Home Hotel

Hotel review: "best birthday ever" (in Canberra, no less) 

Did your last big birthday go off without a bang? Maybe you pretended it didn’t happen? Or threw a party that was more hang(over) than bang? With the big five-oh looming, Zoe Macfarlane decided enough of the non-birthdays, it was time to celebrate her half-century with a “best birthday ever”. Cue Jamala Wildlife Lodge. 

Did your last big birthday go off without a bang? Maybe you pretended it didn’t happen? Or threw a party that was more hang(over) than bang? With the big five-oh looming, Zoe Macfarlane decided enough of the non-birthdays, it was time to celebrate her half-century with a “best birthday ever”. Cue Jamala Wildlife Lodge. 

If you’d told me a few months ago that my best birthday in living (slightly faulty) memory would be in Canberra and celebrating my fiftieth, I’d still be laughing now. I don’t really ‘do’ birthdays. 

A manifesting mindset and some health challenges prompted a change of mind, however, because life is 1) what you make it and 2) shorter than you’d probably like (until Elon Musk finds the elixir of life or whatever).  

My new motto? Big birthdays deserve big treats. Or tall ones, in this case, thanks to an exceptional stay at Jamala Wildlife Lodge

A tall order  

Jamala Wildlife Lodge
Our ambient Giraffe Treehouse at Jamala Wildlife Lodge. ©Zoe Macfarlane

Jamala Wildlife Lodge is an award-winning luxury boutique property with a difference, offering guests a safari-style adventure and wildlife encounters at one of the capital’s biggest attractions, the National Zoo and Aquarium. 

With 18 rooms across three categories, Jamala invites guests to sleep close to its resident wildlife. The kind you’d usually suffer a cramp-inducing flight to reach.  

It’s a tall order to forget the number 50, but Jamala rose to the occasion with an invitation to stay in one of their six Giraffe Treehouses. Each stay comes with a balcony giraffe feeding encounter!  

Jamala Wildlife Lodge
Giraffes feed so close you can almost touch them. ©Zoe Macfarlane

That giraffes spend half their day eating is a real benefit, as the leaves hung high between the rooms and a handful of carrots tempted Skye and Khamesi to visit our balcony for a nibble across the afternoon and even pre-breakfast. 

The Giraffe Treehouse rooms are light, airy, and tastefully decorated. The African tunes playing on arrival add to the room’s safari-style ambience. The thoughtfully placed chaise lounge afforded in-room giraffe viewing, and the vast giraffe mosaic in the bathroom was a special touch.  

Go big (cat) or go home 

Jamala Wildlife Lodge
Imagine soaking while a big cat snoozes nearby! ©Zoe Macfarlane

Jamala also has five stylish African-themed Jungle Bungalows where a thick sheet of floor-to-ceiling glass separates you from lions, tigers, cheetahs, or sun bears. There’s even a free-standing tub to wildlife-watch from the bath! I know the next room type I’ll be staying in.

The Jungle Bungalow’s cosy hay beds lay adjacent to the glass, a strategic move to encourage the big cats (and sun bears) to trade exploring their large enclosures for greater snoozing comfort. Across our stay, it was regularly raised that every animal interaction across the zoo is on their terms, so there are no guarantees, of course.  

Jamala Wildlife Lodge Cheetah Encounter
The purfect wildlife encounter for cat lovers. ©Zoe Macfarlane

As a self-confessed crazy cat lady, checking out the Cheetah Jungle Lodge was fabulous. Even better? I also met and patted a cheetah. A real one! That I was elicited a purr as loud as a lawnmower – with delightful chirrup miaows in between – from one of the young cheetah boys filled me with a pride other usually feel for their kids’ achievements.  

There are not only cheetahs to meet; Jamala offers several animal encounters to help big birthdays (or any occasion) go off with a roar. The team at the lodge were intent on making mine special, it seems. Mike, our enthusiastic guide followed cheetah pats with a chance to feed the politest tiger you ever did see!

As I gently passed chunks of meat through a gate, the tigress delicately and patiently took each morsel from the BBQ tongs like it was made of glass. The temptation to smush her cheeks was so strong (though sadly not permitted)! 

Age is meer(kat)ly a number 

Jamala Wildlife Lodge Meerkats
A meerkat encounter is a Jamala Wildlife Lodge must-do! ©Zoe Macfarlane

For families, groups, and those with accessibility requirements, the seven uShaka Lodge rooms are ideal. Resident meerkats and capuchin monkeys are ready to melt hearts, and children love the reef rooms where sharks, a colossal Māori Wrasse head, and other marine creatures patrol the room. 

