Magnetic Island, A Gem Among the Corals

maggie island

It’s late morning on Magnetic Island, in Northern Queensland, Australia. Green parrots caw from the mangrove trees, the tides have receded, and inside a cave clustered with boulders, a fuzzy rock wallaby nervously rubs its nose and nibbles on a piece of orange left by campers.

On the beach, only yards away, a couple sits on a blanket, amazed to view their first wild marsupial in Australia.

Situated 5 miles off the coast of Townsville, Magnetic island marries paradise with adventure as Australia does best. Locals know it as Maggie Island, a nice spot for weekend relaxation.

Whether its jet skiing or scuba diving, horseback riding or hiking trails, there’s an activity for you on Magnetic island. If a slower pace is preferred, try picnicking, beach combing, or visit any one of the island’s 23 unique bays.

Come vacation on Townville’s own mountainous island, where palm trees meet the glittering waves of the Coral Sea.

Get It Together

Plan your trip with Queensland climate in mind. In Australia’s summer months, December through February, temperatures range from the high 80’s to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38°C) with tropical humidity to match. Expect daily downpours during the rainy season from December to March.

During “stinger season,” generally November to May, check for posted warning signs along the beach. Some areas become unsuitable for swimming due to mass jellyfish migration. If you’re stung, remember to saturate (don’t rub) the wound with vinegar, and locate a first aid station promptly.

Another important planning consideration is that you have an up-to-date passport and tourist visa for Australia, as well as all necessary immunization shots. Visit the AU Embassy website for more information.

Although not essential, it’s wise to book a hotel or hostel before leaving. During the high season (winter in the Northern Hemisphere) accommodations fill up fast both on Magnetic, and in neighboring Townsville. The island caters to every taste — from resort inns, to B&B’s, hostels, camping cabins, rental houses, apartments or villas — so travelers are sure to find the level of budget or luxury they seek.

Find flights from the US west coast to Townsville through the Australian carrier, Qantas Airlines, or Air New Zealand. Flights often stopover on the mainland in Brisbane or Sydney, the Australian capital, and include a domestic connecting flight to Townsville. Both airlines are known for reliable and comfortable service, and big on safety.

Don’t be surprised, airline food can be quite agreeable, with choices like steak and lasagna, or vegetarian, if one pre-orders a “special meal” when booking.

A Boeing 747 flight from Los Angeles can take between 17 and 26 hours, but accommodating flight attendants make travelers feel welcome and comfortable, quick to bring blankets, pillows, or a calming glass of red wine. Watch popular movies on a large central screen or mini-screen in the seat in front of you, or tune into one of many themed radio stations and settle into the large cushioned chairs for a nap.

Many seasoned travelers consider reading about their destination crucial. Take a traveler’s guide to Oz, as it’s called in the “Land Down Under,” and learn the subtleties of life among the Ozzies. Let’s GoLet's Go travel books and Frommer’sFrommer's guide travel books are popular choices among backpackers.

Travel guides offer advice on restaurants, hotel accommodations, and seasonal attractions for different regional cities. Some include area maps, or give tips on local customs, weather, and currency exchange.

Townsville jetty

Terra Firma

Welcome to Townsville. Under a big open sky, tall palms sway in the breeze, and hot gentle rain spatters the walkway. In moments the shower will break, bringing brilliant, and surprisingly strong sunshine.

Time to apply some sunscreen. The Australian government has organized national campaigns warning against UV radiation and skin cancer. Yet, even on cloudy days, you’ll meet one or two fried faces.

From Townsville airport, take a Townsville Taxi to the city. In the main terminal, choose national car rental companies, such as Avis, Hertz, and others.

If you’re in need of island gear, ask the driver to stop at Stockland Mall (known as “Stockies” locally) or Flinders Street Mall. Airport tourist shops carry fun novelty gifts, but an umbrella or sunhat is best bought on the mainland in Townsville. Later, too, you might appreciate a water bottle or a backpack for an afternoon hike.

From the city center, catch a Sunbus and head for the docks. Departing from Breakwater Terminal on Sir Leslie Thiess Drive, Sunferries catamarans takes passengers on the 20-minute journey across Cleveland Bay to Maggie Island. They advertise 19 return trips per day. Tickets can be purchased for single or return trip. Ask about ticket specials at Sunferries or stores in-town.

Quick Facts:

  • Lang: English
  • Currency: AUD, dollar
  • Time zone: GMT +10 h
  • Tel. country code: +61

From what you’ve read, now would be a good time to decide what type of activities interest you on Maggie. For a rest before the ferry departure, visit “the Strand,” a popular local beach near the docks.

Just ahead, the clear blue water of Nelly Bay, a fringing reef and main entry port to the island. Walk down the dock, and beeline for the tourist information office. Here, ask about prices and grab different activity brochures. Though you have just arrived, it’s important to book activities quickly, especially for the popular sea-kayaking or island horseback riding tours.

