A gorgeous Sydney sunset at Taronga Zoo.

A gorgeous Sydney sunset at Taronga Zoo.

Ditch boring hotel rooms and try something out of the ordinary with the kids next time you visit Sydney, or if you already live in Australia’s biggest city, get out and explore your own backyard.

Sydney is all upfront, glamour with its show-off harbour, gorgeous beaches and sunny blue skies. It's also a big city and because of its urban sprawl, you can easily miss its unique experiences. Who knew you can spend the night at Taronga Zoo, stay on an island, or spend the night in a hotel with its own resident ghost?

Stay at the zoo

It's the ultimate sleepover - camping at Sydney's iconic Taronga Zoo. And surprisingly, it's not just kids that love this experience. On the night we arrive, a chilly winter's evening, the large crowd gathered with their overnight bags is a mix of couples and families with older kids and a few with littlies like ours.  

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As we make our way through the zoo at night, past giraffes silhouetted against the setting sun, there is a tangible sense of excitement. We are shown to our luxury dome tent and despite the heavy rain, it's dry and seriously well equipped. Polished wooden floors, a double bed with electric blanket, linen and a single bed for our daughter Ella, who's beside herself that she's finally at 'Roar and Snore'. The best part of the campsite is the expansive view of Sydney Harbour and its twinkling lights on one side, while on the other are lions, meerkats and other exotic animals.

We meet for a cheese platter at the campsite's central hub, where over a glass of wine, zoo staff introduce us to a beautiful diamond python, a baby crocodile, a green tree frog and bearded dragon. Everyone then sits down at two long tables for a fantastic buffet dinner before embarking on a walking safari of the zoo at night, seeing lions sleeping and feeding bears. The night ends back at the campsite enjoying hot chocolate and home baked brownies before turning in.

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The next day it's still raining cats and dogs (be warned, Roar and Snore is an all-weather event), but it's a thrill to experience a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo before the crowds arrive. We pat a seal, feed carrots to a giraffe and marvel at surely one of the best views offered at any zoo in the world.

Roar and Snore costs from $290 per adult and $195 per child (5-12) and includes a buffet dinner, nibbles and refreshments, tea, coffee and sweets, light breakfast, complimentary parking, all linen and towels and access to the zoo once the program finishes. www.taronga.org.au/roarandsnore 

Stay on an island

Who knew you could stay on an island smack bang in the middle of Sydney's beautiful harbour?

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Off limits to the public for more than a century, Cockatoo Island is world-heritage listed for its history of convict detention and industry. It's now not only open to day visitors, but those wanting to sleep over as well.

At 18ha, Cockatoo Island is Sydney Harbour's biggest island and provides the world's first urban waterfront campground (thousands camp on New Year's Eve), a waterfront bar, licensed kiosk and historic apartments and houses with some of Sydney's best water views going. Our two-bedroom Harbour View apartment is fully self-contained and offers a large balcony with gob smacking views across Sydney Harbour and the vessels that ply its waters day and night. You can book a tour or take yourself on a self-guided journey to learn about the island's history, first as a penal establishment, next as a centre of shipbuilding (the island constructed the Empress of Australia which when completed in 1965 was the largest roll-on roll-off cargo ship in the world), and later as a base for the Royal Australian Navy.

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There are tennis courts, kayaking, a swimming area, places to eat including the fabulous Island Bar and activities for children. But the best part for me was sitting on the deck with a glass of wine, transfixed as ferries, ships and leisure craft passed by, while overhead a aircraft took off from Sydney Airport. Oh and the ferry ride to and from Circular Quay was fantastic. Do it, you'll love it.

Cockatoo Island's Harbour View apartments are priced from $250 a night for a one bedroom and $390 for a two bedroom. Ph 02 8898 2100.

Stay in a hotel with a ghost

A masterpiece of boutique hoteliery, this historic darling in Sydney’s historic Rocks precinct blends comfort, style and an incredible heritage into one. And it comes with its own ghost named Eric.

