There aren’t many places within a 15-minute ferry ride of Sydney’s CBD where you can look out your bedroom window and see a koala wedged between the branches of a tree. But at Taronga Zoo’s new Wildlife Retreat, there’s a good chance that’s exactly what you’ll see when you wake up in the morning. If not a koala, you might spot red kangaroos lounging in the grass below you, an echidna snuffling out some food, or a tiny joey playing hide-and-seek with his mum.
The harbourfront eco-retreat, which is owned and operated by the not-for-profit Taronga Conservation Society, has opened on the grounds of Taronga Zoo. While “eco-lodge” often conjures draughty rooms and drop toilets, this hotel might be better described as “eco-luxe”.
There are 62 rooms in five environmentally sensitive and sustainably designed lodges, with walkways (suspended above the sanctuary) that connect the rooms to The Nest bar and reception area. Interiors have been designed by Chada studio (Emirates One & Only Wolgan Valley, Saffire Freycinet, Hilton Auckland), while Cox Architecture (The Darling Hotel at The Star, the Sydney Airport Marketplace) oversaw the build.
Some rooms have views of the harbour, some bring guests eye-to-eye with the animals, and others are set in the treetops, looking out over the wildlife haven. Floor-to-ceiling windows run the length of the rooms, and some contain a timber four-post bed with curtains. Stay in a Treetop Suite to enjoy a bonus freestanding bathtub and comfortable sitting area. But as well-appointed as the rooms are, it’s the animals that are the star of the show here.
Guests can choose from a range of guided tours, where they’ll learn about the sanctuary’s native animals and the dangers they face out in the wild. Afternoon tours begin with an Acknowledgment of Country, and Taronga has worked closely with the local Cammeraigal custodians to ensure the experience is imbued with Indigenous culture from beginning to end. (Guests are encouraged to be mindful of the people who have called the land home for tens of thousands of years at every stage of their stay, whether it’s through information in the menus, Indigenous artworks adorning guest suites, or stories about the Aboriginal women who fished in Sydney Harbour at nightfall.)
There are several tours for guests to join in the afternoons and mornings. The afternoon tour begins with meeting a friendly baby carpet python, then weaves through the sanctuary, past potoroos, tammar wallabies and red-necked pademelons at feeding time. You’ll get within metres of echidnas flicking their spaghetti-like tongues and koalas snoozing in trees. While the rooms are great, the guides are potentially the best part of the experience: they’re enthusiastic and knowledgeable, deftly answering questions and showing real affection for the animals they care for.
A daybreak tour takes guests on a morning walk through the zoo before it opens, as the animals are waking up. After breakfast, guests are guided through an aviary where they’re surrounded by rare Australian birds; a red kangaroo habitat, where muscular ‘roos peer snootily at human intruders; and a Tasmanian devil enclosure, where the squat critters snout around searching for food. The native-animal sanctuary is only open to eco-retreat guests, making the tours something special.
The dining experience is just as carefully considered as the rooms and the tours. Me-Gal (the Cammeraigal word for “tears”) restaurant has one of the best views of any diner in Sydney: peer out across the zoo and harbour to the city and Sydney Harbour Bridge as you dine on a menu chock-full of local produce and native ingredients. A two-course dinner is included in your stay, with the optional extras of wine and a third course. A buffet breakfast is also included.
Feast on dishes such as prawns with black mussel and celeriac remoulade; NSW beef fillet with cavolo nero and Hunter Valley shiraz jus; and a lemon-myrtle brûlée tart with tonka-bean crème. The breakfast buffet has locally made jams and condiments, and both menus use MSC-certified seafood, free-range chicken, and sustainably sourced meat and produce.
Profits from the retreat will support the work of the Taronga Conservation Society, which has projects in Australia and abroad – so your stay will help orangutans in Borneo, African elephants in Mozambique, and the tiny, critically endangered corroboree frogs in Kosciuszko National Park.
Round out your stay with a free visit to the zoo, where you’ll see more than 4000 animals from 350 different species.
Taronga Wildlife Retreat is now open. Bushland Rooms start at $790 per night, including tours, dinner, breakfast and a zoo pass.
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on December 5, 2019. Some details and prices may have changed since publication.