Review: Cruise Whitsundays’ Reef Sleep offers a magical night on the outer Great Barrier Reef, QLD inner banner

Review: Cruise Whitsundays’ Reef Sleep offers a magical night on the outer Great Barrier Reef, QLD

Enjoy an unforgettable two days in the vast embrace of the Great Barrier Reef on Cruise Whitsundays' Reef Sleep. You'll slumber beneath a star-filled sky, and enjoy sumptuous meals and stellar service from your crew.
Reef Sleep with Cruise Whitsundays
Cruise Whitsundays’ Reefworld. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
Review: Reef Sleep with Cruise Whitsundays

There aren’t many places on the planet like Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef.

Deemed one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Reef stretches for more than 2,000 kilometres and is the largest living structure on Earth. It’s made up of almost 3,000 individual reefs and 900 islands, and there are endless ways to admire its phenomenal but fragile beauty.

On a recent visit to the Whitsunday Islands — which lie right in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park — we decided to book the Reef Sleep experience with tour operator Cruise Whitsundays. This one-of-a-kind activity sees guests sleeping under the stars on a pontoon known as Reefworld, which is permanently moored at Hardy Reef — more than 70 kilometres from shore.

Watch our video of top things to do in Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays:

Ten Great Things to Do in AIRLIE BEACH and the WHITSUNDAYS, Australia | Ultimate Travel Guide

Queensland’s Airlie Beach has long been a popular stop on the east coast backpacker trail, but today it’s a holiday hot spot for anyone wanting to experience the extraordinary beauty of the Whitsunday Islands and Great Barrier Reef. Think turquoise waters, amazing beaches, palm trees swaying in the breeze, and incredible snorkelling and diving.

Excited for the adventure ahead, we arrive early at Hamilton Island marina for our 9am departure out to Reefworld. The cruise originates in Airlie Beach and also carries passengers doing a day excursion to the Reef. Overnight guests enjoy priority boarding and reserved seating for the two-hour journey.

On board, the friendly crew serve morning tea and help arrange optional activities, including scenic helicopter flights, guided snorkel safaris, diving lessons, and even Go-Pro rental for those wanting to take underwater photos and video.

As our catamaran docks at the pontoon alongside shimmering Hardy Reef, we catch a glimpse of the private Reef Sleep section on the open-air top deck — canopied swags lined up in a horse-shoe formation, each with an unbroken vista over the horizon. Our allocated ‘Reef Bed’ is snug but spacious, and has interior lighting and two small fans. Double mesh and canvas covers provide shelter from the elements and there is ample storage space for personal items.

Reef Sleep with Cruise Whitsundays
Reef Sleep with Cruise Whitsundays: Stay in a Reef Bed. Image: Adam Ford

After a hearty buffet lunch, the decision is made to go snorkelling. We shrug on stinger suits, and strap on fins and masks. Less confident swimmers can also grab a foam noodle or life jacket before sliding into the water.

Ropes and buoys bobbing on the surface offer route guidance and ‘rest stations’, and we head off to explore at our own pace. Over 1,500 species of marine animals call the Great Barrier Reef home, and beneath the surface we’re greeted by a myriad of tropical fish swimming above coral formations in out-of-this-world shapes and neon shades.

You don’t actually have to get wet to enjoy the wonders of the deep on a visit to Reefworld. A semi-submersible vessel takes passengers on tours along the reef wall, but we opt instead to check out the underwater observatory. Behind thick glass panes schools of tiny pilchards and herring dart back and forth endlessly, and damselfish and angelfish hover before our eyes. It’s mesmerising!

The day-trippers depart at 3pm — and having waved them off on their voyage home, we now have the entire place to ourselves. There are just 19 guests and a handful of crew (including a qualified chef) staying overnight, and a sense of calm descends on the pontoon. The crew organises refreshments, and platters of cheese and charcuterie are brought out for us to enjoy. All meals and drinks are included in the cost of the Reef Sleep package, and the clinking of glasses is accompanied by the hiss of ring tops being popped on cans.

Reef Sleep with Cruise Whitsundays
Reef Sleep with Cruise Whitsundays: Enjoy pre-dinner canapes. Image: Adam Ford

As the sun sets in glorious fashion we mingle with our fellow guests over canapes, then take our seats for a group dinner (a main course and dessert). They’re a fun and interesting bunch, and include a couple from New York on their first ‘real’ trip to Australia (a previous attempt was disrupted by the pandemic), a Canadian mother holidaying with her three teenage children, and a Scottish couple celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary.

Other guests include the amazing Taylor from Melbourne (who, despite a torn ligament in her wrist, manages multiple diving and snorkelling expeditions during our stay on the pontoon), and a lovely twosome Zannah and David — also from Melbourne — who are staying for two nights in one of the two Reef Suites on board. These deluxe underwater guest rooms have private ensuites and feature floor-to-ceiling windows facing the reef.

Reef Sleep with Cruise Whitsundays
Reef Sleep with Cruise Whitsundays: Stay in a Reef Suite. Image: Journey Beyond

The ominous euphemism ‘sleeping with the fishes’ takes on an entirely different meaning for this lucky couple. A giant groper, affectionately known by the crew as ‘George’, paid their Reef Suite a visit last night. ‘We woke up at 4am and there he was at the window, just staring at us,’ David confides. ‘We woke up again at 5am, and he was still there!’

Friendly groupers are not the only big fish that come out in the dark. From the upper deck, we spy the frenzied flitting of flying fish and silhouettes of reef sharks swirling beneath them. It’s an incredible sight.

During the dinner service, our swags have magically been converted from day loungers to comfy sleeping quarters with crisp sheets. We drift off to sleep listening to the wind blowing against our canopy. It sounds like the clickety-clackety of train wheels on a track.

The spectacular sunset we witnessed yesterday is trumped by an even more stunning sunrise when we wake. Savouring the solitude, we lie in bed watching the golden globe rise from the sea — turning the sky a soft orange, then a brilliant blue.

Reef Sleep with Cruise Whitsundays
Reef Sleep with Cruise Whitsundays. Image: Cindy Bingley-Pullin

There are squeals as someone spots a turtle, and we all rush to the railing to gawk at the shelled creature casually lapping alongside the pontoon. It nibbles contentedly on the algae and seagrass growing on the metal structure.

After a hot breakfast (with a barista-made coffee to my delight), one of the awesome crew members takes my son out snorkelling. He returns elated, breathlessly telling me what they saw: spaghetti coral, giant clams, rainbow fish, and even a shy white octopus hiding between the rocks.

One of the big advantages of the Reef Sleep package is being able to spend another full day enjoying all the activities Reefworld has to offer. All too soon though, it’s time to join today’s day-trippers on the cruise home — and leave the new overnight guests to their fun.

Reef Sleep was magical and memorable. My son declared it the best holiday ever and is pleading for us to return next year. If so, we’ll stay in a Reef Suite and perhaps George the grouper will pay us a visit.

For more information, visit

Airlie Beach tours

Airlie Beach & Whitsundays Tours, Activities & Attractions

Cover image: Tourism and Events Queensland.

Cindy Bingley-Pullin

About the writer

Cindy Bingley-Pullin is a Sydney-based freelance writer, wanderluster, corporate bee, and happy homemaker. In between analysing spreadsheets in the office, she pursues her combined passions of travel and writing. Cindy’s work has appeared in Virgin Australia’s Voyeur magazine, International Traveller, Fitness First magazine, and the Sydney Morning Herald.



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