Jamala Wildlife Lodge, Canberra review: Sleep (and bathe) with wild animals at this Aussie zoo

Our rating

4.5 out of 5

​THE PLACE

Jamala Wildlife Lodge is a safari-style accommodation nestled inside Canberra's privately owned National Zoo and Aquarium. Included in the nightly rate is a five-star suite, dinner and breakfast, a private tour with a zookeeper, and two days exploring the grounds. It makes for a busy 21-hour itinerary, but you won't be bored. The zoo is impressive in its own right and features a wide variety of animals. But the overwhelming drawcard is spending the night – safely behind glass – in close proximity to a potentially deadly predator. Jamala opened in 2014 with the lodge supporting animal conservation and breeding programs. Sleeping within metres of exotic creatures also lends itself to decent educational opportunities.

Take a look at Jamala Wildlife Lodge in the photo gallery above.

THE LOCATION

Jamala's luxurious cabins are dispersed throughout the zoo, which is located on the western edge of Canberra's Lake Burley Griffin. The three-hour drive from Sydney, or short flight from Melbourne, makes it very feasible for a weekend away, and the lodge's proximity to the nation's capital means you can stick around and experience other things after staying at the zoo. But there's no reason or need to leave the zoo for the duration of your visit.

THE SPACE

There are 18 themed rooms, each with its own exotic animal experience. The most interactive are the six Giraffe Treehouses where guests get to feed giraffes a handful of carrots from the balcony at check-in. These rooms are designed for two people with a king bed but kids can crash on the double sofa bed for an extra charge. The most expensive rooms are the five Jungle Bungalows adjoining enclosures with lions, tigers, cheetahs or sun bears. These king suites also cater for two children on a sofa bed, except the lion room, which is adults only. The cheapest rooms are in the uShaka lodge, where the shark and meerkat rooms sleep up to six people. Children under six are not allowed to stay at Jamala.

THE ROOM

We chose the Giraffe Treehouse because it sounded the most interactive, with the promise of feeding the gangly giants. While the suite is luxurious, calling it a treehouse feels a bit misleading. Entry is via the deer and alpaca enclosure, and the rear balcony overlooks part of the giraffe quarters. The rooms are not set up among the trees by any stretch. Still, when else can you chill on the back deck and have a five-metre giraffe nibbling at some leaves a metre away? If you get tired of that, retire to the west-facing front deck and soak up some afternoon sun with a beverage from the mini-bar. The bathroom has a bath and huge shower, and the king bed is spacious. The African-themed furniture is a nice touch and there's a TV with Foxtel which you're unlikely to have time to use.

STEPPING OUT

Canberra is full of exciting adventures, whether your thing is museums and monuments or outdoor activities. If travelling with kids there's Questacon. If you're the active type Mt Stromlo's downhill mountain bike trails are world-class.

THE FOOD

In a word, excellent. And there's nothing quite like sitting down for a three-course dinner in an underground restaurant and having a lion wander in mere metres away in its indoor enclosure adjacent to the tables. It's not a guarantee, but we're told it happens most nights. You'll know when it does because of the audible gasp from other guests, and the knowing look from the waiters who have seen it all before. The actual meal is a delight: three courses with a choice of four mains and an extensive wine list. There are tasty vegetarian and gluten-free options. Breakfast is a winning combination of buffet and a la carte, so there's a menu but you can order as much as you want.

THE VERDICT

There's almost nothing to criticise about Jamala, except that it costs several weeks' worth of my rent for a one-night stay. Still, it's cheaper and more feasible than flying to Africa.

ESSENTIALS

From $1195 a night mid-week, including dinner and breakfast, depending on the room. The giraffe treehouse costs $1925 on Saturday nights.

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HIGHLIGHT

The 90-minute early morning tour with a zookeeper, when the animals are far more active than later in the day. Rug up during Canberra's cooler months.

LOWLIGHT

Really only one thing: the price.

Josh Dye stayed as a guest of Jamala Wildlife Lodge