Sleeping on the Great Barrier Reef in a Plush, Underwater Suite
In Far North Queensland, Australia, lie the Whitsundays, a string of 74 tropical islands located about 560 miles from the city of Brisbane. This swirl of clear turquoise waters, white sandy beaches, and several smaller reefs are part of the much larger Great Barrier Reef. Recognized as one of the seven natural wonders of the world—and even visible from space—the Great Barrier Reef is a sprawling, 133,000-square-mile marine sanctuary that is home to tons of multi-hued coral and tropical fish.
With maritime operator Cruise Whitsundays, you can experience the reef like never before. Its Reefstays include Reefsleeps, which let you slumber under the stars on above-deck swags, and the far-more-immersive Reefsuites—underwater, glass-enclosed suites surrounded by the reef itself. The latter, Cruise Whitsundays proclaims, is Australia’s first underwater accommodation on the Great Barrier Reef.
Your two-day, one-night foray into this underwater world begins at Airlie Beach on the mainland. As you clamber aboard the transport boat, the mingling scents of tangy saltwater and fresh sunscreen tickle your nose. Taking a seat outside at the stern, you settle in for the two-hour journey. The ocean breeze tousles your hair, and you lean into the comforting warmth of the morning sun, watching as its golden rays dance across the water like thousands of tiny diamonds. You pass dozens of lush green islands, each one drawing you closer to your destination of Reefworld, a permanently moored floating pontoon atop Hardy Reef, an outer reef section of the Great Barrier Reef system.
As you step onto the pontoon you're greeted by an almost surreal seascape. The water is so clear that you can see down to the deep recesses of the reef. A tranquil expanse of turquoise blue stretches as far as the eye can see, occasionally punctuated by the emerald silhouettes of distant islands. Fish dance near the water’s surface, tantalizing you with a preview of the underwater spectacle that awaits.
As you descend into your personal Reefsuite, the room glows a soft turquoise, as the color of the sunlit water filters through floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Fish of every size and color—shimmering blue angelfish, candy-colored parrot fish, tiny orange-striped clownfish—dart past the windows in a frenzied underwater ballet. If you’re lucky, you’ll receive a visit from a massive, slow-moving Queensland grouper affectionately named George. Unlike the open-air Reefsleeps, your Reefsuite is a climate-controlled sanctuary, either with a plush king double bed or twin single wrapped in soft linen sheets, and your own private bathroom.
The Reefsuite is just one component of your two-day adventure. Step outside your private cocoon, and you'll find a series of comfortable lounge areas with cream-cushioned loungers scattered across the pontoon’s deck, perfectly positioned for panoramic vistas. Water activities are abundant. Swimming, snorkeling, and a semi-submarine tour are all included in your package. For an extra cost, you can add on scuba diving.
Cruise Whitsundays is an advanced ecotourism certified operator and deeply invested in protecting this fragile environment. The Great Barrier Reef is facing myriad challenges due to climate change, one of the most pressing being coral bleaching due to rising ocean temperatures. Alongside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Cruise Whitsundays helps monitor and report on real-time changes to the reef. They’re committed to sustainable practices onboard and provide safety briefings to visitors entering the water to minimize environmental impact. Read more about Cruise Whitsundays’ conservation efforts here.
Onboard, the sun dips below the horizon and the day visitors depart, marking a notable shift in the ambiance. Gone are the lively sounds of seabirds and the playful splashes of surface-dwellers. Dinner is a casual affair hosted on the deck, boasting local seafood, fresh produce, and an array of crisp Australian wines.
As the sky slowly darkens, you're encased in a realm where the sky and sea feel like mirrors; below is the dimly lit coral, and above is a tapestry of stars so bright and close you'd swear you can touch them. The Whitsundays are known for their exceptionally clear nights, making stargazing an almost-guaranteed activity; in the summer, the Milky Way is often visible in its full glory.
When it’s time to retire, you make your way down to your personal Reefsuite. While you’re nestled in your bed, the muffled sounds of the underwater world fill the space. It's a soothing blend of near-silence and soft echoes of water movement, transporting you to a realm of tranquillity as the ocean’s currents gently rock you to sleep. And when you awake, the morning rays hit the water, sending shimmers of warm golden sunlight into your suite. Time to lounge in bed and soak up these last peaceful moments before you’re transported back to dry land.
- Getting there: A great deal of international flights arrive in Australia via Sydney Airport (SYD). To get to the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef, you could then take a short regional flight to Proserpine, where you can get to Airlie Beach via a 45-minute airport shuttle transfer. You could also fly into Townsville, then drive 3.5 hours south along the coast to Airlie Beach. Cruise Whitsundays Reefsleeps are a full two-day experience. Transportation departs from the Port of Airlie at the Cruise Whitsundays terminal at 8am and returns to the Port of Airlie at 6:10pm the following day. Return coach transfers from your accommodation to the port are also available for about $8 USD ($13 AUD) per adult; you'll need to organize this when you make your booking.
- Average Going price for cheap flights to Sydney: $722 roundtrip
How to do it
- Best time to go: The Whitsundays offer hot summers and balmy winters. During the winter months, especially June and July, the days are comfortably warm with averages of about 72–79°F (22–26°C). In contrast, the peak of summer in December and January can see the mercury rise to 95–104°F (35–40°C). The tropical wet season runs from January–March, making rainy days more likely.
- Cost: Reefsuites start around $665 USD ($1,050 AUD) per night for a double occupancy room and includes two morning and two afternoon teas, two lunches, one dinner, one breakfast, and various water activities. Scuba diving is available at an extra cost.
- Tips & considerations: You can book your Cruise Whitsundays Reefsuite online. Keep in mind that Reefsleeps are incredibly popular, so flexibility in your dates and booking in advance is advised. You should also be comfortable in enclosed spaces and able to climb down a ladder into the suite. Note that, while marine stingers have a year-round presence, their numbers surge from October–May; this is when jellyfish frequent not only the waters around the mainland and islands but occasionally even the outer reef. To ensure your safety, especially during these months, complimentary stinger suits are provided on the Great Barrier Reef excursions.
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Published November 8, 2023
Last updated December 19, 2023
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