While Townsville sprawls far and wide, asserting its place as one of the fastest growing cities in Australia, Magnetic Island is still a quiet slice of paradise with a touch more tourism slipping into the mix.
There’s a little girl standing on tiptoe at the bow of the ferry in front of me, gazing excitedly across the blue expanse of the Great Barrier Reef. The olive-green, undulating form of Magnetic Island is in clear view and she has a question that thousands of others ask every year: “Dad, why’s it called Magnetic Island? Where are all the magnets?”
Her dad is perched on a ferry seat sussing out the approaching landmass through his binoculars. “There are no magnets, honey – Captain Cook had a bit of a dodgy compass, and he thought it went nuts because there was a magnetic force on the island. People have tested it since and no-one can find anything magnetic. His compass was just having a bad day, I guess.” The little girl looks satisfied as we glide through the still waters, closer to port. “Oh, I see,” she says.
We pull into the ferry terminal on Maggie (that’s what Queenslanders affectionately call her) and, disembarking, I head to the little shack of an office that has something piercingly bright pink on offer. The little girl arrived there before me and now she’s jumping about in manic delight as she clocks the hot-pink Barbie-style ‘Tropical Topless’ cars that are the island’s choice of transport for tourists sans vehicles. They fit five, in a very cosy cluster, and they are the most incongruous things on the island, their hot- pink bodies standing out starkly against the abundance of nature – all shades of green in the rainforest, bushland and super-green lawns; and all hues of blue in the surrounding oceans and inlets. From high above, I’m sure my car looks like a fairy in her most daring get-up, zipping through the picture-perfect painting of a tropical island. Still, I’m off at a leisurely pink pace and with no roof to hamper the view, these cars are the ideal way to see what Maggie has to offer.
Nature-based activities on Magnetic Island
Magnetic Island is 52 square kilometres and has around 2,500 residents. As it’s only a half-hour, eight-kilometre ride across on the ferry from the mainland, it’s become like a suburb of Townsville with many of Maggie’s residents commuting across the sea to work.
As soon as I become immersed in the island, it’s as if a weight drops off me. Cruising along the winding roads with a thousand palm trees in sight, I feel as though I’m a million miles from city life, and yet I can see Townsville on the horizon from some of the many lookouts.
There are plenty of bush walks on Maggie. A few years ago, $4.85 million dollars was invested in Gabul Way, a 710-metre-long, elevated steel pathway that hugs the side of the island from Nelly Bay to Arcadia. It’s Maggie’s little answer to Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, and pedestrians and cyclists are loving it.
Wildlife on the island is also plentiful, with 54 per cent of the terrain designated as national parkland. It’s a twitchers’ paradise, too, with around 186 species of birds. And at Arcadia barge landing on Geoffrey Bay, there is a large colony of quite tame rock wallabies.
There’s an ongoing debate about whether the wallabies should or shouldn’t be fed; some foods can damage their digestive systems and many think it’s better that they forage for themselves. If you’re still keen to get up close, the correct wallaby feeding pellet packs can be purchased from the Fish’n N Fuel’n shop on Mandalay Avenue, Nelly Bay.
Top foodie spots on Magnetic Island
After a leisurely airborne walk, I head to Horseshoe Bay, where a cluster of buzzing cafés, restaurants and galleries, and a pub called the Marlin Bar are idyllically positioned beside the beach, palm trees and glistening waters beckoning to those who stop for lunch.
With hearty portions of beachside-inspired pub grub (chicken Caesar salads, calamari and chips), a great wine cellar, a bottle shop and live music sessions on Sundays, it’s a popular hangout all year ’round.
Laid-back luxury accommodation on Magnetic Island
Bungalow Bay Koala Village is perfect for a relaxed, down-to-earth escape. The A-frame cabins are insanely Instagram-worthy, and the staff run regular wildlife tours and can point you in the direction of some great walking trails and snorkelling sports.
For a slightly more luxe stay, Peppers Blue on Blue won’t disappoint. With marina and mountain views, this garden-clad resort has a large outdoor swimming pool, a fabulous day spa and more cocktails on the menu than you could possibly try in one stay.
You can see a full list of accommodation offerings on Magnetic Island here.
