Staying overnight at Taronga Zoo is nothing new. The Roar and Snore glamping experience – with its after-hours access and spacious tent accommodation, complete with comfy beds, buffet dining and iconic Harbour views – has been attracting visitors for years.
But bunking down under canvas, no matter how glam, isn’t for everyone. For those with top-shelf tastes, Taronga is now taking bold strides into the luxury accommodation market with its purpose-built 62-room Retreat. This complex of sleek, timber-clad lodges encircling a private bushland garden is a remarkably successful fusion of elegant sophistication and sustainable design, where wildlife and the high-life exist side by side.
As soon as you enter the beautifully appointed reception lounge in the N’gurra Lodge, the uncompromising quality guests can expect is clear. After being greeted by friendly reception staff, there’s a chance to enjoy the stunning Sydney panorama on the terrace while you sip on a complimentary glass of rosehip ice tea. As your luggage is spirited away to your room, a member of the concierge team talks you through your overnight stay, which includes access to the zoo, privately guided animal tours, sunset cocktails and dinner at the Retreat’s exclusive fine-dining restaurant, Me-gal.
Rich with earthy tones, natural fibres, wooden textures and burnished metals, the décor channels rustic charm above overt opulence, although the execution is every bit as refined as a five-star resort. Be it the whimsical flock of illuminated birds suspended above the N’gurra’s cosy fire pit, the asymmetrical slate tiling and grassy, deep-pile rugs, or the leafy ceramics accenting the Retreat’s small yet perfectly formed bar: the natural world is a constant muse, blurring the lines between these crafted interiors and the enclosures beyond.
The accommodations are similarly styled with a soft, natural palette and excellent finishes. However, it’s what lays outside that really makes these rooms unique. Floor-to-ceiling windows open to reveal a glass Juliet-balcony overlooking a habitat full of native fauna and plants. This sanctuary for indigenous species – including bettongs, potoroos, wallabies, echidnas and that most recognisable of Australian critters, the koala – has been developed in collaboration with Cammeraygal elders, the traditional custodians of the land on which Taronga sits. This carefully landscaped bush scene, complete with babbling stream and waterfall, is solely for guests of the Retreat to enjoy, making it by far the most impressive amenity on offer here, and arguably, at any hotel in the city.
Taronga’s talented keepers are on hand to guide you through this tranquil Aussie eden, offering guests up-close encounters with the adorable critters (including a few non-native interlopers, such as George, Taronga’s itinerant peacock). This is no petting zoo, however. The sanctuary tours are intended to broaden the appreciation and knowledge of the guests while revealing the important conservation techniques being employed by Taronga to ensure these animals are preserved for future generations.
In fact, every aspect of the Retreat has been conceived with sustainability in mind, so it can deliver all the accoutrements of luxury hospitality without compromising on its green principles. For the most part, the experience is eco-by-stealth, Taronga's environmental ethics at work beneath the five-star sheen. Take, for example, the Me-Gal restaurant, which offers the highest levels of fine dining with a menu showcasing responsibly sourced, indigenous produce.
Guests are welcome to remain within the confines of the Retreat for their entire stay, but VIP access to the main zoo attractions outside of regular opening hours is a highlight that shouldn’t be missed. A daybreak tour, departing the Retreat at 6am, lets guests experience Taronga’s animals at one of their most active times of the day (keep-cups full of coffee are provided). A second pre-opening tour at 8:45am, once visitors have fuelled up on Me-Gal’s a la carte breakfast, is an opportunity to meet the keepers who look after the zoo’s exotic residents as they prep habitats for the day ahead.
Comparing the Taronga Wildlife Retreat to other luxury hotels is perhaps like comparing roos with wallabys: while there are certainly plenty of high-end trappings that make a stay here undeniably luxe, other five-star must-haves, such as a pool, a spa, or comprehensive room service, are missing. The closest similarity to Sydney’s other elite accommodations is the cost: a single night’s stay in a standard bush-facing room will set you back $790. This may sound steep, but the revenue from the Retreat goes into supporting Taronga's vital conservation efforts, and ultimately delivers an experience of nature that is utterly priceless.