World's first floating hotel. Australian resort fights to keep head above water

Sure, Ivan Lendl is one of the world's top tennis players - on land. But how's his backhand in a two-meter swell? At the world's first floating hotel, guests may plumb the depths of their volleying skills on yet another first: a floating tennis court.

Most people don't come to the Great Barrier Reef Resort off Australia's northeast coast just to whack yellow balls into the translucent South Pacific. Diving and fishing on the reef are the main attractions of this unique resort, anchored 44 miles off the northeast coast of Australia.

Unfortunately for the owners, the $55 million (Australian; US$45 million) aquatic lodge is off to a wobbly start.

First, it opened six months behind schedule. A contract dispute with the Singapore shipbuilder delayed delivery until January. Then, Cyclone Charlie struck. Sixty-two mile-an-hour winds buffeted the seven-story luxury hotel. Damage was minor, except that the freshwater swimming pool moored alongside was ruined.

When it finally opened in March, the delays had cost Great Barrier Reef Holdings Ltd., the Sydney-based developer, millions of dollars in lost revenue. The hotel missed the lucrative Northern Hemisphere winter tourist market. Bad weather and competition from the World Exposition in Brisbane have since been blamed for low occupancy rates.

And now a marketing dispute with the hotel management, Four Seasons Ltd., has led the owners to hang out a ``For Sale'' sign. They aim to sell at least half their stake to void the management contract.

``The most difficult challenges are behind us,'' says a confident Malcolm Clyde, managing director of Great Barrier Reef Holdings. Indeed, despite the glitches, international interest remains high.

Mr. Clyde is negotiating with several hotel companies in the United States and Japan to jointly develop more floating hotels. There's even an (unlikely) proposal to put one in Antarctica.

The beds-on-a-barge concept offers environmental and cost advantages over land-based resorts, notes Clyde. To get tourists on a beautiful island, one doesn't have to bring in bulldozers and build a resort. Instead, a floating hotel might be anchored in one of the island's lagoons.

For New York City, for example, it may be cheaper to construct the hotel in Singapore and park it in the Hudson than pay Big Apple land and building prices.

Situated in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, this hotel has had to measure up to strict environmental standards. There's no toxic paint on the hull. No waste is discharged into the surrounding waters. Sewage and all liquid waste are treated. The resulting sterilized water is dumped several miles outside the reef. Trash is incinerated and garbage taken to the mainland. After anchoring the hotel so that movement would be almost imperceptible, divers successfully transplanted more than 300 pieces of coral from the disturbed seabed.

``Environmentally, it's certainly less hazardous to the surrounding reefs probably than most developments on island resorts or most of the cruise ships in the area,'' says Richard Kenchington of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

The Park Authority is monitoring the impact to the reef from shading and increased fishing and diving. Indeed, the hotel provides marine researchers with their own lab ``where students from James Cook University and Queensland University analyze sea bird droppings to make sure we're not feeding them scraps,'' deadpans chief engineer John Stuart.

Officials have also been studying 100 tons of World War II ammunition, including antitank mines, that were found two miles from the resort earlier this month. Spokesmen for the Navy and the hotel were quick to say that the dump, discovered by a diver, posed no danger. It was, apparently, legal to dump live ammunition offshore until about 1950.

Below the main deck, the engineering systems are identical to a self-contained midsize cruise ship. Off a steel-plated corridor running through the spine of the ``ship,'' water-tight compartments house sewage-treatment machinery, a huge air-conditioning system, a desalination plant, three throbbing diesel generators, ballast tank controls, and a repair shop. ``We'll fix an'thin' from genera'ors to handbags,'' declares Mr. Stuart in his native brogue.

Above decks, the d'ecor is black lacquer finish, brass, and cool coral tones. The basic rooms, at $165 a night (Australian; US$133), are smallish by hotel standards but about right for a cruise ship cabin.

There's a disco, two bars, a library, weight-lifting room, sauna, and two excellent restaurants, specializing in seafood. The Coral Trout is superb and the succulent King Prawns come right off nearby trawlers. Weather permitting, a barge brings in supplies weekly. Daily helicopter (A$200, US$162 round trip) and boat runs (A$70, US$56 round trip) restock fruit and vegetables. The average length of stay is three days.

``Service is good. But prices are a bit high and there's no live entertainment,'' comments Steve Dixon, a vacationer from Western Australia. Mr. Dixon, who is used to the spectacular colors of west coast reefs, was disappointed by the coral here.

Ironically, the hotel bobs over the John Brewer Reef - a section of the Great Barrier Reef that was 90 to 95 percent eaten by a crown-of-thorn starfish invasion several years ago.

But hotel manager Fritz Kahler points out that coral regrowth has begun. And most people come to see the ``exceptionally rich variety of fish on this reef.'' Indeed, this snorkeler spotted rainbow-hued saddled coral fish, barramundi, a school of baby squid, a moray eel, dozens of lavender starfish, and giant ripple-mouthed clams.

Of course, if the hotel doesn't succeed here, it can always be moved.

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