Cruise ships return to regional Queensland port of Whitsundays

Boats are pictured on the horizon of a still ocean with shadowed plants in the foreground.

From cruise ship groupies to honeymooners and uni breakers, the Whitsundays has welcomed passengers ashore for the first time in more than two years. 

Key points:

  • Whitsundays welcomes cruise ship passengers ashore for first time in more than two years
  • Cruising was worth $10 million a year to the local economy before COVID-19
  • 40 to 50 ships will stop in Airlie Beach between now and Christmas

The Pacific Encounter is the first cruise liner to visit the region since the industry re-opened  from a COVID-19 shutdown in March. 

It had about 2,000 people on board when it set sail from Sydney earlier in the week.

Volunteer Ambassador Program coordinator Brian Richardson said cruising was worth about $10 million a year to the local economy.

He said there would be between 40 and 50 cruise ships docking at Airlie Beach in the run up to Christmas. 

Two children and a woman stand in front of a marina terminal.

"It works out at close to 80,000 people if it all happens," he said.

"Pre COVID we had 60 ships in a financial year...there will be 26 just in November.

"It's a bit scary actually."

He said it was subject to everything going to plan.

"We've set up a new process because of COVID and the flu," he said. 

He said volunteers tried to keep a bit of distance from the passengers who came in.

"We meet and greet them and give them a little map ... point them in the direction of the bus," he said.

Ferry impressive 

Passengers will explore the best of the region, reef and restaurants. 

Whitsunday Regional Council acting mayor Mike Brunker said Friday's arrival was like waiting at the airport for a loved one. 

"The guys on the cruise ship today are the groupies ... they're rock solid and love their cruise boats," he said.

"A good percentage of Australians are saying well let's see how the first couple go."

New South Wales South Coast resident Wendy Grima said she already had five cruises lined up.

Friends hugging and smiling and Port of Airlie.

"It's great to be back on the seas and having lots of fun," Ms Grima said.

"I haven't been here since 1988."

Tourism town

Councillor Jan Clifford said intra-state visitors from places like Moranbah and Townsville had kept the region afloat.

"They're a different market, they don't spend as much as the internationals do but they've kept us alive," Ms Clifford said.

"I hope the Aussies that are waiting for their passports come and visit us before they take off to Fiji again."

A man is gesturing three people across a pedestrian crossing.

Tourism operator Jan Claxton said she already had lots of forward bookings at her business, Ocean Rafting.

"One of the last trips we did before we closed down was to a cruise ship," Ms Claxton said.

"It really feels quite nostalgic today ... picking up where we left off."

She said it was good that the Whitsundays had welcomed a lot of the Australian domestic tourist market during COVID-19.

"We had so many people over the last two years go I didn't even know that this place existed," she said.

"I think we will retain people who will come every year even when they start going back overseas."

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Where To Park In The Whitsundays

Where to park in the Whitsundays

For those who are driving to the Whitsundays and have booked a day or overnight trip , parking in Airlie Beach is something which needs to be considered, whether you are travelling in a car, 4 wheel drive or RV van.

Some accommodation places provide parking, however, many travellers do not organise a room for the period of time that they are on their trip, so are often left without somewhere to park. This is also the case for those who are staying in a campervan instead of traditional accommodation.

There is free parking in the region which is often patrolled, as well as a handful of paid parking areas, conveniently located near the Airlie Beach Main Street and in the Airlie Beach area. Other areas may be located at the shopping centres and accommodation houses.

If you leave your vehicle unattended in a no parking zone, or limited time parking, you risk getting a ticket, with fines starting at $113. Parking on the Airlie Beach main street is free but limited to 1 hour only. Other areas of town, including the two marinas issue paid parking by the hour or by the day, depending on what is needed. If you are going on a day trip or overnight trip, the most convenient place to park your vehicle is Coral Sea Marina  car park or Port of Airlie car park, which is where tours depart from. 

