In our rush to travel internationally we may have overlooked some pretty unique adventures right here in Australia, and sleeping under the stars over the Great Barrier Reef is certainly one of them. Most international visitors would be pea-green with envy at the thought of seeing our Great Barrier Reef, let alone spending the night on top of it. It is genuinely one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
The overnight reef adventure has been running for a few years now, however the original pontoon has been replaced with a new, $10 million, 540-square metre "Reefworld'' version anchored at Hardy Reef, 39 nautical miles from Queensland's Airlie Beach. On top of the three-deck-high pontoon are 12 luxury 'Reefsleep' swags where you can sleep out under the night sky. There are also two below-deck Reefsuites; those lucky enough to snare one of these will be the envy of all passengers, for they have floor-to-ceiling views of all the underwater action along the reef.
There are two bars, plenty of toilets and showers, tables and seating, as well as rows of wetsuits and stinger suits, flippers, snorkels and masks. The "reef rats" - those who staff Reefworld during the day - have their own quarters on the old pontoon, about 100 metres away.
Of course, getting out there is the hard part, that's why it's such a bonus to be spending the night. Hardy Reef is a three-hour ride form Airlie Beach on a 300-person Cruise Whitsundays catamaran, which stops by Hamilton Island to collect passengers on the way. For two hours you cruise past the islands and for one hour you cross open sea, which potentially could get rough in bad weather.
On board, Reefsleep guests get the VIP treatment, with special seats, attentive staff and morning tea. This is the time to plan your day on the reef as guests are offered diving trips with instructors for experienced and first-time divers. You can also book scenic chopper flights over Heart Reef.
Our three-hour trip is thankfully uneventful and we arrive at Hardy Reef at around 11am and board the pontoon. Day-trippers waste no time getting into snorkelling gear and heading onto the reef. On our boat there are almost 200 people splashing about a sectioned-off area of the reef. Knowing how crowded it can get out there, I decide to wait it out. This is the time to hop on the semi-submersible glass-bottomed boat, which ferries guests up and down the reef. You can also check out the underwater observatory, and take that scenic chopper flight over tiny, 17-metre Heart Reef. While the ride in the helicopter is a thrill in itself, it's also great to experience the reef from the air, taking in manta rays, turtles and reverse waterfalls where the ocean and the reef meet. Squeezing in lunch will be an afterthought after all that excitement; on day one, it's served by staff on the catamaran, with a good mix of salads and hot foods and vegan and vegetarian options.
At 2pm our Reefsleep privileges kick in. We get to check into our "sleeping pods" which include a queen-size mattress on a proper bedbase, cocooned in a sturdy canvas zip-up hood. The bed head includes useful things such as USB ports, lights and a fan, plus a couple of hooks to hang clothing. Underneath the pod there's two huge drawers for storing luggage. Around 2.30pm we're seated at a long dining table in our private quarters. It's at this time we also say bon voyage to the Cruise Whitsunday day-trippers, and a palpable ripple of relief spreads throughout the remainder of the guests, who finally have the reef to themselves.
But first, a bountiful afternoon tea is served and includes mediterranean-style platters of cheese, cured meats, dried fruit, olives and sundried tomatoes. Plus the bar opens - all drinks are inclusive. But this is no time to drink - the reef is finally clear of noisy day trippers and guests - who number 18 - are keen to get into the now-silent waters.
The pontoon is anchored where the shelf of the reef drops into a channel, and there's a section marked by buoys along which you are allowed to swim. Guests experience it at high and low tide, where the reef is visible outside of the water for miles and plunges deep beneath you. There's plenty of schools of colourful fish, of all shapes and sizes, but I get the biggest shock of my life when a enormous, seemingly neverending and spectacularly marked maori wrasse pulls up alongside me and darts across the reef. A whistle blows from the friendly lifeguard to warn me I've swum too far; easy to do when your eyes are darting almost everywhere else but on the water's surface. Whistles also blow when it's time to get on back on board the pontoon, around 5.30pm.
