The ocean is garbling in Great Barrier Reef speak, singing me to sleep like underwater whale song. I am burrowed stingray-style deep below, four metres beneath the surface of the ocean to be precise, in Australia’s first underwater accommodation, which looks and sounds like a gigantic fish tank.
Up above, wild Whitsunday winds – the type you can expect when you’re perched on the outer reef and a three hours’ boat ride from the Airlie Beach mainland – roar like a lion, slapping at the pontoon’s top deck.
I have become a modern-day mermaid, no gills required, in one of only two luxury underwater suites along Hardy Reef.
The suites form part of a A$10 million redevelopment of Cruise Whitsundays’ Reefworld pontoon, which was damaged when Cyclone Debbie struck the region in 2017. Waves as large as nine metres lashed the area, devastating the Whitsundays.
The refurbished pontoon, which includes an upgrade of the previous upper deck Reefswags to Reefbeds, opened in late 2019, but was closed for most of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Luke Walker, Chief Operating Officer of Journey Beyond, the parent company of Cruise Whitsundays, described the newly developed Reefworld as a “landmark moment for Australia”.
“We are extremely privileged to have access to such a truly breathtaking and remote part of Australia,” he said.
“A stay at our newly developed Reefsuites offers an all-inclusive experience like no other. It includes a return cruise to our Reefworld pontoon, outstanding marine activities, premium beverages, onboard chefs using local produce and, of course, access to an unforgettable stay underwater and alongside Australia’s heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef.”
Reefsuites provide a unique way to explore some of the gifts Australia has to offer and you, too, can sleep like reef royalty.
A discreet door off the main snorkelling deck leads down a steep staircase to the two suites. Measuring about three metres wide and 3.5 metres long and with floor-to-ceiling glass in the bedrooms and ensuites, they are essentially big fishbowls in which you are the human occupant. While the real attraction lies outside the windows, with the multitude of reef life swimming past, it would be remiss not to mention the hotel rooms themselves. There’s no TV (there’s no point with all that’s going on outside), but there are USB ports and power points and, in the ensuites, you’ll find toiletries, waffle weave robes and a hair dryer. These two suites, divided by a sliding wall, are decorated in a subtle white and blue, sleep a maximum of four people.
From Reefswags to Reefbeds
A step up from the previously offered Reefswags, these beds still emulate a swag but have been elevated off the deck and now have USB ports and power points as well. While it can be a bit wild and windy out here, tucked up in your swag you’ll hardly notice and, on a calm, clear night, you can zip open the canvas, witness the moon rise and sleep under the stars. Reefbeds sleep two with a maximum of 24 guests a night.
The food at Reefworld
What French/Swiss Chef Sebastien Benoist can achieve in his modest galley on the pontoon, many cannot muster in five-star establishments on land. Your all-inclusive stay begins by waving off the day tourists who return with Cruise Whitsundays to the Airlie Beach mainland, while you clutch a sparkling Australian white or beer, and feel just a tad smug at securing this remote slice of the Great Barrier Reef to yourself. Chef will then deliver the likes of Australian oysters with lychee and coconut; Whitsunday wild prawns and mango chilli dip, and a charcuterie platter of cured meats, cheese and condiments. For dinner, expect Whitsunday wild barramundi with cauliflower puree or a rump cap with Whitsunday coffee and smoked pumpkin puree. Finish with a quintessential Queensland dessert of mango puree with white chocolate and macadamia crumb and Chantilly cream. You’ll feast on five-star meals until you leave the next afternoon.
The underwater experience
By day in your Reefsuite, watch schools of bait fish flit and flirt across your bedroom window. By night, Reefworld turns on a warm blue light, which enables you to watch larger fish, such as giant grouper George, who weighs 150kg, saunter past your window. If you can tear yourself away from your private paradise, snorkel off the pontoon with Maori wrasse and parrot fish and keep an eye out for marine turtles. Reefworld also offers interpretive snorkelling safaris, diving and a free semi-submersible ride along the reef floor.
The environmental impact
The removal of the original pontoon was the largest natural coral transplant ever achieved on the Great Barrier Reef. More than 4,000 pieces of coral were sustainably removed and replanted to rejuvenate Hardy Reef.
The writer travelled as a guest of Cruise Whitsundays.