Sleep at the Great Barrier Reef with Reefworld

Camping under the stars on a pontoon at the Great Barrier Reef is a real adventure. Moored at the outer Hardy Reef, the pontoon feels like it's perched on the edge of the world. The Whitsunday Islands are dots in the distance, sometimes disappearing altogether depending on the moody clouds. It's strangely quiet except for the wind, which pokes into every corner.

When the crowds of day trippers head home on the regular boat, the pontoon changes from a giant marine playground to a quiet working outpost. My daughter and I are lucky to be the only guests staying overnight, sleeping in a swag on the top deck – as long as I don't chicken out and ask to be switched to the one bedroom below.

We're on a large two-storey floating platform, Reefworld, moored 40 nautical miles from Airlie Beach. Day trippers visit from 11am to 3pm and helicopter guests pay flying visits, literally, in the morning and evening. It's a great introduction to the reef as all types of swimmers are catered for. There are ropes and rest areas to guide beginners while the experienced can explore further out or pay extra to dive.

Once we have the place to ourselves we change into wetsuits and snorkelling gear. It feels like a real privilege – just two of us exploring the reef. Within minutes I'm totally immersed in the busy, vibrant underwater world of parrot fish, clown fish, coralfish, blenny and the forest of colourful coral.

Regular staffers, like our host Chemene Warden,  spend seven days at a time on the pontoon. Warden whips up a simple three-course dinner for us and later chats knowledgeably about the fish swimming past the underwater viewing chamber.

It's a noisy night, with everything creaking and clanking. I imagine we'll be blown away, two little swags airborne, disappearing into the vast sea.

Mary O'Brien

In winter the nights are cool but the swags are surprisingly cosy. We zip ourselves in, leaving the top open to look at the starlit sky, which seems so much bigger out here. Once the full moon comes up, the stars recede, and the wind whips up. It's a noisy night, with everything creaking and clanking. I imagine we'll be blown away, two little swags airborne, disappearing into the vast sea. But the next thing I know it's morning and we're treated to a vast private sunrise. As we eat breakfast a school of tuna jump out of the water, feeding on small fish, while the birds circle overhead, to swoop for the leftover ones.

It's a bit like groundhog day when the big Cruise Whitsundays boat unloads its passengers and the daily activities begin again. By the afternoon, after 28 hours on Hardy Reef, we're ready to return to land. The trip can be rough at times and it's advisable to take seasick tablets if you aren't a strong sailor.

Pretty Airlie Beach is a place in transition. Backpackers are still the main tourists but some 40 per cent of visitors are families, couples and overseas travellers who recognise the multi-dimensional appeal of the region. The town itself had a big upgrade about two years ago when $20 million was spent widening paths, planting trees and putting in walkways.

The lagoon pool and playground on the foreshore are ideal for families. Accommodation ranges from backpacker places to traditional hotels (try the well-located, recently refurbished Airlie Beach Hotel), to swish self-contained apartments such as Marina Shores, to boutique places such as the upmarket Mediterranean-style Coral Sea Resort with its newly revamped jetty, a great spot for sunset drinks.

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The restaurant scene is competitive. Long-time resident Kevin Noonan's Sidewalk Cafe is well placed for drinks and casual dining while next door La Tabella Trattoria is an authentic Italian eatery. Fish D'Vine, an interesting fish cafe and rum bar, has more than 450 rums in stock. Sophisticated restaurants include Tides at Peppers resort, which focuses on local produce and seafood, while Clipper Restaurant at Coral Sea Resort offers a good degustation dinner.

The Bicentennial Walk from Port of Airlie hugs the winding coastline for most of its 3.7 kilometres. A coffee in the Fat Frog cafe at Cannonvale Beach is my reward for exploring.

At heart, Airlie Beach is a port town. Operators such as Cruise Whitsundays offer a range of experiences including island hopping and reefs visits. You can also explore the islands by sailing ship, seaplane or helicopter.

A sign of change is newcomer Airlie Beach Transfers & Tours, which was started four months ago by Jen and Charlie Sturgess. The pair focus on the less discovered areas such as Hydeaway Bay, north of Airlie Beach. Jen knows all the good spots including Whitsundays Gold Coffee Plantation where we visit the rustic cafe and fortnightly Sunday farmers' market. The countryside is beautiful as we drive north, weaving through fields of sugar cane and brahman cattle. We stop at Cape Gloucester Beach and stroll along the almost deserted white sands to Montes Reef Resort. This is a popular spot where locals like to lunch. Seafood is the go here as it comes directly from Bowen fishing trawlers.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Whitsundays and Cruise Whitsundays.

Fly

Jetstar has a new direct Melbourne to Proserpine/Whitsundays Coast service from $149 one way. Check for online specials.

Do

Reefsleep, swag 
$425 a person, double room $475 a person, cruisewhitsundays.com

Tours

Hydeaway Bay Tours, $75, abtt.com.au, 0438 089 682

Stay

Coral Sea Resort, from $265, coralsearesort.com, Airlie Beach Hotel, from $219, airliebeachhotel.com.au; Marina Shores, from $225, marinashores.com.au, check for online specials.

More

Tourismwhitsundays.com.au