Here is a breakdown of parking areas and pricing in Airlie Beach:

1. Airlie Beach Woolworths car park

  • Covered car park in the middle of town
  • Parking for a daily maximum of 12 hours
  • 200+ car parks
  • Up to 3 hours free

Parking at Woolworths

2.  Airlie Beach Hotel car park

  • Uncovered in the centre of town
  • 100+ car parks
  • Pricing is as follows:  $4 per hour; $12 per 24 hours

Parking at Airlie Beach Hotel

3.  Airlie Beach Foreshore car park on Coconut Grove

  • 2-hour free parking
  • Uncovered close to the centre of town
  • Parking for the playground, Boat Haven Beach and Saturday Markets
  • 70+ car parks

Playground Parking Airlie Beach

4.  Whitsundays Sailing Club council car park

  • Pricing is as follows: $2 for 0-1 hour; $4 for 1-2 hours; $6 for 2-4 hours; $8 for 4-12 hours; $10 for 12-24 hours; each additional day thereafter parking $8

Parking at Whitsunday Sailing Club

5.  Airlie Beach Lagoon council car park

  • Near the Lagoon, playground and picnic tables
  • 80+ car parks

Parking at Airlie Beach Lagoon

6. Airlie Beach Foreshore council car park on Broadwater Avenue 

  • 90+ car parks

Little Beach Lagoon Parking

7.  Coral Sea Marina North car park

  • Uncovered parking at the North Marina
  • No camping allowed/ 8 hour maximum
  • 60 car parks
  • Pricing is as follows: $3 for 0-2 hours; $5 for 2-4 hours; $10 for 4-6 hours; $12 for 6-8 hours

Coral Sea Marina Parking

8. Coral Sea Marina South car park

  • Uncovered parking on the south side of the Marina
  • Long term parking is available
  • Ability to park boats and trailers
  • Pricing is as follows: $3 for 0-2 hours; $5 for 2-4 hours; $8 for 4-12 hours; $10 for 12-24 hours / $10 per day; $10 per day for 1-7 days; $70 for 1 week, $100 for 2 weeks; $125 for 3 weeks; $150 for 30 days

(Parking without paying registration, parking in a non-designated parking area, and parking in a disabled bay without a permit results in a $55 fine)

Coral Sea Marina Parking

9. Cruise Whitsundays Maritime Terminal council car park

  • 7 minutes walk to centre of town
  • Close to Bus Terminal
  • Pricing is as follows: $2 for 0-1 hour; $4 for 1-2 hours; $6 for 2-4 hours; $8 for 4-12 hours; $10 for 12-24 hours; each additional day thereafter parking $8.

Parking at the Cruise Whitsunday Marina Terminal

10. Port of Airlie car park

  • Uncovered and covered spaces
  • 60+ car parks
  • Pricing is as follows: Casual Parking (Monday-Friday) - Free for first 2 hours; $7 for 2-4 hours; $11 for 4-12 hours; $16 for 12-24 hours (max daily). Weekend Parking -  Free for first 30 minutes; $4 for 30 minutes - 2 hours; $6 for 2-4 hours; $10 for 4-12 hours; $15 for 12-24 hours (max daily).

Port of Airlie Parking

11.  Whitsunday Art and Culture Centre (WACC) car park

  • Uncovered parking off of the main street

12.  Shute Harbour Road - Side of road parking spaces

  • No restrictions on parking time
  • Uncovered parking spots are on the shoulder of the road
  • 50+ car parks
  • Parking is free

Shute Harbor Parking

13.  Waterson Way overflow car park

  • Day use only between 5am - 6pm (no overnight parking)
  • Uncovered and unpaved gravel parking, only permitted in dry weather


Whitsunday parking valet service.

  • Port of Airlie
  • Coral Sea Marina
  • Whitsunday Airport
  • Shute Harbour 
  • Offers secured and undercover parking for all vehicles regardless of size. Including boats, trailers, campers etc.
  • Travel to the islands knowing that your vehicle is in safe hands.
  • Upon returning to the mainland, you will be picked up at your port of choice
  • Minimum Fee: $80 for a car for 1 night and 2 days
  • Single vehicle one week: $160
  • Single vehicle plus a trailer one week: $230

Proserpine Main Street Free 48 hour RV park & Lake Proserpine

The Whitsunday Regional Council announced the opening of a brand new FREE 48 hour powered campsite right in the main street of Proserpine! Adjacent to St. Catherine's Church, the site will be trialled until further notice. The RV Park boasts 18 RV spots and comes hot on the heels of 72-hour free camping also being launched at Lake Proserpine last month. The RV Park caters for self-contained vehicles, however, there has been a dump point and tap installed on site. Council requests visitors to obey the site rules as indicated on signs upon entering the park and please allow room for others to access and exit as a courtesy.

Call us on +61 7 4914 2425 or  live chat  today to book your dream Whitsundays adventure!

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Cruise Whitsundays - Whitehaven Beach Half Day Tour

Ask us about availability and discounted prices, email us here.

