Luxury lockup: The former Melbourne jail now charging $780 per night

The Interlude is the worlds first urban wellness retreat in a converted prison. Photo / The Interlude

Would you sleep in a former prison cell? Catherine Best spends a night locked up in luxury at Melbourne’s latest jailhouse-turned-wellness retreat.

In the underbelly of Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison, I lie prostrate and disrobed while a lieutenant of the underworld gives me a knuckle-dusting. She kneads her fingers into my back as candlelight spears dim bluestone. It was within these walls in 1958 that police-killer William O’Meally became the last person flogged in Australia, receiving 12 lashes with the dreaded cat o’ nine tails for his brazen prison escape.

Pampering, not punishment, is the new black now this former prison is a luxury urban retreat. Photo / The Interlude
Pampering, not punishment, is the new black now this former prison is a luxury urban retreat. Photo / The Interlude

Sixty-five years on, the corporal roster has changed somewhat. Pampering, not punishment, is the new black as one of Australia’s most notorious prisons forges a new identity as a luxury urban retreat. The Interlude, operated by TFE Hotels, has taken a 170-year-old heritage building – formerly home to some of the country’s most hardened criminals – and transformed it into a 19-suite sanctuary, complete with moody wine bar, grand art-bedecked atrium and candlelit underground pool. The rebirth is part of a AU$1 billion ($1.9b) redevelopment of the prison precinct, closed in 1997 and since repurposed into a residential and entertainment hub in suburban Coburg, 8km north of Melbourne’s CBD.

Any unease I have about sleeping in cells formerly occupied by crooks diminishes the moment I step into my suite. While the original features – bluestone walls, barrel-vaulted ceilings, cast-iron doors and barred windows – have been preserved, the room has been cleansed of its penal past. Plush carpet, white linen and mood lighting soften the brutalist architecture, and piped music (and heating) keep the confines warm and inviting. My suite is fashioned from five cells; openings cleaved through half-metre thick bluestone to give the elongated space the sense of a high-end sleeper train. The middle “cell” is the entrance chamber, to the right is a lounge and queen-size bed, while to the left there’s a black marble bathroom bookended by a freestanding stone bath.

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In the rooms, original features – bluestone walls, barrel-vaulted ceilings, cast-iron doors and barred windows – have been preserved. Photo / The Interlude
In the rooms, original features – bluestone walls, barrel-vaulted ceilings, cast-iron doors and barred windows – have been preserved. Photo / The Interlude

Robes, slippers, bath crystals, a pod-coffee machine and a selection of artisan goodies and loose-leaf teas complement my stay. In the evening, a prison fairy delivers a nightcap of fortified wine and handmade chocolates to my bedside. I turn in, expecting my surroundings to induce a tortured sleep, but all’s quiet and so is my mind as I drift off.

In the morning, The Interlude has a host of activities planned. Marketed as a wellness retreat more than simply a hotel stay, the property partners with local creatives and artisan producers to tailor a programme to individual guests. These signature experiences (most complimentary) start with a Story of Place sunset welcome in one of the former exercise yards, now known as the Reflection Garden. Over a glass of Victorian red and the crackle of a campfire, we hear stories of the prison’s past, how it was hand-built by inmate labour from stone quarried on site, and of daring prison escapes. An X marks the spot where convicted robber Ronald Ryan scaled the wall in a prison break that resulted in a warder being shot dead and Ryan becoming the last man hanged in Australia, in 1967.

One of the prison's former exercise yards is now known as the Reflection Garden. 
Photo / The Interlude
One of the prison’s former exercise yards is now known as the Reflection Garden.
Photo / The Interlude

Grisly tales loom large at Pentridge, but The Interlude – housed in the historic B Division – resists giving in to sensationalism and gimmick. National Trust tours, opened earlier this year, peel back the dark history of the prison: a ground-floor cell block has been restored to its original state, letting guided tour groups explore prison conditions, inmate stories and a cache of shivs, prison-made weapons, while overnight guests loll in luxury upstairs. The guest experience is intentionally devoid of prison kook (the evocative space is enough); instead providing a sanctuary from which to escape (ironically) the outside world.

It succeeds. One morning I’m lost in creative musings as I join resident artist Lana Daubermann in a charcoal sketching workshop, playing with light and shadow to recreate a vase of flowers. Nearby, other guests are industriously blending tea leaves in the grand atrium, from which three wings of cellblocks radiate, one repurposed into a sultry wine bar. In the afternoon I Join wine curator and sommelier Liinaa Berry for a wine-tasting session, sampling unusual grape varieties and a decade-aged drop from the 500-label cellar.

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Evenings are indulgent, cosseted in an intimate cell-converted booth at Olivine Wine Bar, where a degustation of tasting plates materialises with cheerful efficiency. Prepared by head chef Mark Glenn, the menu features plump rock oysters, choux pastry parcels filled with smoked cream cheese and caviar, and slivers of velvety, no-chewing-required wagyu. (Mark also heads hatted restaurant North & Common next door.)

I reach peak indulgence on my last morning when I pad downstairs to the underground pool, chiselled out of bluestone and basalt in a cellblock corridor, and submit to a relaxation massage.

Doing time has never been so tough.

Unlike a real prison, expect high-end fixings and furnishings at The Interlude. 
Photo / The Interlude
Unlike a real prison, expect high-end fixings and furnishings at The Interlude.
Photo / The Interlude

STAY

Suites at The Interlude cost from AU$699 per night, including a selection of signature experiences and valet parking.

theinterlude.com.au

Checklist: Melbourne

GETTING THERE

Qantas, Jetstar and Air NZ all fly direct from Auckland to Melbourne.

DETAILS

visitmelbourne.com

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