Handing over Barbie’s car keys, I stroll to the jetty and join other commuters for the afternoon ferry back to Townsville. I promise myself I will return one day soon to the lovely, laidback community of Maggie – but for now, the big smoke beckons. When I disembark, I plan to take a walk to the top of Townsville’s natural icon: Castle Hill.
Just shy of being classified a mountain (it’s 286 metres high and 300 is required to make the grade), the pink granite monolith smack-bang in the centre of the city can be seen from pretty much everywhere, and has awesome views of Maggie and the many sprawling suburbs of Townsville. And despite the steep winding road being about three kilometres long, it’s a hugely popular walk or run for locals keen on losing a few kilos or just keeping fit. I struggle, but then see a bunch of young kids keeping up with supermums pushing prams, and forge on, pretending I’m not the most unfit person on the almost-mountain.
After descending the Hill to the ’Ville (as the locals call it), it’s high time for some refreshment. I head to C Bar on the Strand which is a walkway surrounded by beautifully kept gardens and parklands flanking Townsville’s beachfront. At this iconic seaside café, perched on the cliffs with an uninterrupted view of Maggie, I indulge in some people-watching and pore over a fantastic menu packed with northern Queensland produce. Famous for its apple-and-cinnamon pancakes and the spot for locals to hang out after a few ‘straps’ (laps of the Strand), it’s also a great place to watch the sunrise over a hearty fry-up, or the sun set with a vino or cold beer in hand.
Marine discovery at Reef HQ, Townsville
Townsville is home to the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium and the main education centre for the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a fun, interactive aquarium where visitors can watch playful leopard sharks being fed by the staff, and get up close and personal with the myriad species that coexist on Australia’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed reef.
The aquarium was the vision of Dr Graeme Kelleher, who was once chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Kelleher’s aim was to create an accessible, affordable Great Barrier Reef on land, while spreading a conservation message and thus gaining public support for the protection of the real reef.
Reef HQ Aquarium also has a turtle hospital; a haven for sick and injured sea turtles, where they are nursed back to health and then set free in the wild. All species of marine turtle found on and around the Great Barrier Reef are considered threatened, so the work is crucial for the survival of these beautiful, gentle reptiles. The hospital operates under and promotes the C.A.R.E (Conserve. Act. Rehabilitate. Educate) philosophy, and it plays a key role in educating people about threatened species and nature conservation.
Nightlife in Townsville
A visit to Townsville would not be complete without a night out on the town – and the nightlife in this rapidly growing city is really impressive. In fact, as the mining boom has brought a lot of young things with money to burn to town, it’s absolutely pumping. Dressed up to the nines, women in sparkling dresses and skyscraper heels totter through the streets, and everywhere, especially on weekend nights, there are groups of people literally spilling from the bars and restaurants.
Kick off the night with some tasty Mexican-inspired fare at Cactus Jacks on Palmer Street, Townsville’s popular dining precinct. From there, choose from a ridiculous number of bars and pubs. And at some stage, on some trip to Townsville, you might end up at the Mad Cow Tavern. With an affronting frontage of vivid black- and-white cow-print patterns, the Mad Cow is the place everyone heads when everything else closes. And it’s hard to miss – day or night.
This time, I don’t choose the Mad Cow to wrap up my trip. Instead, I find a cool stool at the Heritage Exchange, and from there I watch the streams of people passing – laughing and enjoying life in a thriving regional city that can no longer be called a big town, no matter what way you look at it. But that’s the best thing: you can live half an hour away from the big smoke on Maggie Island, if you want nature, peace and solitude. And if you want some action, the ’Ville has it in spades. Far North Queensland’s burgeoning hub has the best of both worlds.
Top Townsville hotels
Townsville has no shortage of luxury hotels and resort-style accommodation. Sparkling infinity pools, breathtaking views and fabulous onsite restaurants are a given at many of these tropical abodes. Rambutan Resort is great if you’re keen to enjoy the local nightlife, and Direct Hotels – Holborn at Central has spacious self-contained rooms with a stunning outdoor pool.
Find the best day trips and tours here, or discover more inspiring getaways in Queensland: