I've been lucky enough to embark on some unbelievable travel experiences, including camping on the Great Wall of China, staying in an old football stadium in London, and sleeping at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in the USA. However, Aussies don't have to travel across the world to find a truly unique, out-of-this-world experience — all you need to do is take a look at your own backyard.
The Great Barrier Reef is arguably one of Australia's most famous natural wonders, with the vibrant coral reef serving as the backdrop for the popular Pixar film Finding Nemo. For many travellers, just visiting the area is a firm bucket list item. But what if I told you that there was a way you could stay on the reef itself, in an exclusive and coveted experience?
Enter Reefsleep and Reefsuites at Cruise Whitsunday's Reefworld, a floating pontoon where you have the chance to either sleep under the stars or be surrounded by marine life in Australia's first-ever underwater hotel. I've been to 56 countries, but never made it to the Whitsundays. It's a place I've always wanted to visit, so naturally I jumped at the chance to visit the world-famous spot.
The $10 million pontoon was revamped in 2019 and has 12 decked-out swags for those choosing to sleep above the Hardy Reef. It's essentially like glamping, with a comfy spot to sleep that converts into a day bed once the sun is up. For those looking for a bit more luxury, there are two underwater rooms with a King bed and full ensuite bathrooms.
My adventure began with a three-hour boat ride from Airlie Beach in Queensland to Reefworld, picking up passengers from Hamilton Island on the way. Although staying on the pontoon overnight is exclusive and reserved for small groups, Reefworld is open to day trippers from 11am to 3pm each day.
The boat ride was relaxing and calm for the first couple of hours, with the friendly crew providing breakfast and unlimited drinks for us overnight guests. For those looking to join the tour, it's advised to bring sea sickness tablets, with the journey becoming quite rough for around 45 minutes nearing the reef.
I'm one of those people who gets motion sickness, so travelling on rough waters and staying on a floating pontoon doesn't seem like the best idea. With the help of seasickness tablets, I actually got through the entire experience without a hitch!
Our boat docked at 11am, with a buffet lunch served on the vessel. There isn't phone reception out at Hardy Reef, which makes it easier to switch off and fully immerse yourself in nature.
Reefsleepers aren't able to check into their swags until 2.30pm as guests from the previous nights are still enjoying the beds, but there's an exclusive upstairs bar open only for overnight guests. There's no need to rush into the water, as you'll have so much time with a completely empty reef once the day trippers leave at 3pm. It's a good chance to jump on the semi-submarine for a look at the reef or head to the underwater observatory to check out some wildlife.
I was given the chance to try out an introductory scuba dive with dive master Pete. If there's one thing you do on Reefworld, this should be at the top of your list. The divers are all super friendly, helpful and encouraging, with most people able to take part in a dive — even if you have never dived before! A fully qualified PADI/SSI diver will look after you, holding your hand and keeping you safe.
After getting kitted up, we headed down to the dive pool where we practised a few key skills, then we were quite literally thrown into the deep end. It was such a magical experience to see the Great Barrier Reef up close and be surrounded by the brightly coloured wildlife.
During my time at Reefworld, I was lucky enough to see three baby Nemo fish (clown fish), a turtle swimming directly below me and giant clams. Of course, the actual reef and coral were incredible to see — a dive instructor even showed us some coral that changed colours when tapped lightly.
Once the clock hit 2.30pm I was greeted by the Reefsleep hosts and shown to my nifty little swag. Perched on the edge of the pontoon, the view was truly out of this world. I was able to read and enjoy bottomless drinks while lying on the daybed — which is fitted with a waterproof cover for sunbathing after a dip. There's a drawer outside for your belongings, but I liked keeping my bag inside on the headboard for easy access.
Reefsleepers also have their own private bathrooms away from the day trippers — which even include a hot shower! Water is considered a precious resource, so guests are kindly asked to keep showers to three minutes or less, but that's plenty of time to help you warm up after a chilly dive.
Of course, you're so far from land and any restaurants, but the one thing you don't have to worry about during your stay is food. Not only do you get served delicious main meals by an onboard chef, but there's also afternoon tea, canapés and morning tea. Trust me when I say you will definitely not go hungry!
Guests are also given a bamboo water bottle to help reduce single-use plastics, which is handy as well as the perfect souvenir. After jumping back in the water for a late-afternoon snorkel safari with some other guests, I devoured a plate of canapés while watching the sunset. The pontoon felt completely different once the day trippers had departed, with the entire space now solely ours.
Though it felt like we had been eating all day, we were then served a full dinner downstairs in a beautiful setup. Cruise Whitsundays caters to all dietary needs, with vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free options provided. The food was so tasty, rivalling anything you'd find on the mainland.
I decided to call it a night not too long after dinner so I could get up before sunrise the next day, something that is highly recommended. The Reefsleep crew had been hard at work, as my swag had been transformed from a luxe day bed into a cosy night setup. The waterproof covering had disappeared, with sheets and fluffy white pillows sitting in my little home.
You have the option to completely unzip your swag cover to sleep under the stars, but sadly it was a bit windy and rainy during the night I stayed. I kept my swag zipped up with the flaps open on each side to let some cool ocean air in and slept soundly.
The next day, one row of swags were able to open their tents up and poke their head out to see the sunrise. I was on the sunset side, so at 5.30am I sprung out of bed to watch the sun slowly appear. It was completely silent, apart from the sound of the ocean, and it's a moment I'll cherish forever.
The breakfast buffet was hearty and perfect fuel before we all jumped back into the water. After another fun dive, I opted to have a quick shower and spend the rest of my time relaxing on my swag — which had been converted back into a day bed by staff while I was in the water.
Sadly, at 2pm it was time to depart my little Reefsleep home, with a new set of excited guests getting ready to claim their swag. I grabbed a drink and soaked in my last moments from my stay, and headed back to Airlie Beach on the Cruise Whitsundays boat.
This is definitely one of the most interesting places I've stayed in Australia, and while it lies at the upper end of accommodation prices, when you think about what is included, it's definitely worth shelling out for. It costs $950 for a single traveller, or $650 per person in a shared swag. The exclusivity of the pontoon from 3 pm to 11 am the next day is enough to convince me, let alone all the restaurant-quality meals and unlimited drinks. It's one of those memorable and unique experiences that travellers are constantly searching for.
Reefsuites are more expensive at $1850 for single travellers or $1050 per person sharing a room, but with only two rooms available per night it gets booked up quickly in advance. I'd love to try that next time I visit!
Yahoo Lifestyle was a guest of Tourism Whitsundays in April.
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