When Louis Li left Kunming, China to study filmmaking in Australia, he never thought it would lead to an award-winning hotelier’s life. But that’s exactly what happened when the 30-year-old purchased the Willow Creek vineyard on Mornington Peninsula, a 90-minute drive from Melbourne, and converted it into Jackalope – a luxurious country getaway that Time declared one of the greatest places on earth in 2018.
This is no ordinary hotel and nor is the story behind it. The AUD40 million five-star boutique hotel, which opened in April 2017 and is adored for its surreal and cinematic beauty, is situated in a grape region known for its Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. What’s more, the Melbourne-based scion has singlehandedly helped inject tourism interest in this quaint pocket of country Victoria.
A driveway to the property leads to a seven-metre high jackalope sculpture by Australian artist Emily Floyd. This abstract jackrabbit with antelope horns sows the seeds for the surrealist fantasy you’re about to embark on—where the part-object part-installation fills the hotel.
This is where art triggers an internal escape plan, if only in your mind. Art hasn’t been placed within the hotel for decorative intent either; instead, Li has intentionally curated the space with the help of architects, designers and artists to deliver his mental screenplay into real-time decadence.
Li saw potential when he visited the vineyard for the first time in 2013. Taken by the Peninsula’s serene beauty and rolling vineyards, he decided rather promptly to purchase the 11-hectare property in the same year.
This is where the carolling of birds fills the skies and rabbits jump fences for quick getaways. The idyllic setting made the perfect backdrop for Li’s Alfred Hitchcock meets Alice in Wonderland voyeuristic plan.
Since opening the hotel in 2017, Li has put luxury on the map for this popular coastal route. It is the home of many wineries, gourmet produce and B & B offerings, but nothing to the grand bespoke scale of Jackalope that has inspired as many to visit.
This is the playground for the rich, curious and art lovers—where new luxury comes with an infinity pool and some rooms contain a deep-soak Japanese bath. A quick escape from the CBD has become a ritual for overworked city souls looking to recharge, relax and revive their creative core.
Li engaged Carr Design Group to transform his cinematic vision into a reality. The end result is a sensory journey into the avant-garde. For someone who counts filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai as firm favourites, the hotel is where art house draws a populist audience much like his cinematic heroes.
There are 46 luxurious rooms, a fine dining restaurant Doot Doot Doot, a cellar door and casual eatery called Rare Hare and the hotel bar Flaggerdoot [a collective noun for a group of jackalopes if you’re wondering].
At Doot Doot Doot, around 10,000 antique gold light bulbs sit on the ceiling (backlit from above) while black furniture and high-backed quilted banquette seating custom-made by Zuster are also there. You’ll also spot a piece of furniture by renowned fashion designer Rick Owens too.
Just six months after opening its doors, Jackalope won Australia’s Hotel of the Year at the Gourmet Traveller Australian Hotel Guide Awards. It’s also since been named Regional Hotel of the Year. The accolades came as a surprise to Li, who never set out to be the best new kid on the block.
Li, who arrived in Melbourne to study screen and media studies at RMIT in 2008, said it was Hobart’s major tourist drawcard MONA [Museum of Old and New Art] that planted the seeds for change in his mind. He was impressed by the way gallery owner David Walsh fused art collecting with an eye for the absurd, mythical and extraordinary that had mass appeal without compromising artistic vision.
“I loved what I saw and experienced at MONA,” explains Li. “MONA changed Tasmania into a national competitive landscape and inspired me to take the leap of faith that luxury and art could appeal to people beyond the design- and art-centric crowd.”
Jackalope is truly a reflection of the man himself. Li, who wears fashion brands Maison Martin Margiela, Rick Owens and Carol Christian Powell, isn’t one to boast about his collection. He limits his sartorial loves to a few trusted brands and remains committed to them. Mostly drawn to black, Li loves avant-garde silhouettes, collects art, reads and travels the globe for inspiration.
His parents are wealthy Chinese property developers, and while Li doesn’t brag about the connections, it helps that his parents are behind his Australian hotel debut.
He borrows from the family’s ‘how to build a hotel guide’ when making purchases in the commercial real estate world.
“I learned the formula for building a luxury hotel from my parents, but I have always put my own personal stamp on any project I undertake,” says Li.
He doesn’t like to describe himself as an entrepreneur though; he’s merely doing what he loves and doesn’t invest in properties for the sake of it. Art and authenticity are always at his earthed core.
“I targeted a niche and personal project with a unique aesthetic at Jackalope,” says Li. “It had a broader appeal to the public than I thought which is very reassuring going forward. I was mostly thinking about the design- and art-loving people, but everyone has become a little obsessed with Jackalope and it’s a very rewarding surprise.”
