Travel: Kiwi Harmony
In a geographical sense, Auckland, New Zealand, is a long way from Milan, and at Mollies, an elegant inn near the restaurants, clubs, and shops of the city’s fashionable Ponsonby district, views of the Auckland skyline and Waitemata Harbor ground guests solidly in the Antipodes. But the sounds of classical piano music and operatic voices echoing off the hotel’s white Venetian plaster walls might lead some guests to believe that they are situated farther north, perhaps in a rehearsal room—a well-appointed one—at the La Scala opera house.
After years of working in the theaters of Europe and the United States, Frances Wilson and her husband, Stephen Fitzgerald, returned to their native New Zealand three years ago to take over the operation of the hotel that Frances’ mother, Molly, had run for decades. When she handed them the keys, Molly had just one simple request: “Do something grand,” she said. And so, like the dutiful children they were, the couple completely restored the Victorian mansion and filled it with a staggering array of antiques and art objects that they had collected during their travels. The decorating sensibilities of Stephen, a former set designer, are apparent in the massive Chinese tapestries that hang from the hotel’s 16-foot-high walls and dominate the interior.
In six of the inn’s 12 suites, expansive sitting rooms hold grand pianos, each a work of art. And in two of those suites, the pianos are accompanied by full-size, gold-gilded harps. The instruments, as beautiful as they are, serve as more than mere decorations. Frances, an accomplished accompanist and voice teacher, did not end her music career when she came to Mollies. The hotel is alive at all hours with the sounds of budding sopranos and tenors honing their skills under Frances’ tutelage. Late-rising guests are more likely to be awakened by the dulcet notes of an aria from Mozart’s Idomeneo, an opera Frances recently produced in Auckland, than by a droning alarm clock. With such a start, any day is bound to be a good one.
As you would expect in a place that calls itself the City of Sails, seafood dominates the hotel’s restaurant menu. The snapper baked in silk paper with oysters—paired with a Seresin Estates Sauvignon Blanc from the country’s Marlborough region—is a tasty example of what the chef refers to as modern New Zealand cuisine. For the more adventurous, the staff can arrange for a Maori chef to prepare native delicacies such as smoked salmon with kawakawa (a vegetable similar to lettuce) and watercress served on a baked sweet potato.
The real treat, however, follows dessert. Evenings at the inn always end with senior members of the staff, all of whom have professional-quality voices, singing arias accompanied by Frances at the piano. On some nights, the voices are as captivating as those you might hear in the opera houses of Europe. Indeed, they could be those same voices. New Zealand’s international opera stars often visit Mollies when in town, and like traveling troubadours of old, they will sing for their supper.