A platypus named MacKenzie swims in circles by the front door feasting on yabbies. A koala is munching eucalyptus leaves in a tree outside our window. As we tour the grounds, Robbie the echidna waddles behind us. Taronga Zoo’s plush new Wildlife Retreat is a tribute to the efforts of staff to acclimatise some of the world’s most shy creatures to the presence of human guests.

We’re among the first people to stay at the retreat, but the animals have been making themselves at home for several months. It’s everything we hoped for. The smart new buildings with their cutting-edge design make a perfect showcase for Australia’s flora and fauna.

It’s also a great display of Sydney’s history and Aboriginal culture – both drawcards Taronga hopes will attract overseas visitors.

And, of course, the site sits at the heart of one of the world’s great zoos – soon to be battling out with a newcomer: Sydney Zoo, in Western Sydney, which holds its opening today. The new zoo will have its work cut out.

Taronga opened in 1916 and has some big stars including three delightfully playful 11-month-old Sumatran tiger cubs: Mawar (meaning rose in Indonesian), Tengah Malam (midnight) and Pemanah (archer).

Part of our retreat package includes the popular Tiger Trek where we watch the cubs greedily gnawing at a steak bone. We are mesmerised by the tigers as they play, growl, tumble and occasionally stop to take a sip of water from the moat that surrounds their habitat.

The retreat has stunning views of Sydney Harbour and is a sanctuary for a plethora of possums, kookaburras, brush turkeys and lorikeets. It is also home to long-nosed potoroos, short-beaked echidnas, tammar wallabies and red-necked pademelons.

We take a 45-minute expedition around the Sanctuary, a specially designed habitat nestled among the accommodation lodges. Scott, the keeper, discusses the local Cammeraigal people and their 60,000-year connection to the land, trying to explain just what that means.

We return to the N’gurra Lounge to enjoy a sunset drink as a peacock struts past showing off his grand plumes. Later, we dine at the modern-Australian Me-Gal Restaurant which specialises in sustainably sourced local produce with Indigenous influences. Our entrees of Fraser Isle spanner crab timbale and king prawns are delicious. Main courses of fillet steak with king oyster mushrooms and Coral Coast barramundi with clams and honey parsnip puree are equally delightful.

At 6am, we are up for a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo to wake the meerkats and watch a couple of gorilla brothers at play.

We stop for breakfast, and then we are off again to visit the giraffes. We marvel at the balancing act it takes to drink from a pond when you have a metres-long neck.

The 62-room retreat is owned and operated by the Taronga Conservation Society and all profits go to conservation work.

Take me there

Transport: Wildlife Retreat at Taronga Zoo is on Bradleys Head Road in Mosman, a 15-minute drive from the Sydney CBD. You can arrive by car (undercover parking is free for retreat guests), or take the ferry and cable car.

Stay: Rates start from $790 per night for two adults in a Bushland Room. Package includes a two-course dinner at Me-Gal, a buffet breakfast, immersive tours and guided walks, as well as admission to Taronga Zoo.

Explore more: taronga.org.au

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