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Cruise Whitsundays - Whitehaven Beach Half Day Tour Extras

  • Sandwiches & snacks
  • Soft drinks & bottled water
  • Beer & wine
  • Whitehaven Beach Burger Bar (to be prepurchased onboard the vessel)
  • Return bus transfers to and from the Cruise Whitsundays Terminal $13 per adult $7 per child.

Cruise Whitsundays - Whitehaven Beach Half Day Tour Additional Trip Information

  • Morning Option
  • $145 Per Adult
  • NOW $99 Per Adult
  • $129 Per Senior*
  • $125 Per Youth*
  • $97.75 Per Backpacker**
  • $59 Per Child (4-14 years)
  • NOW $39 Per Child
  • $379 Family (2 Adults & 2 Children)
  • Infant (under 4 years) Free of Charge
  • Departure Locations & Times
  • Airlie Beach 7:15am - 2:30pm
  • Daydream Island 7:45am - 1:50pm
  • Hamilton Island 8:30am - 12:30pm
  • Afternoon Option
  • $108.80 Per Backpacker**
  • Airlie Beach 11:35am - 6:15pm
  • Daydream Island 12:10pm - 5:50pm
  • Hamilton Island 1:10pm - 5:00pm
  • KIDS GO FREE SPECIAL - valid for sale until 30 October 19 | valid for travel until 31 March 20. Not available between 14 December 19 - 8 February 20. One full fare paying adult must be booked per child for promotion to apply.
  • *Senior 60+ years, Youth aged between 15-17 years - ID to be presented at check-in.
  • High Season 29 March - 26 April, 14 September - 13 October, 14 December - 31 December: A high season surcharge of $10 per adult, senior, youth, child and $40 per family (2ad and 2ch) applies.

Cruise Whitsundays - Whitehaven Beach Half Day Tour What to Bring?

  • Swimwear and towel
  • Sun protective clothing
  • Hat and sunscreen
  • Light jacket for windy or cooler days
  • Cash and/or credit card for optional purchases

Here’s why you will love exploring Whitehaven Beach with this Half Day Cruise Whitsundays Tour

This amazing half day cruise shows you the best bits of the Whitsunday Islands National Park. You will be taken past some of the most remote areas to the incredible and dazzling Whitehaven Beach.

Your vessel is equipped with air-conditioned comforts such as a spacious saloon and toilets, with seating areas also available outside in the warm Australian sun. The vessel also offers a boarding ramp allowing easy access on and off the beach.

Laze on the beach, swim in the cool azure waters, and hike short trails to some of the best views in the region! Do not miss out.

Cruise Whitsundays - Whitehaven Beach Half Day Tour Plan

Check in with Cruise Whitsundays at Port of Airlie Marina 30 minutes prior to your scheduled departure time. There is a café at the terminal so why not enjoy a coffee before your tour.

Depart from Airlie Beach enroute through magical passageways between some of the 74 Whitsunday Islands. Your crew will offer an informative commentary of the area and are available for questions. On the way you may collect other guests from Hamilton Island.

Your vessel will pull right up onto the island to allow easy access for all guests. Enjoy the southern (and less frequented) end of this beautiful white beach for a morning of relaxation. Stroll along the sand, swim in the water, and enjoy the magnificent sun without a worry in the world.

Your crew will set up a beach BBQ for your enjoyment, preparing a gourmet beef or vege burger with fresh salads. Cold drinks will be available for purchase.

After lunch it’s time to head home via Hamilton Island and back to Port of Airlie Marina.

Please Note: This is a sample tour plan; your itinerary is based on the weather and tidal conditions experienced at the time of travel.

Cruise Whitsundays - Whitehaven Beach Half Day Tour Inclusions

  • Scenic return cruise through the Whitsundays, with up to 2 hours at the southern end of Whitehaven Beach
  • Morning tea or afternoon tea
  • Protective stinger suits
  • Guided Solway Circuit walk
  • Exclusive afternoon departure highlights
  • Complimentary charcuterie board on route from Whitehaven Beach to Hamilton Island
  • All-inclusive beer, wine and soft drink on your journey from Hamilton Island to and from Whitehaven Beach Terms and Conditions

“supplier” means any tour operator or other supplier of the services “you” means the guest booking and person named on this reservation booking “we”, “our” means The Whitsundays Central Reservations Centre and A.J.LAURENT PTY LTD These terms and conditions apply to all bookings made through The Whitsundays Central Reservations Centre. Placing a booking with The Whitsundays Central Reservations Centre and paying a deposit constitute acceptance of these terms and conditions.

Booking Conditions

For bookings made more than 30 days prior to travel, a 25% deposit is due to secure your booking with the balance due 30 days prior to travel. For bookings made within 30 days of travel, the full payment is due immediately to secure your booking. If we do not receive your full payment within 30 days of your travel date and you do not contact us to cancel, your deposit is forfeited and your booking may be automatically cancelled by us, the supplier or both.

Prices are quoted in Australian dollars, inclusive of GST, and all payments must be made in Australian dollars. Your reservation will only be confirmed when funds have been received and are cleared. The Whitsundays Central Reservations Centre is not responsible for delays in postal delivery, bank or payment system processing. It is your responsibility to ensure that payments are received within the times specified. If the deposit or final payment is not received by the due date, The Whitsundays Central Reservations Centre has the right cancel the booking. If your final payment is not paid by the due date and in any event within 30 days of your departure, we have the right to cancel your booking and retain the deposit in full without any reimbursement to cover our costs and those of any supplier.

Cancellations and Amendments to Bookings

If you wish to cancel or amend any booking made you need to contact us in writing. You can only cancel or amend a confirmed booking by contacting us directly. If you do not contact us to cancel prior to your booking departure date, you may forfeit your deposit and further costs.

Cancellation Charges and Amendment Fees

Any cancellation or amendment made more than 30 days before travel will incur an administration fee of 25% of the total booking fee. All cancellations or amendments made within 30 days of your travel date departure will incur both an administration fee of 25% in addition to the individual supplier’s fees. Any changes requested to your booking, including but not limited to dates, are subject to availability and if they are not available, you may be required to cancel and agree to the cancellation terms. IMPORTANT NOTE: Some services and activities may not permit any refund for certain bookings. You should check with the individual supplier or The Whitsundays Central Reservations Centre prior to paying for your booking to confirm any special non-refundable conditions.

Travel Insurance

We recommend that you take out travel insurance to cover your reservation, and valuable items (e.g. cameras). Your travel insurance policy should include coverage to protect against unforeseen and last-minute cancellations or medical conditions that may prevent travel and also to cover any medical emergencies during travel at minimum.

Supplier Tours and Services Changes

In the unlikely case of a vessel break down, maintenance or unavailability, the supplier will supply an alternate vessel of a similar standard and quality. Itineraries may be affected by elements beyond our and the supplier’s control such as wind, tide, rain, storm or other weather conditions which make travel dangerous and require a delay or cancellation. It is the skipper's requirement to ensure passenger safety at all times and may use his/her professional judgment in any manner to keep his/her guests and crew safe. In the instance of such delay or cancellation, alternative options will be provided by the supplier. In the event a cancellation or delay occurs and your tour or service is cancelled and rescheduled, you will receive a full refund if you are unable to rebook your tour or service.

You are using these services and taking any tours at your own risk. We are not responsible for any loss or damage, including direct, indirect or consequential loss you may suffer as a result of your reservation, booking or anything related to your tour or services provided by any supplier. You need to ensure you are medically sound, fit and physically able to use the services. We are not liable for the event that you are refused access to any services or tours due to your medical, physical or other reasons, including intoxication. Any such claims should be addressed to the suppliers directly. You should note that sailing can be a dangerous activity and while crews will make every effort to ensure your safety, they cannot be accountable for actions or injury to you that may be ‘beyond their control’. Every effort is make to ensure your safety and you may be required to complete a pre departure questionnaire, and sign a travel agreement waiver during the check-in process of your tour with the supplier directly. We are not affiliated with nor responsible for our suppliers in any way other than as intermediary to arrange their services on you and their behalf. If you have any issues, injury, suffer any loss or damage, you need to take it up with the supplier directly. If we are obligated to cancel your travel arrangements for any reason, the liability of will be limited to a refund of all monies paid by you.

Cruise Whitsundays Terms and Conditions

By confirming a booking of a cruise, you and all Passengers travelling under the booking are bound by this agreement, which is comprised of: (1) these standard terms and conditions, and (2) the Booking Confirmation.

