ANGELA SAURINE is blown away by this exclusive retreat on the edge of Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, which is now welcoming families
Extraordinary is not a word I use very often, but it feels the apt way to describe the Wildlife Retreat at Taronga — a luxurious architecturally-designed hotel set within the grounds of Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. Opened in late 2019, the retreat wasn’t originally targeted at families, but with international borders closed, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, a Family Escape Package has now been introduced. The package includes an overnight stay for two adults and two children in interconnecting rooms, a tour of the retreat’s private sanctuary, a night tour of the zoo plus two-day access, parking in the zoo’s main visitor car park and breakfast. The hotel was designed by Australian firm, Cox Architecture, and is owned and operated by not-for-profit organisation, Taronga Conservation Society Australia. It features a circular entry pavilion with a lounge with views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, five sustainably designed timber-clad lodges with vines hanging over the roofs, and a restaurant. It was awarded Best Sustainable Hotel in the Asia Pacific Hotel Awards 2020-2021 and was highly commended in the Small Luxury Hotel for Australia category.
Taronga Zoo has long been known as having one of the best views in Sydney (those lucky giraffes!) and the Wildlife Retreat at Taronga capitalises on this. It’s located beside the function centre on the eastern edge of the zoo at Mosman, just 15 minutes’ drive from the city. You can walk straight out of the gate into the zoo grounds, near the Wild Ropes treetop adventure course.
The hotel’s 62 rooms are spread across five lodges — named after brolga, bandicoot, echidna, emu and bilby — which are linked by stairs and lifts. The Family Escape Package includes accommodation in either a Bushland View Room or Animal View Room, from which you can spot koalas in the gum trees outside or kangaroos grazing below. From our room in Emu Lodge, 351, we can see glimpses of the harbour and Sydney Tower poking out above the gum trees through the floor-to-ceiling windows and louvres, and hear seals barking at night. Other accommodation options include Harbour View Rooms and large Treetop Suites, which have an open-plan ensuite with a bath.
FOOD AND DRINK
The retreat’s Me-Gal restaurant, in a separate building adjoining the function centre that can be accessed via lift, also has incredible views over the harbour. Executive chef Gursu Mertel, who is originally from Istanbul in Turkey and has lived in China and Azerbaijan, focuses on creating international dishes that change with the seasons, using fresh, local produce and ingredients. Mum and dad can try the signature dish, MSC-certified scallops, or offerings such as pistachio and bush tomato crusted lamb rack or wagyu beef with bone marrow. The kids’ menu includes MSC-certified fish and chips, spaghetti meatballs or a cheeseburger, followed by ice-cream or chocolate mud cake. Families can book to dine from 5pm, when the venue has a fun, casual vibe, before heading off on the night tour, leaving the child-free couples to enjoy their dining experience in peace.
The Family Escape Package includes an afternoon tour of the Sanctuary, which is set around small sandstone rocks, a waterfall and lilly pilly tree which has strong significance to the local Indigenous people. It is the only part of the zoo which houses the extremely cute Rufous bettongs and Tammar wallabies, as well as koalas, echidnas and even eels. With the nocturnal house closed during COVID-19, it is also the only area where you can see potoroos. Our guide, Ryan, recounts fascinating facts about the animals, such as turtles that can absorb oxygen through their bottom and eels that can swim all the way to New Caledonia, 2,000km away in the South Pacific.
It’s also nice being able to explore the main zoo during the day without feeling like you have to battle the traffic to get home at the end of the day. After dinner, we set out on the night tour. This is a great time to spot the two platypus that reside in the pond at the retreat’s entrance. While most of the animals are asleep, it’s fun hearing frogs croaking as you roam around the zoo with other families, and feeling like you have the zoo all to yourself after everyone else has gone home. On weekends, retreat guests also get to access the zoo from 9am — half an hour before day visitors can enter. This is the time the seal pup is at its most playful, and also the best time to see tigers as keepers offer enrichment, like perfume, spices or toys, that stimulates them and encourages natural behaviour.
The writer was a guest of Wildlife Retreat at Taronga.
WILDLIFE RETREAT AT TARONGA
Taronga Zoo Sydney
Bradleys Head Rd, Mosman, NSW
(02) 9978 4791