In the world-famous San Diego Zoo, one of the most popular areas is the Australian fauna section. Not with Australians, of course. We’re always too busy looking at the pandas, polar bears and klipspringers.

A visit to Healesville Sanctuary is a good way to re-appreciate our own fabulously weird animals. It’s probably the only place where a visitor can see a Tasmanian Devil stretching out happily under a sun lamp, or a keeper taking a couple of dingos for their daily walk -“ on a leash.

Healesville is a small valley town 65 kilometres from Melbourne -“ far enough to feel like the country, but close enough to make it a perfect one-night holiday from the city. Regular tourism (stemming from the Sanctuary) has given Healesville a sophistication that belies its size, and the town now features a few great restaurants, at least two fabulous places to stay, and a couple of world-famous attractions.

The Sanctuary opened in its current form in 1934, after it was granted to anatomy researcher Colin MacKenzie who used the land to study the bone make-up of native fauna.

Back then, the park had Splash, the first platypus successfully held in captivity, an early park attraction. The platypus enclosure is still one of the best-loved features of the Sanctuary.

Healesville Sanctuary’s charm lies in its accessibility to the animals. Kangaroos graze alongside the paths, emus walk freely through the park, and most of the birds are free to come and go as they please. The park’s more than 300,000 visitors per year see Australia’s native animals living as close to natural lives as possible.

The Healesville area has become a popular choice for Melburnians looking for a sea-change. Three gay guys from the city who have recently made their mark on the place are the men from Mt Rael Retreat. Sean, Ross and John are the manager, floor manager and chef of this up and coming hotel/restaurant. The three have heaps of experience in the restaurant business between them, and their hill-top premises are becoming well-known for their food as well as the staggering view.

Apparently once owned by the Raelians, Mt Rael has one of those views that can stop conversation about anything else. The restaurant’s building-long wooden verandah makes a cigarette break (for those who like their fresh air a little less fresh) an outdoor experience.

Mt Rael sits a couple of kilometres out of the township of Healesville, up a bit of a hairy, winding dirt track. As the restaurant also features a great wine list, it might be a good idea to book a room for the night.

Originally furnished with bits and pieces we had in our houses, Ross says, Mt Rael’s five rooms now look like display rooms in Wallpaper Magazine. Each is very different -“ Javan has a 50s feel, Shecky is a warm and comfortable room done in browns, red and oranges, Louie has a smart citrus colour scheme, Tzar has a rounded red couch and feels like a gentlemen’s lounge, and Sharman comes with a spa overlooking the valley, a lounge area, robes, DVD/video player and a very private outlook. Breakfast provisions are laid out in the rooms for guests to prepare themselves, and eat out on private tables on the verandah overlooking the valley. Most mornings the valley fills with low fog, making the view even more spectacular.

Mt Rael’s prices range from $150 per night for Javan to $350 per night for Sharman. Each is a comfortable option.

A truly luxurious accommodation option in the Healesville valley has the feel of a Toorak mansion. Susan’s in the Valley is two minutes’ drive from the Sanctuary and features huge rooms in beautiful grounds. Guests get the run of the house. Susan is a gracious hostess who provides as much or as little attention as is needed, while her two cats provide as much attention as they can.

Susan’s comes with breakfast anything you want, she says, with a camp sweep of her arm, and dinner parties can be arranged (with a personal butler if that takes your fancy).

Healesville is an hour’s drive from Melbourne.

Mt Rael (03) 5962 1977

Susan’s in the Valley (03) 5962 6244

Healesville Sanctuary (03) 5957 2800

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