BOOKING (a) Confirmed Booking. Your booking is confirmed when: 1. you have made the booking, complete with all information we require, and have confirmed it with our Airlie Beach Office the day before departure (Ph: +61 7 4846 7000); 2. you have paid us the Fare, according to the terms of this agreement; and 3. we have sent you a Booking Confirmation. (b) Fare. The Fare for your cruise is the amount stated in your Booking Confirmation, noting that: 1. We reserve the right to alter prices, alter itineraries, apply a fuel surcharge, cancel departures, arrange alternative transport and vary itineraries and services if necessary. 2. All prices are stated in Australian dollars and include GST. 3. Prices are valid for travel from 1 April 2021 to 31 December 2022. (c) Child Fares 1. Child Fares are for children aged between 4 and 14. 2. Infants under 4 travel free of charge but we must be advised at time of booking. 3. With the exception of Great Barrier Reef Adventures, infant meals are not included on Day Cruises. 4. Child Fares may vary in price and ages when operated by a 3rd party provider. (d) Inclusions. Your Booking Confirmation sets out the details of all goods/services that are included in your cruise.

BEFORE YOU TRAVEL (a) Weather. Check the weather – for passenger safety reasons, all cruises will only proceed in suitable sea and weather conditions. (b) Luggage. Passengers must comply with the relevant luggage requirements set out on the Website. (c) Travel Insurance. We strongly recommend passengers take out travel insurance at the time of booking to cover any unforeseen circumstances. (d) Fit to Travel. You must ensure that you are medically and physically fit for travel. Before you confirm your booking, you must advise us of any medical or physical condition(s) that may require medical attention, medication or special treatment during your cruise/stay. We may also ask you to complete a health questionnaire. If a guest has a condition that we decide may significantly affect the enjoyment, health or safety of themselves or any other person on board, we can refuse or cancel a booking. 1. For diving. A third-party provider operates the diving activity. They may require divers to complete a medical questionnaire and satisfy age and medical requirements. We understand divers cannot fly for 24 hours after diving and the company accepts no liability for medical conditions experienced as a result of flying after diving. We recommend you check requirements with Reef Safari Pty Ltd, the third-party operator. 2. For Reef Sleep/Suites - Please return the medical disclosure form to Cruise Whitsundays 24 hours prior to departure.

ON THE DAY OF TRAVEL (a) Check In. You must check in with our representative at the location stated on your Booking Confirmation no more than 1 hour and no later than 15 minutes prior to scheduled departure. (b) Dangerous Goods. Your luggage must not contain any items which in our opinion are dangerous, illegal, liable to harm or annoy other guests, or otherwise unsuitable. Animals (except guide dogs) are not permitted on board. We reserve the right to deny boarding or eject any Passenger that fails to comply with this clause.

ON BOARD (a) No Smoking Policy - All our vessels adhere to smoke free rules in accordance with relevant state government regulations. Unless designated areas have been created and assigned Passengers are not permitted to smoke (including e-cigarettes) on board. (b) Children. 1. Children under 18 must be accompanied by an adult carer (this excludes residential travel) 2. Minimum age for Reef Sleep/Suites is 6 years and all children must be accompanied by an adult carer. (c) Safety. 1. Passengers must always follow and carry out all lawful directions of the Master and/or crewmembers of the vessel. 2. Passengers must take all reasonable precautions for their own safely and the safety of any person in their care (particularly children). This includes using hand and guard rails at all times as provided around the vessel, appropriately restraining children and ensuring that children are accompanied by a responsible adult at all times and paying attention to the safety briefing given by crewmembers at the commencement of carriage. 3. Passengers are advised and required to take particular care in conditions of inclement, rough or heavy weather or as advised by the crew. 4. Neither we, the vessel nor any crewmember shall be held responsible for any loss or damage (including personal injury) suffered by any person, as a result of breach of that person’s safety obligations, or their failure to utilise all safety devices and precautions as provided and/or advised on board the vessel, or caused by any passenger acting in an unreasonable, unnecessary or unsafe manner.

