The city of Auckland has all the bustling excitement of a cosmopolitan hub with none of the overcrowded frenzy, and the SO Auckland sits at the very heart of it all.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

The city of Auckland has all the bustling excitement of a cosmopolitan hub with none of the overcrowded frenzy, and the SO Auckland sits at the very heart of it all.


Benny Castles, the Kiwi designer of World fashion label, injects his irreverent energy into the Hi-So bar, which pulls in the crowds, even on a weeknight.

Most don’t consider Auckland a destination so much as a landing point from which to begin a tour through all the scenic deliciousness that lies south of it. But the sleepy city is starting to rouse, driven by construction demand from all sectors. As of September last year, there were 140 cranes at work in New Zealand, and Auckland was home to 90 of them. Malls, residences and office buildings are preparing for the anticipated 3.8 million arrivals expected to come by 2025, based on a Euromonitor International survey. 

And really, there’s little not to like about Auckland. Just like the demeanours of Aucklanders, the weather and wine is somehow always pleasing, and the city’s compact size makes getting around a breeze. Accor Hotels has picked up on this, which is why they chose to open their first Pacific SO hotel in Auckland, instead of Sydney or Melbourne.

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Harbour Society Restaurant is headed by Marc de Passorio, who had owned a Michelin starred restaurant in France.

The proof is in the 16-floor building. It’s a Tuesday evening but the SO Auckland’s Hi-So Rooftop bar is full of energetic tipplers — many of whom aren’t even hotel guests. And one of the reasons locals and tourists alike flock to this watering hole is a man more colourful than the neon interiors. Benny Castles, director and designer of zany New Zealand fashion label World is behind the distinctive aesthetic at the SO Auckland. And just as Christian Lacroix and Karl Lagerfeld did at the Bangkok and Singapore properties respectively, he has turned the hotel into a design-forward wonderland stamped with World’s signature style. 

That style is unapologetically lively. It takes a good amount of confidence (or insouciance) to pull off a leopard print jacket, black and white striped shirt, sparkly blue tie and blue sneakers, and top it all off with a hot pink beanie, but people who meet Castles will quickly realise the clothes are merely playing catchup to his gleeful temperament. And it is this reckless charm and style that give the SO Auckland what so many luxury establishments — even the boutique ones — often lack: a personality.

The bright orange Bentley parked out front should be the first clue that the luxury here is not of the subtle, understated type. The lobby is terribly Instagrammable thanks to a medley of eye-catching Moooi pieces that include Marcel Wanders’ famous Mega Chandelier, a vertically postured Charleston sofa and the irresistible O. Rocking Chair.

The ground floor is anchored by the Mixo Bar so one can imagine the check-in process, facilitated by brightly uniformed staffers bringing welcome drinks, has the potential to be a bit of a party. 

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The boutique hotel, Sofitel’s first in Australia and New Zealand, has 130 rooms in a 16-storey building. 

It took Castles over three years to conceptualise the hotel’s emblem, artwork, wallpaper designs, car cushions and staff attire. And while it does speak (loudly) to his design philosophy, the Kiwi has also made sure that his city is front and centre of his inspirations. The emblem is a stylised topographical map of Auckland, meant to evoke the feeling of staring into the eye of a volcano. All 130 rooms follow the volcanic theme, divided into “Vapour”, “Liquid” and “Solid” design styles for four of its room categories, with two separate designs for its SO Lofty and SO VIP suites. 

The service epitomises the warm and relaxed hospitality of New Zealanders, but the SO Auckland team also endeavours to make its guests feel special. When some of its guests were in town to see Pink in concert last year, their rooms were accessorised with amenities in pink. Another VIP was thrilled to find a framed photo of herself and her daughter (who couldn’t make it on the trip) in her room, alongside a Maori stone that was meant to be gifted to a loved one. One avid gamer found that her masseuse had snuck a Pokeball (from the Pokemon series) into her bathrobe after the treatment. 

SO Auckland’s Customs Street East address sits on the plot of the former Reserve Bank, home of the country’s gold reserves, and thus places it within walking distance of several trendy shopping streets including Britomart, Queens Street and the Viaduct Harbour. If Auckland is on the rise, then – make no mistake – the SO Auckland is its sparkly, blaring welcome wagon.

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Benny Castles shares his favourite haunts in the City of Sails. 

An eclectic enclave 

“World stores. Sure, I’m a little biased but our stores are curated with irreverence and elegance,” he says. It’s true: The boutique in Britomart is a roaring explosion of colour but its wares, from apparel and candles to homeware and taxidermy, are clearly chosen with care. The Britomart precinct also has great eateries like Ortolana, which uses local produce, and bars like the speakeasy-style Caretaker. 

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Step out into the suburbs 

“If you are hunting for good coffee in the inner suburbs, find your way to Victoria Park to enjoy some greenery and park life before skipping to Allpress Caffeteria on Drake Street, Freemans Bay, which has been roasting coffee for 30 years,” he suggests. “Head further afield to Grey Lynn for breakfast at the Postal Service Cafe. I always order the Huevos Rancheros.” 

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Art attack 

“Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki for culture. Marvel at the building itself,” says Castles. Its design was drawn from the nearby Albert Park, as seen in features like the structural wooden canopies that cover the forecourt, atrium and gallery areas. “To keep the art tour going, just take a two-minute walk to the Gow Langsford Gallery on Lome Street, which specialises in contemporary art.”