It will come as no surprise that living in Australia this summer has been a challenge.
So much of our country has been lost to bushfire, far too many lives have been lost, an astounding number of homes have been destroyed and it has taken a devastating toll on our wildlife.
If I wasn’t already finding Sydney slightly unbearable thanks to rising costs, crazy traffic and crowds at every turn, this season has pushed me – and so many of my fellow Sydney-siders – over the edge.
But considering we have two careers, a home and three children to consider before packing up and moving to Canada to bunk in with the royals, my husband and I set a 2020 mission to rediscover our joy in Sydney. Harbour Bridge, Opera House and Bondi Beach aside, we have set out to find the destinations and experiences that will cement why it is that we live in this city.
The first stop on our list was the Wildlife Retreat at Taronga Zoo. Australian animals, harbour views, decadent dining, and a spot that would keep us plus all three of our children engaged and happy? Would it be possible?
Short answer? Yes. For families in Sydney - whether living here or travelling - there couldn't be a better destination to experience the best of Sydney.
Nestled within Taronga Zoo (with its own little sanctuary to ogle), the Wildlife Retreat is a brand new overnight eco-retreat that offers an extraordinary opportunity to sleepover with Australia’s unique wildlife. But let’s be clear – this is not a camping (or even glamping) situation. It is complete luxury.
What’s more, the Wildlife Retreat is completely not-for-profit, and supports Taronga’s important conservation and research projects in Australia and around the globe. The exclusive tours completely opened my eyes to how important the work of the zoo is for our wildlife – moving from entertainment to conservation – and there has never been a more pertinent time for this focus.
Owned and operated by Taronga Conservation Society Australia, the Wildlife Retreat features 62 rooms in five environmentally sensitive and sustainably designed lodges, and I can say with confidence that they are as beautiful and luxurious as any top hotel room in Sydney – perhaps with the best view of any (ours overlooked the Harbour Bridge and the zoo’s giraffes).
The Retreat also offers ‘The Sanctuary,’ which is a thoughtfully designed habitat, created especially for guests of the Retreat, and plays home to an array of native wildlife including wallabies, bettongs, short-beaked echidnas and koalas. While you can wander through it on your own or through a guided tour, you can also simply wake up to it – sometimes with a koala on the tree directly outside of your window, or the sounds of the animals first thing in the morning.
While it's hard to ignore the surroundings and the incredible animals at every turn, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were at a five star resort anywhere in the world.
The dining, for example, is world-class. Being all-inclusive, all guests have a 2-course dinner and a buffet breakfast included at the beautiful Me-Gal restaurant. The menu is rich with fresh, native ingredients and locally-sourced produce. For starters, I had a Fraser Isle spanner crab timbale with pea mousse, fried native saltbush, truffled crème fraiche, sesame tuille and salmon pearls (all of which were eaten by my 2-year-old). For mains, I had the pan-seared Coral Coast barramundi, with clams, honey parsnip puree, bok choy, sourdough anchovy crumb and scallop soup foam.
Yes, it’s a culinary delight, but it’s also completely welcoming for children. Mine chose fish and chips from the kids’ menu (with ice cream for dessert), and they are well-equipped with colouring pencils and high chairs so you can sit back and enjoy the view (and the cocktails – go the Ginger Ninja).
The architecture seamlessly integrates with the surroundings, and environmentally sustainable design clearly lies at the heart of the retreat.
The room we stayed in was not only elegant and luxuriously appointed, but it housed our family of five with no challenges. I can’t imagine any family staying without feeling completely comfortable and looked after (particularly by the staff – who are friendly, knowledgable and patient – even with a 6-year-old with 3298 questions about a platypus).
When you’re staying at the Wildlife Retreat, you’re invited to a range of guest-only tours, many of which take place outside of regular zoo opening hours, so it feels a little like the zoo is all yours. My children absolutely delighted in the zookeepers’ stories about the rare birds in the Wollemi Aviary, while I became a little enamoured with the endangered Tasmanian Devils.
After checking out at 10am, we were free to wander the zoo, and despite already being annual zoo pass holders, we continued to wander the grounds for hours. With a fresh set of eyes that saw a new appreciation of Taronga, of the animals that call the zoo home, and yes, of Sydney.
Wildlife Retreat, we’ll be back.
Rates at the Wildlife Retreat at Taronga start at $790 per night for two adults and includes a two-course dinner, buffet breakfast, immersive and exclusive Australian animal experiences and complimentary general admission to Taronga Zoo. Taronga Conservation Society Australia is a not-for-profit organisation and proceeds from every stay support Taronga’s ongoing work caring for animals within its two zoos and through conservation programs around the world.