GUEST AMENDMENTS, PAYMENTS AND CANCELLATIONS The tables below set out the consequences that the parties agree will apply in the event of a Guest Cancellation. A reduction in guests or name change will be treated as a guest cancellation. Subject to availability, you may amend your booking (the date of travel, the components of your package or the number of Guests) as follows: REEFSUITES AND REEFSLEEP Guest Amendments 1. Free of charge more than 14 days prior to check in 2. No amendments allowed within 14 days of check-in. Full cancellation fees apply. Guest Cancellation Reefsleep - 100% cancellation fees apply within 14 days of departure Reefsuites - 100% cancellation fees apply within 30 days of departure DAY CRUISES Guest Amendments 1. Free of charge more than 48 hours prior to departure 2. Within 48 hours prior to departure, fare difference and third party amendment fees will be incurred Guest Cancellation 1. Fully refundable up to 48 hours prior to departure 2. 100% cancellation fees apply within 48 hours of departure FLEXI FARE 1. Flexi Fare is only available on selected day tours; 2. Bookings that have Flexi Fare applied can only be amended outside of 12 hours of departure; 3. Bookings that have Flexi Fare applied can only be date changed to a new travel date within 7 days of original departure date; 4. Bookings that have Flexi Fare applied are only allowed one date change; 5. Bookings that have Flexi Fare applied will still be subject to Cancellation Terms and Conditions of the original booking date CANCELLATION (a) Your cruise or accommodation could be cancelled under one of the following three circumstances: 1. A cancellation arising from your actions, through no fault of ours – see ‘Guest Cancellations’. 2. A cancellation by us arising from external consequences that make our performance of the agreement impossible (for example a Force Majeure event, or the actions of a third party e.g. new government regulation) – see ‘Force Majeure Cancellations’. 3. Any other cancellation by us – see ‘Our Cancellations’. (b) Force Majeure Cancellations. For all cruise and accommodation types, in the event of a Force Majeure Cancellation, we will provide you with a Credit note of an amount equal to the monies paid to us under the booking. The credit note can be applied to the cost of a future cruise with us. Time limits and other criteria and conditions may apply. (c) Our Cancellations. For all cruise types, in the event of Our Cancellation, we will provide you with the option to receive one of the following: 1. (where available) travel on an alternative service of similar value; 2. an alternate service of the same value at a later date; 3. a full refund of monies paid to us under the booking; or 4. a credit note of an amount equal to the monies paid to us under the booking . (d) Refund Payment. Any credit note or refund payable by us under this agreement will be calculated to take into account the monies actually paid under the booking. Any refund will be payable to the person who paid for the booking or to the first person named on the booking. If a booking was made through a Travel Agent, any refund will be returned to that Travel Agent for their payment to the guest.

OUR OPERATIONS (a) Connections. We cannot guarantee our schedule. To the extent permitted by law, we are not liable for any costs deriving from the failure of a Passenger to connect with other services. As a result, Passengers should allow ample time for connections. (b) Warranties, Exclusions and Limitation of Liability. 1. To the extent permissible by law (and without limiting the operation of any statutory guarantee under the ACL), we will not be liable for any death or personal injury, loss of or damage to luggage or goods, consequential losses, loss of profit or any similar claims arising from any use of the services or arising out of our negligence, including delay, or any inaccuracy with respect to information relating to transport, services or pricing. 2. We are not liable in negligence for harm suffered by anyone as a result of the materialisation of an obvious risk of any dangerous recreational activities. You and any passengers travelling under this booking are made aware of the obvious risks of boarding a cruise and participating in any related activities. 3. To the extent that part of the services are supplied to the guest by a third party, any warranty offered by us in relation to those services will be limited to our right of redress against the third party arising out of any alleged fault or defect in the services. 4. Nothing in this agreement restricts, limits or modifies your rights or remedies as a consumer against us for failure of a statutory guarantee under the ACL.

MISCELLANEOUS (a) Waiver and Amendment. A provision of this agreement may not be amended or waived except in writing signed by our authorised representative. (b) Enforceability. If a term of this agreement is unenforceable it shall be read down to be enforceable or, if it cannot be read down, the condition shall be severed from this agreement without affecting the enforceability of the remaining conditions. (c) Disclaimer. Images in any of our brochures or advertising materials are indicative only and may not reflect the exact experience or destination. (d) Third Parties. The service that you book through us may involve several parts, some of which are provided by us, some of which are provided by third party operators. We may act as a sales agent for such third party operators (such as the operators of transfers, diving and helicopter flights) but we have no liability to you for their services. You agree that we may pass on to you any costs, conditions or fees that they apply to us under our agreement with them. (e) Group Bookings and Charters. These Terms and Conditions do not apply to group and charter travel. Separate booking conditions, pricing and payment terms will be provided for group/charter travel. (f) Travel subject to our Conditions of Carriage. View our Terms and Conditions of Carriage. (g) Privacy Policy (h) Animal Transportation Policy (i) Whitsunday Regional Council Noise Restriction Notice

