Waking up to a Sydney Harbour view is one thing, it's another when there's a koala a metre from your window, writes Renata Gortan
It's terribly tempting to touch an echidna and see if their spikes really are as sharp as they look. Something about the way they waddle as their little snout stops to sniff you makes them seem much more cuddly than they really are. But common sense, and a ranger, prevails so I keep my hands to myself.
Having an echidna stop you in your tracks is one of the highlights of staying at Taronga Zoo's Wildlife Retreat. Not only does the eco-luxe accommodation look out over Sydney Harbour, it's built around a mini-wildlife sanctuary where you can get up close and personal with native Australian animals.
Touching though, is off limits. Spikes or no spikes.
I watch the echidnas amble past as the group moves on to the tammar wallabies. They're less curious than the echidnas and have to be lured out with snacks of crunchy carrots and green beans by the zookeepers. There are also red-necked pademelons, rufous-bettongs, potoroos and the highlight, five koalas high up in the gumtrees.
Of all the animals in the zoo, these are the most expensive to feed. Our guide, Ryan, tells us they only eat one type of gum leaf from a specific eucalyptus tree and the zoo has to stock the equivalent of 1000 trees per koala per year.
The expense of keeping the animals, and funding the breeding programs Taronga is known for, is one of the reasons for the new accommodation which helps subsidise the zoo.
The Taronga Conservation Society Australia owns and operates the Wildlife Retreat, which opened in October 2019, just before Sydney's first lockdown. The 62 rooms are housed in five sustainably designed lodges, which are connected by external walkways. Materials such as reconstituted timber and metal, plus native planted green screens help it blend into the zoo's bushland setting.
But this is a step up from the glamping tents on the zoo grounds.
There's everything you expect of luxury accommodation, from the comfortable queen bed to the bathroom amenities, but the reason you stay here is the location. The rooms circle the Wildlife Sanctuary and look out over treetops, into animal enclosures or across the water to the Harbour Bridge.
Taronga Zoo is in Mosman, one of Sydney's ritziest suburbs, and boasts uninterrupted views of Sydney Harbour. The only thing between you and the water are trees and animal enclosures. In a city obsessed with property prices, it turns out that the giraffes have the most expensive real estate in town because when the zoo moved from Moore Park to Mosman in 1916, this was some of the cheapest land in Sydney. The bridge wouldn't arrive until 1923, so the animals had to be shipped across the water.
Now, it's an easy 15-minute drive from the CBD or a relaxed ferry ride from Circular Quay, but the bushland setting makes it feel like you are stepping into a different world.
We're welcome spectators here, as the kookaburras like to remind us.
After the Sanctuary tour, we stop for a drink at N'Gurra Lounge. Its wide, circular verandah overlooks Sydney Harbour and we're not the only ones enjoying the view. The kookaburras join us, perched on top of the balcony and make eye contact with us. There's no hint of fear, a reminder that this is their domain and we're just visiting.
Like any luxury hotel, there's a restaurant to match.
Me-Gal is named after the Cammeraigal word for 'tears' and references the saltwater of the harbour surrounding the retreat. The menu is a celebration of Australian produce and highlights native ingredients. Sourdough is accompanied by lemon myrtle butter, Victorian pan-seared sea bass is served with mountain pepperberry marinated edamame and green beans while roasted celeriac comes with a wattleseed and mushroom XO.
After watching the sun set behind the harbour bridge while we dine, we go back to our room and leave the windows open but the blinds drawn. We fall asleep to the sound of leaves rustling in the wind and wake to birdsong and various animals also emerging from their slumber. It's an earlier start than most hotel stays warrant, but it's hard to complain when we're woken by the sounds of animals starting their day rather than an alarm clock.
We pull back the curtains to be greeted by the kind of view that we came here for. A koala is perched in a tree just outside our window, munching on those eucalyptus leaves that this stay helps pay for, before it climbs down the trunk. Koalas are notoriously lazy creatures, they sleep for up to 20 hours a day, and tend to move in the morning so getting to see them in action is a thrill.
Me-Gal puts on a buffet breakfast for hotel guests and then there's a morning tour. Scott takes us through the aviary which is home to Australian native bird species, down to see red kangaroos hopping around their habitat and through to the Tasmanian devils.
We're then let loose in the zoo before it opens to the public.
Wandering an empty zoo is delightful, especially early in the day when the animals are lively. The Bolivian spider monkeys launch themselves from one tree branch to another, the giraffes are strolling across their domain enjoying those water views and the lions are pacing as they get ready for breakfast.
The lion pride of mum, dad and five cubs are fed at 9.30am, just as the zoo opens and it's clearly a hot ticket item, but thanks to our early start we have prime position as the crowds descend.
Like most luxury stays in Sydney, the Wildlife Retreat offers postcard-perfect harbour views but having front-row seats to breakfasting koalas and lions is what really makes it memorable.
Taronga Zoo's Ultimate Retreat includes a tour of the Sanctuary, three-course dinner at Me-Gal, buffet breakfast, free access to Taronga Zoo and free parking. From $865, twin share. For more information go to taronga.org.au/sydney-zoo/wildlife-retreat
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