When the day-trippers have gone, the true wonder is revealed, writes Deborah Dickson-Smith.

Standing on the pontoon, 50km from shore, we watch the boat full of happy day-trippers disappear into a dot on the horizon, on its way back to the mainland. We are alone on the Great Barrier Reef and now our Reefsleep adventure begins.

We're here to experience the reef at night, both above and below the water's surface. Underwater, we can explore the beauty that surrounds us, before spending the night in a swag beneath the stars. It almost feels too good, too luxurious, to have the whole pontoon and the reef to ourselves.

Our trip started ordinarily enough, aboard Cruise Whitsundays' Seaflight with 200 others looking forward to snorkelling and diving on Hardy Reef. The 90-minute trip out from Airlie Beach passes fairly quickly with a short stop at Hamilton Island and briefings and demonstrations for snorkelling and scuba diving.

The Reefworld pontoon is moored against the edge of Hardy Reef and the Seaflight moors alongside the pontoon each day for just four hours. The day guests are always busy trying to fit in all the activities and enjoy the all-you-can-eat buffet lunch.


Excited snorkellers fin along the reef edge in the warm, clear water and a surprising number opt to have a go at scuba diving. Possibly because as snorkellers, they see the divers below getting far more up-close-and-personal with the Napoleon Wrasse and Bumphead Parrotfish; or maybe because the pontoon's gantry allows newbie divers to walk down a few steps into the water and submerge themselves gently, making an easy transition into the underwater world.

For those who want to stay dry and still meet Nemo and friends, there's an underwater viewing area and glass bottom boat tours depart every half-hour. Scenic helicopter flights leave every 20 minutes for the famous Heart Reef fly-by.

But at 2.45pm the horn sounds to announce the impending 3pm day-boat departure. We watch and wave and thank them for coming (and going).

Then the Reefsleep guests and remaining crew breathe a collective sigh of relief - where 10 minutes ago there were more than 200 people, now there are just 10 and the silence is golden.

We decide to go for a leisurely dive, one of the five of our short stay. Each delivers something special, like watching a Titan Trigger and a Semicircular Angelfish politely sharing a scrap of something, or the hundreds of Parrotfish that swarm past us on a drift dive.

The evening starts on the top deck with the setting sun and a drink, as our hostess fires up the barbecue below. Soon, the aroma of grilled seafood and veges draws us down to a beautifully decorated table and we enjoy a leisurely three-course dinner with drinks and conversations that span the globe.

Around us the Coral Sea is silent, apart from turtles nibbling on the sponge and the occasional splash of a fish somewhere close by. On the horizon we see storm clouds with lightning pass along the coastline - but so far away we can't even hear it.

After a few drinks, and setting the world to rights, we retire to the comfort of the swag. Directly above, the Milky Way is clearly visible, and we sleep comfortably with a gentle
ocean breeze keeping the temperature just right.

In the morning, the sun rises from a glassy sea: the whole scene exuding calm and tranquility. Some go for an early morning snorkel, we go for a dive, followed by al fresco barbecue breakfast of "the works". After that we just sit and absorb the serenity knowing that when the boat arrives at 11am, full of the next load of daytripping passengers, our little adventure will be over.

Still, we experienced the reef perhaps as the reef itself would want to be experienced, if only for one night.


Getting there
Air New Zealand and code-share partner Virgin Australia offer the fastest transfer from Auckland to Hamilton Island, operating daily flights via Brisbane.

Cruise Whitsundays departs for the Reefsleep experience daily (except Tuesdays), from Port of Airlie at 8am, and Hamilton Island at 9am.

• The cost for a two-day, one-night experience in a King Single or Double Swag is $440, including all meals, snorkelling equipment and glass-bottom boat experience (scuba diving not included).