DEFINITIONS (a) ACL means the Australian Consumer Law as that term is defined in the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth). (b) Booking Confirmation means the notification from us to you containing the details of your booking. (c) Dollars or $ means Australian Dollars. (d) Force Majeure event means an event or circumstance which is beyond our control and without our fault or negligence and which was not reasonably preventable, including: 1. riot, war, invasion or acts of terrorism; 2. requisition or compulsory acquisition by any governmental or competent authority, a material change in legislation or directions by a government authority; 3. medical outbreak, or contamination of any kind; 4. earthquakes, flood, fire or other physical natural disasters; and 5. strikes or industrial disputes which affect an essential part of the service. (e) Passenger means anyone travelling with us under your booking. (f) We/us means Cruise Whitsundays Pty Ltd, ABN 70 105 420 737. (g) You means the person or entity that made the booking and is named in the Booking Confirmation.

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A couple stands in their Reefsuite looking at the marine life on the Great Barrier Reef

Sleeping on the Great Barrier Reef in a Plush, Underwater Suite

Kira Simpson

Kira Simpson

November 8, 2023

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. 

An aerial shot of Reefworld 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. 

A man looks out the window from the bed in his Reefsuite at fish swimming by

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 . 

A person snorkels off the floating pontoon at Reefworld on the Great Barrier Reef

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

  • 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.

More guides from Australia, New Zealand, & the Pacific

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Kira Simpson

Freelance Writer

Published November 8, 2023

Last updated December 19, 2023

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cruise whitsundays terminal

A Sleepover on the Great Barrier Reef at ReefSleep

If you’re looking for one of the most incredible and unique experiences on the Great Barrier Reef, how about a sleepover? Right on the reef, with all the colourful fish swimming right below you.

Well, Cruise Whitsundays have created just that – the ultimate Great Barrier Reef experience, giving you the opportunity to sleep on the reef on their permanent pontoon on Hardy Reef, also known as Reef World . It’s the perfect way to completely immerse yourself in life on the reef with an unforgettable experience.  Reefsleep is absolutely a once in a lifetime experience.

At Reef World there are a couple of different experiences you can choose from, to make the most of your time on this section of the Great Barrier Reef. You can choose from, including Reefsleep, Reefsuites and the Great Barrier Reef full day adventure (more on each of them down below). We decided to experience the Reefsleep , where you sleep in a sway under the stars, right on the Great Barrier Reef for the whole night.

To begin our trip we caught the ferry from the Cruise Whitsundays terminal at the Port of Airlie. The ferry leaves at 8am in the morning, and it takes about 3 hours to get out to Hardy Reef, with a short stopover at Hamilton Island to pick up a few more passengers. It’s such a huge boat to get to and from Reef World, a very comfortable ride the whole way with no sea sickness from anyone. The passengers on board the ferry are a mixture of people staying the night as well as visitors who have just come out for the day.

As soon as we arrived all the day trippers jumped straight in the water to maximise their time on the reef (very smart I might add). But since we would be on the island for about 27 hours, we thought we would take our time, so we got some lunch and then jumped on board the semi-submarine.

The semi sub takes you for a half hour ride along the drop off of the reef, where you can see lots of beautiful colourful coral and fish through the bottom of the sub. There was plenty of action along the reef, but one of the highlights was checking out the HUGE seven foot Queensland Grouper that actually lives underneath the pontoon. Apparently grouper do not like the day light at all, so they pretty much hang out underneath the pontoon in the dark during the day and then come out to have a bit of a hunt at night time.

There is so much underwater life to see at Reef World, but some of the best was actually right under the pontoon, where you jump in to go snorkelling. There were heaps of BIG GT’s there, as well as plenty of schools of fish swimming around. Swimming with the GT’s was definitely a highlight for Thom, but their faces actually scared me a little bit, so I tried to keep my distance from them a little bit!

The boat departed at about 3pm, taking the day trippers back to Hamilton Island and Airlie Beach, and then we had the whole pontoon to ourselves. There was only about 20 people staying the night when we did, so you have plenty of room to spread out, chill out and go for a snorkel without being kicked in the face by someone elses fins haha.

We had afternoon tea on the deck, canapes as we watched the sunset, had dinner under the stars (which was absolutely delicious by the way), and then it is back to our reefbed for the night. The reefbeds are actually really spacious and comfortable. They are quite large, warm and protective from the weather and the elements, and we had so much fun sleeping over here in the middle of the ocean! During the day they are converted to a day bed, so you have your own little private chill out zone, and then in the evening the team on board convert them into your beds for the night.

