This zoo retreat is one of the most unique family retreats in Australia

A lingering fog obscures the stunning views of Sydney Harbor this morning. But that doesn’t seem to bother the koala, which sits in a tree right outside our suite. “Come and look at this, girls!” I call out to my nieces. The sliding glass doors in our second floor interconnecting Animal View rooms slide fully open to The Sanctuary, in Taronga Zoo’s luxurious Wildlife Retreat, giving us a front row seat to nature.

Koalas are not known for their enthusiasm. They feed exclusively on eucalyptus leaves, have very little energy and sleep 20 hours a day. But Mateo is full of beans this morning. He has climbed the tree where he has spent the last twelve hours as a blob and is now moving towards the tree directly across from our room. He jumps from one branch to another. Safely wedged in a tree fork, his face is soft and gentle as he slowly looks around and chews breakfast. What a way to wake up.

Tucked away among the bushland in Cammeraigal country, Taronga Zoo has the city’s best views of Sydney Harbour, including the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House, and is one of Sydney’s top attractions. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it also has smart features. The facility has a strong focus on conservation and research, and its scientists lead vital research into wildlife, habitats and communities around the world.

Tucked near Australian native animal exhibits, the zoo’s eco-forward Wildlife Retreat opened in 2019 and features 62 designer rooms. The lobby doubles as a circular lounge bar overlooking the harbour, while the on-site restaurant MeGal also offers pinching views of Sydney, especially at sunset. The Wildlife Retreat is not for profit and all proceeds go towards animal care and conservation. Overnight stays include admission to the zoo for two days, a la carte breakfast, a Sanctuary Tour, a morning tour and free parking.

Wildlife Retreat at Taronga Zoo Official opening Thursday October 10, 2019./Photos by Rick Stevens

I check in with my sister and nieces (nine and seven) who are visiting from Dubai. Despite being Aussie, my nieces have lived in the UAE all their lives, and a bit of Australiana was in order. After dropping off our bags at the nature retreat, we head to the zoo. The bird show is an absolute highlight, with flight displays of native birds from Australia, including rare red-tailed cockatoos. A black-necked hawk even shows how to crack open an emu egg with a rock. My sister and I are both in tears at the end of the show as we watch our native birds fly to ‘My Island Home’ by Australian Indigenous singer Christine Anu.

After a morning of animal viewing at the zoo, we check into our rooms at Wildlife Retreat. My nine-year-old niece is particularly curious about our Sanctuary Tour with Waz that afternoon. This area is exclusive to Wildlife Retreat guests and is inhabited by native Australian wildlife that we can see from our room, including red kangaroos, koalas, echidnas, pademelons and potoroos (small, mouse-like versions of kangaroos).

Wildlife Retreat at Taronga Zoo Official opening Thursday October 10, 2019./Photos by Rick Stevens

We’ve booked a night safari at 7pm (€25 extra per person), so we head to the onsite Me-Gal restaurant for an early dinner as the sun sets over the harbor on a clear day. Children’s menus are available, although our girls indulged in the grilled eye fillet, while my sister and I shared natural Sydney Rock oysters, Berkshire pork belly with Brussels sprouts kimchi and grilled duck breast with fermented sweetcorn. The concept is to showcase local and indigenous ingredients, and it is one of the best meals this side of town. It is an absolute privilege to access the zoo at night and see what the lions, giraffes, elephants and capybaras are up to. Two guest experience agents lead the way and point out the animals with infrared light.

The next morning we are treated to a final tour before the zoo even opens to the public. Guest experience officers Helen and Jane first lead us to the nocturnal exhibit, where a platypus is already awake and fossifying in the water. We regroup outside when we become aware that something unusual is happening.

“Stay still and keep your hands at your sides,” says Helen. Coincidentally, the dingo keepers went for a walk with the dingoes this morning, something they do every day for enrichment. We wander over and are now just meters away from these wolf-like creatures, their demeanor is calm and curious. We are totally blown away.

It’s almost time to check out, but Helen and Jane are happy to show us the nearby emus and koala reserve. There is a digital contact point here to make a donation to koala conservation and protection, and I take the opportunity to contribute. In February 2022, following the catastrophic bushfires of 2019 and ongoing environmental impacts, koalas were listed as endangered.

“Koalas have been protected since the 1930s, but their habitat is not protected,” says Jane, referring to Australia’s controversial logging activities. “They will be extinct in NSW by 2050 unless we do something about it. They cut down the forests knowing they were in them, it’s terrible,” she says. It’s a sad, bleak reality, but important for my nieces to know. I hope that they, the next generation and the future stewards of the country, will have the empathy to make change happen.; doubles for A$595.