Here's a hotel, or urban eco-lodge, that's strictly for the birds, mammals, marsupials, monotremes, reptiles, pachyderms... the list goes on, since this establishment, after all, is the newest and most surprising attraction at Sydney's famous harbourside zoo. The new 62-room Wildlife Retreat at Taronga, strategically-positioned inside the generous boundaries of the zoo, consists of five sensitively-designed, separate timber-clad lodges which will eventually be wrapped in foliage courtesy of cable trainers incorporated in the facade by Cox Architecture.
Since it was founded in 1916, Taronga and its marvellous menagerie of captive creatures have been housed in one of Sydney's finest North Shore harbourside sites. And the zoo's bold new retreat fully exploits the superlative uninterrupted skyline with views to the bridge, Opera House and, of course, Port Jackson itself. A ferry from Circular Quay takes 12 minutes and retreat guests can be collected by zoo staff from the wharf. Depending on traffic conditions, Taronga is about 20 minutes by car from the Sydney CBD with ticketed parking available on the adjacent Bradleys Head Road.
Wildlife Retreat at Taronga's accommodation and amenities overlook not just surrounding Sydney Harbour National Park bushland and the dazzling waterway itself but, crucially, The Sanctuary. It's the retreat's carefully designed and landscaped central space, replete with waterfall, that's the new home for Australian mammals and monotremes such as wallabies and echidnas. Guests, of the human kind, are even set to be greeted as they enter the retreat by platypus in a specially designed pool. Inside the retreat itself, check-in takes place in The Nest, a show-stopping deluxe circular lounge with panoramas of the harbour and city as well as glimpses of the wandering wildlife below.
There are four categories of smartly furnished, five-star-level hotel rooms standard, including the rather prosaically named "animal view room". But then again these are likely to be the most sought-after since they boast views of koalas clinging to stark gum trees directly outside their windows. The reviewer's spacious treetop suite with its pleasant palette of soft beige tonings, includes a standalone bathtub and overlooks tall eucalypts and an enclosure of kangaroos below. One of the few oversights is the absence of proper means to make a coffee with nary a plunger or espresso machine in sight (instant is so yesterday in the Instagram age). Also, the bath towels are on the small side.
A stay at the retreat includes an enjoyable two-course dinner at the elegant Me-Gal Restaurant and buffet breakfast with dishes on the contemporary Australian menu of the standard of a top-notch city restaurant. Although check-in time is 2pm, consider arriving at least a few hours earlier for lunch at The View, a casual public restaurant with harbour vistas located within the main environs of Taronga, access to which is covered in your tariff. Devote the rest of your time for initial zoo explorations, perhaps including a visit to its newest inhabitants – a group of South American capybaras, the world's largest rodents, which we promise won't turn you off your lunch.
Such is the luxurious nature of the accommodation and amenities, not to mention those dramatic Sydney vistas, it could be tempting to stay put in the retreat and soak it up, exchanging glances with the koala or echidna or two conveniently positioned outside and below your room window. But that'd mean missing the immersive, keeper-guided tours within both the retreat and the zoo itself that are included in the cost of your stay. These standout tours offer an opportunity to mix not just with the rest of the more than century-old institution's captive inhabitants but also their dedicated, conservation-minded custodians.
Although this reviewer stayed at the Wildlife Retreat at Taronga in its early, soft-opening phase, it's clear that this ambitious new urban eco-lodge is a winner, proving that a zoo can be perfectly adept at accommodating not just animals but humans, too. For those willing to splurge on the not insubstantial tariff, a surprisingly luxe stay here will provide a rewarding, multi-faceted experience. Not bad for what is a not-for-profit, conservation-based statutory organisation.
Doubles start from $790 a night for two adults and includes a two-course dinner at Me-Gal Restaurant, buffet breakfast, exclusive Australian animal experiences and complimentary general admission to Taronga Zoo. Wildlife Retreat at Taronga, Bradleys Head Road, Mosman. Ph: (02) 9969 2777; see taronga.org.au
Anthony Dennis was a guest of the Wildlife Retreat at Taronga.
OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE
Five out of five
Luxurious as the retreat it is, the animals and their keepers steal the show.
A brutalist concrete building next to the retreat detracts from the retreat.