The next morning breakfast is served early, and then you can jump back in the water for a snorkel or a dive before the next boat of day trippers arrived. We actually spent a lot of the morning just enjoying the sun and watching the GTs swim by in the underwater observatory.

Extra activities at Reef World

While you’re at Reef World there are lots of extra activities you can add to your visit if you want to get a little more out of your Great Barrier Reef experience.

Diving: Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced scuba diver, the Great Barrier Reef is the perfect location to get underwater on a guided dive. If you choose a beginner dive you will be taught the basics at the pontoons dive centre, before jumping into the open ocean. Certified diving is also available for those with a little more experience, to completely immerse yourself in the underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef.

Introductory dives cost $139 per person, while certified dives are an extra $109 per person. All second dives while you’re on Reef World cost $59.

Guided Snorkel Safari: You can also book yourself onto a guided snorkel safari, where a reef expert will take you out and teach you all about the different types of coral and marine life you find under the sea. A guided snorkel safari costs $59 per adult and goes for around 30 minutes and is a great introduction to this part of the reef.

Heli-scenic flights: Scenic helicopter flights are also available from the Reed World pontoon, giving you a beautiful aerial view of Hardy Reef and the infamous Heart Reef which is not too far away. This is one of my favourite places to see the Great Barrier Reef from the sky, with some of the best photo opportunities.

Great Barrier Reef full day adventure

If you don’t want to sleep out on the reef you can actually just do a day trip out to Reef World. Known as the Great Barrier Reef Full Day Adventure , you will have about 4 hours to spend snorkelling and diving at Hardy Reef from the Reef World pontoon. During your day trip you will also have access to the underwater observatory and the semi-submarine guided tour, and morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea are all provided as well.

You can jump on a day tour to Reef World from Airlie Beach or Hamilton Island, and tickets cost $279 per adult for the full day (discounts for children).

Upgrade to Reefsuites

For the ultimate luxury experience, Cruise Whitsundays have created something truly special with the Reefsuites . Australia’s first and only underwater accommodation, you can watch the fish swimming around you all night in this truly special room. One wall and some of the floor is entirely made of glass (including in the bathroom), giving you the ultimate room with a view.

One of the couples who stayed in the Reefsuites while we were on Reef World said they saw sea turtles eating the algae around the windows of their room, and that after dark the GIANT groper from under the pontoon come out to play.

Reefsuites costs $799 per person twin share and is often booked out for up to 6 months in advance. If you want to get out here for a special occasion, make sure you book as early as you can.

What to pack for your Reefsleep

If you’re staying overnight at ReefWorld it’s a good idea to pack a small overnight bag for your stay. You should bring with you a change of clothes, toiletries and a towel to have a shower, bathers and a beach towel, a hat, sunscreen, a jumper or light jacket for when it gets a bit cooler in the evening, and of course your camera.

The reefbeds have a large drawer underneath them for you to store your bags and all your different bits and pieces, as well as smaller hatches in the headboard of the reefbed. They are also powered, so you’re able to charge your phone or camera with a USB cable, but there are no power points.

Important note: It’s probably a good idea to mention that while the day trip boat was alongside the pontoon we had a little bit of 3G phone reception (Telstra only), enough to make a short call or send a text if you need to. However, once the boat left for the evening we didn’t have any reception until it returned the next day. Perfect opportunity to disconnect and unwind.

Booking Information

Price: Reefsleep costs $595 per person twin share.

Departure: The Reefsleep experience departs at 8am from the Port of Airlie at the Cruise Whitsundays terminal. It’s an overnight, 2 full days experience, and will get you back to the Port of Airlie at about 6pm the following day.

Return coach transfers are also available, for $12.50 per adult. Make sure you organise these when you make your booking if you need a lift from your accommodation.

Inclusions: Reefsleep and Reefsuites are all inclusive experiences, which covers all meals (1 breakfast, 2 morning and afternoon teas, 2 buffet lunches and 1 dinner under the stars), beer, wine and soft drink, and a semi-submarine guided tour.

For more information and to book your stay on the reef check out the Cruise Whitsunday website .

We experienced the Reef Sleep as guests of Cruise Whitsunday. All opinions are, as always, our own.

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Emma is a travel writer, photographer and blogger, chasing the sun around Australia. Travelling in her recently renovated vintage Viscount caravan, along with her husband Thom and daughter Macey, she's sharing the very best experiences from around her beloved sunburnt country.

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