, social and cultural,” Maxime Dautresme, an AWOS founding partner, tells CNN Travel.
“Efficient, because it is a business hotel in a practical location near the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre; cultural, because it’s a 1970s building and we want to celebrate Hong Kong; and social, because we want to rejuvenate the district with a destination restaurant on the ground floor.”
Sail away in an “Extra Large” bedroom.
From The Fleming
Of course, working with an older building was both a blessing and a curse.
“We stripped down the whole building to its bare bones and had to work around a lot of restrictions,” says Hui.
For example, AWOS couldn’t change the number of rooms or the elevator shafts, without going through a long and arduous government approval process.
“It was a challenge to work in those confines, but the building’s heritage gave us another reason to embrace old Hong Kong,” says Hui. “The industrial vibe, the small side streets and dim lights — that kind of thing.”
Devil’s in the details
The Fleming’s reception desk.
From The Fleming
The entrance corridor feels like walking down a little lane in Wan Chai — it’s narrow and dimly lit, opening into a small foyer where there’s not much aside from an elevator.
The doors open to reveal a flaming red lift with an oversized, porthole-shaped mirror.
Up one floor, the crimson reception comes alive with a wall full of Hong Kong-inspired mailboxes and navy-striped couches.
“We examined the Star Ferry, stripped it down, and examined what makes it so special. It’s about efficiency, history, community … It is really the perfect way to celebrate Hong Kong in the hotel,” Dautresme tells CNN Travel.
“From there, we basically started working on how to express the idea through the design.”
Maxime Dautresme, A Work of Substance
In the 66 rooms, guests will discover glass-green walls, eggshell-white linens, smoked oak floors, leather drapes and old-school brass lighting fixtures.
Meanwhile, tiny terrariums of moss and mini ficus trees bring to mind the renegade vines that grow through Hong Kong’s stone walls and sidewalks.
Everything here has been custom-made, even the complimentary Luxe Travel Guides and bathroom amenities.
Drawing inspiration from Chinese apothecaries (traditional Chinese medicine dispensaries), AWOS-designed shower gels in scents such as amber, ginseng, mint and sandalwood.
“You’re basically embracing this very mysterious journey on land,” says Dautresme. “We considered every detail, down to the typeface on the walls, which you’d see on Hong Kong ferries.”
A neighborhood hangout
Osteria Marzia is a seafood lover’s paradise.
What The Fox Studio / IB Photography
In addition to capturing the essence of the cross-harbor ferries, AWOS also embedded surprising details of the city itself.
“The goal is for guests to really experience Hong Kong in a way they’ve never felt before, because we’re giving them visual cues that they might pick up as they wander around the streets,” says Dautresme.
“We want to engage guests and make them aware of how rich the Cantonese culture is.”
On the hotel’s facade, there’s retro-inspired neon signage as well as a triangular-shaped wraparound light fixture that resembles bamboo scaffolding — a fixture in Hong Kong construction.
Maxime Dautresme, A Work of Substance
“I’m a big fan of the ryokan [Japanese guesthouse] in Japan but I have a hard time finding authenticity in Asian hotels, in general, because they have taken out the neighborhood feel,” says Dautresme.
“The ryokan is the only thing that’s left on that scale where you feel you have this intimate conversation with somebody who’s much more knowledgeable about the immediate surroundings.”
To create a neighborhood focal point, The Fleming opened Osteria Marzia on the ground floor.
The hotel’s all-day dining restaurant marries coastal Italian food — think crudos, grilled turbot and tuna tartare — with a contemporary nautical atmosphere and an enticing Italian wine list.
“Restaurants are often the first step in revitalizing a neighborhood or area, because people have to eat three times a day and tend to come together over good food,” says Dautresme.
“It’s on street level, so it provides more visibility, as well as [adding] a point of interest and energy for the neighborhood.”
The Fleming, 41 Fleming Rd, Wan Chai, Hong Kong; +852 3607 2288
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