Spending almost a month in Queensland, I was fortunate enough to experience many so-called once in a lifetime moments. These included everything from helicopter rides to soaring over UNESCO World Heritage rainforests in Cape Tribulation on a zip-line. One of my favorite experiences is what drew me to this beautiful part of Australia in the first place though; the opportunity to not just see the Great Barrier Reef, but to spend the night alongside it in what is one of the most unique sleeping experiences in the world – the Reefsleep.
The Whitsundays are the stuff of travel dreams and postcards. Located off of the central coast of Queensland in Australia, it’s a group of islands as perfect in their tropical splendor as any in the world. In addition to their sugary sand beaches though they have another added benefit, access to the impressive Great Barrier Reef. One of the world’s great natural wonders, it has had a firm spot on my own personal bucket list for years. In fact, I recently listed it as one of the 40 things I want to do before I turn 40 in January. That’s why I was there ultimately, and as I left Hamilton Island for my great adventure, I couldn’t have been more excited.
Given the massive size of the Great Barrier Reef, it stretches for more than 1,400 miles, there are many different places in Queensland from which you can access this natural wonder. One of the most popular though is from the vacation resort island, Hamilton Island. Hamilton is easy enough to get to, with both flights and ferries connecting it to the rest of the world. I spent a few days exploring this beautiful island, but the real star of my time there was of course the Great Barrier Reef.
The vast majority of people visit the Great Barrier Reef on a day trip, which is fine. From Hamilton Island the Cruise Whitsundays company takes hundreds of people out to the reef daily on massive reef boats, truly small cruise ships. Cutting through the waves on a windy day, the two-hour boat ride from Hamilton Island seemed to take forever, but that’s a testimony to my excitement more than anything else. About twenty years ago, Cruise Whitsundays decided to build a permanently moored pontoon that they affectionately call Reefworld. This is the destination for the day-trippers and it’s located adjacent to Hardy Reef, one of thousands of individual reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef. It’s really a very small, self-contained little town. Once onboard day-trippers have access to everything from wetsuits, snorkeling gear and more. There are also a variety of activity options. Snorkeling is free, and is mostly what everyone is there to do, but they also have a comprehensive SCUBA facility, spa services and even two helicopters to take guests over the reef system on brief but memorable flights. Naturally, I did a little bit of everything.
Depending on weather and sea conditions, guests have about four hours to enjoy the reef and all of the associated activities before they have to hop on board the ship to return to their hotels and resorts. It’s during this time when I enjoyed all of the activities offered by Reefworld. I’ll devote separate posts to them all individually, but a personal highlight was the ten-minute helicopter flight above both Hardy and Heart Reefs. It’s only from the air that you can truly appreciate both the beauty and the size of the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living organism in the world, and from the helicopter you can easily sense its pulsating rhythms. It was also on Reefworld where I tried SCUBA for the first time. Even if you’re like me and have no previous experience, the experts on board lead you literally by hand on what’s called an introductory dive. I was terrified, but I did it and the experience was remarkable. I’ve snorkeled in many amazing places all around the world, but everything pales in comparison to the Great Barrier Reef for both the array of colors and the diversity of life found along the coral walls.
I wasn’t a day-tripper though, I was one of the lucky few who spent the night onboard Reefworld for a once in a lifetime Reefsleep experience. The process is simple; overnight guests accompany the day-trippers out to the reef and enjoy all of the same activities during the day. The real fun though starts when everyone leaves and only a handful of people are left onboard. They only accept a small number of guests every night, so the experience is guaranteed to be private and very special.
The night I was onboard there were six of us in total spending the night, from all walks of life and we immediately became fast friends. There’s just something about the uniqueness of such an experience that draws people closer, and it’s this communion of souls that is a big part of making the Reefsleep experience so very special. But it’s also the privacy. Standing on the back of the pontoon, all alone as I watched the sun quickly fall into the warm waters abutting the reef was a moment like none other. Not many people in the world get to experience such beauty, much less in such an intimate way but it was just the beginning of many such remarkable moments during the Reefsleep itself.
Not only do overnight guests get the run of the giant Reefworld pontoon after the day-trippers leave, but they can also enjoy all of its services. So as soon as everyone left, I put back on a wetsuit and jumped into the water, left to explore the Great Barrier Reef all alone. Instead of dozens of people bumping into me as had happened during the day, this was a private experience; I felt like I had the entirety of the Great Barrier Reef all to myself, and I did.
The benefits of the Reefsleep don’t end there. The service onboard was better than I could have ever expected. Dedicated staff are on hand to see to the Reefsleeper’s needs, including making a delicious dinner for everyone under the stars. It felt like a kind of oceanic camping, only with steak and sticky toffee pudding instead of burgers and S’Mores. Within a few minutes of the appetizers being handed out, everyone was smiling and laughing, giddy from the uniqueness of having dinner on the Great Barrier Reef. An unexpected highlight of the experience happened after dinner though, stargazing. Out there, literally in the middle of nowhere, the Southern sky shines in a way that’s hard to find anywhere else. I have never seen a night’s sky like that before, I couldn’t believe the number of stars and constellations I saw, even the Milky Way itself. It was like a planetarium, except real of course and it also provided the perfect ceiling for the sleeping experience itself.
Guests sleep under those very stars in what Australians call swags, an interesting hybrid of tent and sleeping bag that are actually the perfect way to enjoy the experience. If I’m going to sleep alongside the Great Barrier Reef, I want to feel like I’m actually sleeping next to the Great Barrier Reef, and being outdoors is the only way to accomplish that. The gentle sounds of the waves lulled me to sleep that night, and the raucous caws of seabirds woke me up to one of the most epic sunrises I’ve ever seen. Sipping my coffee as I gazed for the thousandth time across the sea I realized why I had added this experience to my bucket list. There’s absolutely nothing else like it in the world; it’s an experience as unique as trekking to Antarctica or seeing the pyramids and is just as special.
By the time the next group of day-trippers arrived, I of course felt like an expert on all things related to the Great Barrier Reef. I joined them again in snorkeling and sat sipping tea, watching everyone enjoy their first Great Barrier Reef experience. That afternoon instead of staying onboard, I joined the giant ship as she sailed back to Hamilton Island, and watched with an enviable smile as the new Reefsleepers stayed onboard for their own special moment in time.
Before I arrived, everyone told me that I would love the Reefsleep experience but I wasn’t so sure. I’m not a camper by nature and I thought it might be too rustic. Not only was I completely wrong, but the rusticity involved is, I think, a key part of the experience. It’s sleeping under the stars, next to one of the great wonders of the world that makes it the experience it is. It’s what makes it special, unique and an experience anyone will treasure for a lifetime.
If the Great Barrier Reef is on your bucket list, consider spending a little bit more money (it’s not much more actually) and enjoy a full two days and one night learning all you can about this amazing treasure. It’s not a place you are likely to visit often, and going on a Reefsleep adventure guarantees you’ll enjoy it in the very best way possible.