After checking out the uShaka Lodge Meerkat room, Mike had another surprise for us: a meerkat encounter! Life is good when you have a meerkat on your lap – even when you’re feeding it gross-as fly larvae.  

Yes, they are as adorable as you imagine – more so, in fact, and yes, you will wonder how to sneak one home! 

Celebrate cycles around the sun (bear)  

Jamala Wildlife Lodge
I didn’t have feeding fruit to a sun bear on my 2024 animal bingo card. ©Zoe Macfarlane

If celebrating another year around the sun with a sun bear sounds like a perfect match, it’s because it is. And no, not because Arataki is going grey and has minor mobility issues (the parallels did not go unnoticed).  

Meeting a sun bear wasn’t on my wild animal bingo card, but feeding Arataki and Otay, two sun bears rescued from a traumatic life overseas, showed me the error of my ways. Shy Otay only joined for biscuits towards the end, demonstrating the choice each animal makes on whether to engage with visitors.  

Thanks to five amazing animal encounters, I didn’t have a hot minute to remember that I was now 50. It turns out planning ultra memorable and fun activities helps you forget! 

Meals otter this world 

The animals are the star of any Jamala Wildlife Lodge stay, the luxury accommodation a close second, and the included food and beverages treats round out the experience perfectly. 

A colourful afternoon high tea at uShaka Lodge kicks off every stay. Nibbling on mini burgers, savoury pies, and Nutella-filled mini-doughnuts in an expansive African-themed lounge (once the ‘humble’ abode of Jamala owners Richard and Maureen) sets the perfect tone. Especially as a colobus monkey family (with lively baby) watch on.  

Dinner and breakfast take place at the Rainforest Cave. Our pre-dinner appetiser was not food but an invitation to witness Jake and Mischka, the zoo’s two white lions, grab a juicy thigh bone on the deck outside the cave. Their heavy paws and powerful frames sent a ripple of awe through the Jamala Wildlife Lodge guests on their arrival. 

Our feast followed theirs with delicate canapes, a hearty main, and sumptuously decadent dessert. A nice touch was the kids-only tour allowing the adults to enjoy their mains.  

A large á la carte hot breakfast and unlimited barista coffees started day two off perfectly, fuel for our included National Zoo tour. As guests often stay for a couple of nights (switching rooms), there was ample on the menu for multi-day stays. 

Animal attraction(s) 

Jamala Wildlife Lodge
More time in the zoo means more meerkat cuteness

While Jamala’s check-out at 11 am is firm (it is a working zoo, after all), that doesn’t mean you need to leave the grounds. Despite five wildlife encounters, 22 hours in the zoo, and a morning tour, we still hadn’t seen it all!  

Another lap around National Zoo at our own pace gave us even greater insights into how passionate everyone at the zoo is and how they advocate for the world’s wildlife. 

Wildlife chimp-ions 

Jamala Wildlife Lodge
The ring-tailed lemurs were fascinating to watch. ©Zoe Macfarlane

While, of course, your big day is all about you, it’s lovely that others reap some rewards, too. And not just my friend, Heather, who helped me celebrate 50 in style. Nor the animals that now call National Zoo home. Or even the staff who clearly love working there.  

It’s the animals around the world which benefit from every guest stay at Jamala Wildlife Lodge. Guest fees go towards several national and international conservation, breeding, and education programmes.  

Accessibility & special requests 

Jamala Wildlife Lodge
Travelling with MCAS is easier thanks to the accommodating Jamala team. ©Zoe Macfarlane

In a zoo where all kinds of rescue animals have found retreat – including Otay – it’s no wonder a high level of inclusivity extends to the guests, too.  

Jamala’s on a mission to ensure all are welcome with wheelchair-accessible rooms (choose the Capuchin Rooms), plus wheelchairs and buggy tours available upon request.  

Dietary adjustments were handled with ease after a quick call with the chef mid-afternoon. As someone currently chemical sensitive, the rooms and bedding were pleasantly fragrance-free (though reception was not).  

The deets 

Jamala Wildlife Lodge
Jamala: perfect for big birthdays, big occasions and big animal lovers. ©Zoe Macfarlane

To forget the numbers of your big birthday, celebrate another occasion, or because you’re worth it, visit jamalawildlifelodge.com.au, email info@jamalawildlifelodge.com.au or call them on 02 6287 8444. 

Room rates start from $1,650 per room twin share, including accommodation, all food, beverages, and exclusive tours. For children (4 to 18), add $295; extra adults are $395 each.