SLEEP ON SITE: Awake in Wonder
Great Barrier Reef
The only sound at dawn is that of the ocean lapping against the hull of my hotel. It’s one of those strange sensations that immediately erases morning fatigue. Four short steps from the bed, I’m alert enough to swing open an oval door and stop. The Great Barrier Reef, in all its magnificence, is of all places, in front of my feet. One more noncaffeinated stride would have me swimming on one of the world’s natural wonders. I’ve just spent the night at Fantasea Reefworld— a boat moored quite literally on the edge of Hardy Lagoon off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Turning toward the boat’s galley, I ground myself by reflecting on how I got here a day earlier.
4:15 p.m. I’m leaning out a helicopter when the Great Barrier Reef comes into view. The sight is staggering from the air, where its skeletal framework can be seen in its entirety. Coral formations wind through the azure water in amorphous shapes. Signs of life are everywhere in the reef’s maze: Oversize manta rays, humpback whales and unidentifiable fish patrol the drop-off like monstrous beings. My bed’s down there.
4:30 p.m. The helicopter moves in for a final look at perhaps the most famous coral formation in the world: the heart reef. We hover for a moment, taking in what sure looks like a purposeful shape before banking left en route to our final destination: the floating resort.
5:00 p.m. The channel below us appears to have been dredged. Not so. It’s natural. Fantasea Reefworld rests on the edge of the channel, also known as “the river.” The water’s blue tones are colors I’ve rarely, if ever, seen, so the boat and helicopter pad are strikingly white against the cobalt seascape. Upon touchdown, a smaller boat transfers me to my “reef sleep.”
5:45 p.m. Mel Chapman, the boat’s onboard host, shows me to a modest room where a king-size bed commands most of the floor space, and a porthole to the ocean is the focal point of the wall decor. I didn’t come all this way to stay inside and read anyway.
8:00 p.m. Time for a few Pure Blondes with the crew (known as the Reefrats). “This is instant job satisfaction,” divemaster Seath Pooles says. “Where else can you be so isolated, but surrounded by life? Every polyp out here is an animal. It’s overwhelming.”
11:00 p.m. I break from the table and wander to the upper deck. The Milky Way passes behind the sails overhead. The stars seem as bright as city streetlights.
11:45 p.m. The wind picks up, so I descend to the boat’s underwater viewing chamber. The sounds of waves make for a surreal soundstage. “This is my favorite time to be here,” says Mel. I try to converse with her while locked in a staring contest with a 1,500-pound Queensland grouper named George. We’re separated by a thin plane of glass 10 feet beneath the surface of the Coral Sea. Flashes of silver explode through the background: giant trevally in search of a midnight snack. George floats there, keeping one giant eye suspiciously trained on me. He wins because exhaustion finds me. It’s well past midnight. I can’t wait for sunrise, when I can jump all the way in.
SLEEP ON SITE: The Best of the Rest
Ladera, St. Lucia: Two volcanoes rise overhead from where I lay, a 1,000 foot drop to the Caribbean Sea. There's no safety net in site—and I've never slept better. Is it possible to feel cradled by St. Lucia's most iconic volcanoes? —Eddy Patricelli
Kapaloa Cabin, Maui: Trek six miles down Sliding Sands Trail and you'll have reached the heart of Haleakala Volcano—and your room for the night.
Hotel Ranga, Iceland:There's no better view of the northern lights than Hotel Ranga, where they offer wake-up calls to view the aurora at its peak. During the daytime you can explore the volcanic landscape by jeep, or relax in geothermalhot tubs.
This article first appeared in Twenty of the World's Greatest Escapes, in the January/February 2012 issues of ISLANDS.