Hot showers are a relief; and at sunset drinks and canapes are served which gives guests time to chat and by dinner everyone is friends. There are several newlyweds, a mother and son, some older family groups (read, no kids) and everyone gets along famously. Food is surprisingly good and two courses include fish for pescatarians and steaks; with tiramisu for dessert. We head to the deck for a nightcap and the ultraviolet lights are switched on, which allows you to see into the water. Two of the "locals" - George and his "missus", are gropers who live under the pontoon like a couple of salty old trolls. They're pretty much famous around here, and their phenomenal size will have you calculating how many meals you'd get out of them (sorry George). A few wines and we're ready to hit our ''Reefbeds''.
The tents are comfortable and spacious, but it doesn't stop me from getting up early to capture the sunrise, which is sadly a bit murky. George lurks by the window of the underwater observatory and Nemo flits past, too - then the coffee machine is switched on at 6.30am. Breakfast is hearty but not heavy; avocado on sourdough, fruit and yoghurt and several cups of coffee. Some of us are happy to relax on deck but others are anxious to get into the water before the now dreaded 11am catamaran arrival from the mainland.
It's not cold, but the weather is a bit testy; a few spots of rain, choppy water and a completely submerged reef gives snorkellers an entirety different outlook. The water is deep enough for us to swim directly over the coral; yesterday afternoon it was too shallow. Different schools of fish appear; a teenager excitedly yells "reef shark!". But I don't see anything more impressive than my maori wrasse I met the previous afternoon, until we take a ride on the submerged submarine which surprisingly yields much closer views of George and his "missus" and finally, a turtle.
We have one more group meal together - lunch of panfried salmon - before we pack up our pods and get ready to check out for the ferry home, cruising into the waters of Hamilton Island and Airlie Beach just in time to witness yet another spectacular sunset over the Whitsundays.
TWO OTHER WAYS TO SEE THE WHITSUNDAYS
In what must be one of Australia's best day outs, Air Whitsundays gives visitors the opportunity to see the region's greatest hits during the course of one day. Setting off from the airport, a six-seater seaplane cruises over Conway National Park and lands at Whitehaven Beach for a swim and a three-course lunch. The trip then takes you over Hill Inlet for a bird's-eye view of the ice-cream swirls of Whitsunday Island, before heading over iconic Heart Reef and landing at a nearby private lagoon for a spot of snorkelling. Put this on top of your to-do list from Airlie Beach. www.airwhitsunday.com.au
NGARO INDIGENOUS CULTURAL TOUR
This new and unique tour is led by local Ngaro guides and sails in parts of the national park where bigger boats can't visit. Starting at secluded Nara Inlet on Hook Island, you'll listen to unique stories and experience rituals carried out by the Ngaro people, a sea-faring tribe who used to live on and around the island. Stepping off the boat, visitors will see ancient cave paintings, try their luck at throwing a spear and enjoy a catered lunch while learning about the Ngaro who inhabited these islands for around 8000 years. These specialised tours are designed for small groups, and can be catered to your requirements. www.whitsundayparadiseexplorer.com.au
La Tabella Trattoria serves modern Italian food, featuring great local seafood, classic Italian desserts, and an excellent wine list. With friendly and attentive staff, it makes this restaurant hard to beat at Airlie. See latabella.com.au. For a more casual option with a difference, Northerlies is 15 minutes' drive outside of town directly on a secluded beach. Craft beer is a passion here; order at the bar for classic surf and turf dishes that include "Whitsunday wild" prawns and seafood platters. They have a courtesy bus that will collect you from Airlie and drive you back. See northerlies.com.au
Whitsunday Vacations offers luxury rental housing for holidays, and one of their properties is right next door to the Cruise Whitsundays terminal. Spoil yourself at new property 3 The Cove, which has four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a huge living area and kitchen which overlooks Port of Airlie Marina, with a deck and small pool. Five minutes' walk from the town centre, the property is ideal for families, groups of friends, self-caterers or those who want more space. See whitsundayvacations.com.au.
Perched directly on the seafront, Coral Sea Resort is also a great option, with spacious, refurbished rooms that include kitchenettes and balconies with spas and hammocks from which to enjoy direct ocean views. There's also a large pool, spa, and a cocktail bar, which attracts locals as well as guests. www.coralsearesort.com
The writer was a guest of Tourism & Events Queensland; www.queensland.com