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The newest member of Accor’s MGallery Collection, the Harbour Rocks Hotel has been re-launched following a total redesign. The $10 million makeover includes the launch of the Harbour View Suite, which comes with a rarity in Sydney – a large outdoor terrace, ideal for entertaining with Sydney Opera House as a backdrop. Imagine the party you could have! An alfresco family BBQ under the stars, a cocktail party for dad’s fortieth with a performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra string quartet (yes the hotel can arrange this - easily).
 
But back to more interesting things. The multi-million dollar refurbishment has seen the hotel’s interior stripped back to its original foundations, exposing the sandstone and brick walls, which were laid in 1887, as well as a resident ghost by the name of Eric.
 
Legend has it; Eric was a patron of the premises in the late 1800s and was in love with Scarlett, the ‘Madame’ of the house. After both declaring their love for one another, Eric went away on a three-month journey overseas, and upon his return, they were set to marry. When he returned, unbeknown to him, Scarlett had died. A heartbroken Eric passed away not long after and to this day, it is said Eric’s spirit lingers in the corridors of the hotel as he longs for his Scarlett - hence, the naming of the hotel’s bar (Eric’s) and restaurant (Scarlett), which pay homage to these legends.

Scarlett restaurant, located on the ground floor just off the Nurses Walk, is encased by sandstone (individually marked convict brick walls) and is a great spot for brekkie or lunch. Next-door is Rockpool so be sure to get reception to book a babysitter and enjoy a childfree night out together. Don't forget to have a pre or post dinner drink at Eric’s Bar. Who knows he may turn up. 

The hotel also features spacious rooms with a New York loft apartment feel. In our studio suite, with its smart charcoal brick walls, king size bed and a separate double sofa bed for the kids, we could see over the rooftops of the historic buildings and across the harbor to the opera house.

The hotel’s heritage offers a mix of old world charm to complement the European, designer influences, such as the cascading wax chandelier from Israel adorns the lobby and the original maps of Sydney’s first colony, which line the walls. All of the 59-guestrooms come with today’s mod cons including iPod docking stations, a DVD library and Wi-Fi access in all rooms.

We never heard a peep out of Eric, even though I practically slept with one eye open. To be sure the kids do get a ghoulish experience, book a Rocks Ghost Tour (they have family tours appropriate for kids eight and over) where you get to explore the lanes and alleyways, while hearing intriguing true stories of the characters who once lived in the area.

Sydney Observatory is also just a short walk away where night tours will have the family taking in the wonder of the southern sky, or visit the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Luna Park or Darling Harbour. Ghost or no ghost, this is a fab place for families to stay and explore the Rocks.

Rates start from $269 per night. The hotel also offers a “Family Getaway Package” which includes overnight accommodation in the room of your choice, $30 food and beverage credit, buffet breakfast in Scarlett Restaurant, children’s teddy bear and activity pack, valid for two adults and two children. www.mgallery.com. For family ghost tours see www.ghosttours.com.au.

Other surprises in Sydney

* The School is the latest venture for Megan Morton, one of Australia's leading stylists, offering crafternoons and make-it-yourself lessons with specially selected teachers for adults and children. Classes are structured with all levels of experience in mind. 85 Dunning Ave, Rosebery, 02 9693 2782.

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* Alexandria's most exciting foodie development is The Grounds, by creative entrepreneur Ramsey Choker and coffee guru Jack Hanna. It's an innovative, sustainable specialty coffee outfit in a heritage-listed warehouse. Coffee roasting here is a spectator sport. There is also a micro-farm, bakery, resident horticulturalist, and even gardening classes for kids. Building 7A, 2 Huntley St, Alexandria. 02 9699 2225.

*Check out Sydney’s new Darling Quarter precinct, which includes a fabulous new kid’s playground and the Darling Quarter Theatre, which has been established solely for children’s theatre. www.darlingquarter.com. The theatre is run by the Monkey Baa Theatre Company, who stage theatrical productions for school groups and kids of all ages. See the full program of shows at www.monkeybaa.com.au.

Further information: Visit sydney.com

You can follow Sheriden and Ella's adventures and pick up family travel tips on the Frequent Small Flyer Facebook page.