Perhaps it’s the way he brings the whimsical with the bespoke, luxury with the getaway concept or tells his stories like a film would play out on a big screen. Li says success comes down to the narrative.
“I wanted to bridge luxury concepts with storytelling and that became a framework in terms of design, art and collaboration with external agencies,” he says. “People walk away with a memorable experience because they dive into the story at the hotel. They escape from reality because they get hooked. It’s encompassing.”
Li, who travels the world seeking new hotel experiences, says there’s no shortage of fabulous ones around the globe, but authenticity is what’s missing.
“I try to visit five hotels and 20 restaurants whenever I go to a new city,” he says.
“Travel isn’t so much about leisure for me for now, it’s about finding what’s exciting in that city.”
Last year he went to Seoul, Korea and was instantly wooed by artist Kaw’s 28m floating sculpture on Seokchon Lake [accompanied by a limited merchandise range].
“I like finding something that’s a limited concept and an experience the whole city can take part in. For me, travel is like study though. I look at cities differently and am always seeking new ways for people to experience it,” he says.
He also counts Trunk Hotel in Japan as a contender for top destinations too.
“It totally blew me away,” he recalls of its socialising hotel movement concept. “It’s a very different hotel, from design to hospitality and the retail aspect. That is what I am looking for—the kind of project I can see right through that builds on all elements in a unique way.”
Li is the unlikely hero Melbourne has been waiting for and will now expand his storytelling to Flinders Lane with a new boutique hotel opening in 2020.
Building on his legacy at Jackalope, he will deliver a new concept here. Designed around the city’s distinct seasonal weather palette, it will take cues from its ‘four seasons in one day’ forecast. This is where art gets ephemeral and goes beyond one’s wildest imaginations.
“I really want the new hotel to focus on the concept of a natural weather phenomenon. It’s a nod to Melbourne and its crazy weather. It’s a perfect match for Melbourne,” he explains.
In keeping with his passion for the arts, he has secured an art installation, Rain Room, to come to Melbourne in June. It’s perfect subliminal messaging given the water works theme at the new hotel.
Conceived by Random International—a group founded by Hannes Koch, Florian Ortkrass and Stuart Wood—Rain Room is known for its aural, sensual and visual qualities. The 100sqm cuboid torrent of water is theatrical and reacts to your movements. Publicans queued for three hours at the Barbican in 2012 when it was unveiled for the first time. He’s hoping for a similar effect Down Under.
But for now, Li is the talk of the town thanks to the legacy he has built at Jackalope. He is grateful the city welcomed him with open arms.
“I decided to move to Melbourne because it had been named the world’s most livable city on many occasions. It’s also the most multicultural. The coffee culture is amazing and it’s a creative and design-centric city compared to Sydney. It suited me to settle there. I also love that people are coming to explore the Peninsula because of Jackalope; it’s an exciting time for tourism.”
Now he’s ready to take his Jackalope concept to the world, with plans over the next 10 years to roll out hotels in the US and Asia.
“The success of the hotel means I can now look at expanding it internationally, but there is no rush. I am still calling Melbourne home,” he says. “What I learned by doing Jackalope is that success comes because it is every bit authentic. It’s all about being brave, personal and not being afraid of judgment. Just do it, the right people will love it.”
MORNINGTON PENINSULA MUST-DOS:
This modern hotel is tucked in the countryside of Red Hill and is nicely appointed with all you need for your weekend escape. Modernity dials in on high speed too with décor, amenities and an Australian cuisine in The Dining Room which charms with local gourmet produce and wines to match. This is where paddock to plate impresses couples looking for a getaway that lures from cellar door to dinner.
Find your inner Zen at Peninsula Hot Springs by booking some quiet time in the Spa Dreaming Centre, which gets you a private mineral bath and treatments of your choice. The key is to book well ahead. We highly recommend the stone massage to relieve tension before the drive back to Melbourne. There are breakfast, lunch and dinner packages too for extra luxury points.
The limestone-rammed winery Port Phillip Estate in Red Hill is another must-experience on the Peninsula, where food, wines and decadent feasting is on the cards within this monumental architectural offering the best sea views. The emphasis is on showcasing the best produce from the region where head chef Stuart Deller, formerly of Lakehouse Daylesford, brings a stroke of genius to the table.
Keep the creative juices flowing within the sculpture park at Point Leo Estate where an evolving line-up of Australian and international pieces weave throughout the property. Then head to Laura for an intimate fine dining experience, which won New Restaurant of the Year by Good Food Guide Awards 2019.