Directions to your accommodations should be provided by a resort agent. Although the island is small, vehicle hire may prove necessary if your temporary home lies on the far side, like at West Point or Horseshoe Bay. It’s also a good idea to call your hotel desk to see if they offer a free shuttle service from the jetty. The cheapest way to get around is by bus. Service runs at least once per hour across the island. Buy single tickets or day passes.

The Australian tourism board has good things to say about Bungalow Bay YHA hostel at Horseshoe Bay. Travelers stay in bungalows beside a wildlife sanctuary. Hostel facilities include 2 restaurants, bar, Internet café, bicycle hire, and swimming pool. For group stays, contact the booking office.

After arrival, shake off the jet lag with some leisure activity. It’s important to acclimate to the local time (for example, 11 hours later than the US west coast). Jump in the pool, take a walk around the hostel or hotel grounds, or ask about package deals at the front desk reception. Down at the beach, watch as the sun melts into a blazing magenta sky, and the waters turn darker, reflecting the last light of day. That sunset will stay with you long after leaving Maggie.

In the morning, try the breakfast buffet, and head for the day’s activity site. Don’t be left behind — even a conscientious guide can miscount. And, truth be told, latecomers may get stuck with the oldest equipment (like paddles), or face a less than sentimental group.

Slippery When Wet

corals

For water enthusiasts, Maggie offers fun on multiple energy levels. Leaving in the morning, half-day Adrenalin Jet Ski tours run seven days a week, taking small groups of 10 or less around the island and into secluded bays. As the machine pilot, you are instructed about safety by the tour’s group leader. Essentials such as lifejacket, wetsuit, and goggles are provided — including a cup of caffeine to keep energy up.

For a long, relaxing look at the island and sea life, such as dolphins, sea turtles, and even whales (seasonally), take a professionally guided half-day sea-kayaking Ecotour. Paddle the smooth, sparkling water of Maggie’s different bays, breath in the sea air and enjoy the sunshine.

If you’ve ever wanted to get certified as a scuba diver, here’s the perfect opportunity. Pleasure Divers offer PADI open water (entry level) dive courses, consisting of hands-on instruction and theory. Students learn essential diving skills such as how to use equipment, read dive tables, and interact with sea life safely. Note that before taking a dive course, you must complete a dive medical; see a home physician if you plan to try diving. Dives often take place on the coral reefs of Nelly Bay, Florence Bay and/or Alma Bay.

Magnetic Island is located only hours by boat from the Great Barrier Reef. Snorkelers and scuba divers can get a taste of what they will encounter if they decide to go out on a dive boat. Skin dive among fluorescent blue, pink, yellow, and white coral sitting just below the surface. Dive visibility varies with each bay, but it’s always clearest on calm days. Ask a local or dive shop operator which bays make for the best current diving.

For intermediate or advanced divers, offers abound for night dives and trips to the S.S. Yongala wreck — a coral-covered garden of sea life — or the Outer Great Barrier Reef. Trips are limited to Dive master availability. It’s best to get information in Townsville where most area dive boats depart. If possible, ask local advice on the best dive tours.

The right boat crew will make a 3 or 4 day dive trip run smoothly. Your dive master acts as an underwater guide, and the boat captain navigates, often while you sleep, to reef locations planned according to the type of trip selected and weather conditions. After a long exhilarating dive, you’ll also appreciate a first mate who knows how to grill properly on the barbie.

At the start of your dive trip, find a friendly dive buddy, and choose one of the bunk beds furthest from the engine room. Underwater, you’ll soon forget about your close quarters, as you float among huge batfish and curious barracuda.

Island Escapades

If you prefer to explore on land, as a National park, Maggie Island has more than 15 miles (24 km) of hiking trails. Take a water bottle and head out on trails that range in length from 15 minutes to Horseshoe Bay Lagoon (a favorite for bird-watchers) up to 5 hours, on the trek from Picnic Bay to West Point.

Many paths offer a panoramic view of the island. The secluded beaches of Radical Bay, Florence Bay, and Arthur Bay are perfect places to relax with a picnic lunch before turning back. A hilly island, Maggie’s trails are marked from easy or moderate grade, and many paths split, snaking off the main way through rocky, narrow gullies.

A very popular route is the one-and-a-half hour Forts walk. This trek begins at Radical Bay, winding past old World War II defense sites, including an observation tower and command post. At the summit, enjoy a 360 degree view of Magnetic Island, the Coral Sea, Cleveland Bay, Townsville and Great Palm Island.

koala

Discover the island on a day tour. At 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily, Magnetic Island buses offer three-hour guided tours, which include wild koala spotting, morning or afternoon tea at a local café, and native animal feeding.

For a more in depth island experience, Tropicana Tours offer an eight-hour trip which includes four-wheel drive transportation, lunch at a top restaurant, evening tea, plus wine and snacks at sunset on West Point beach. Prices vary depending on the season.

If trekking is not for you, rent bicycles — which the Australians call pushbikes — by the hour or for a day (with helmets included) at the photo kiosk in Picnic Bay Mall. Rent mopeds or mini mokes (a type of dune buggy) at Nelly Bay or Horseshoe Bay.

Four-wheel drive vehicles (all manual transmission), which seat four, five, or eight are available for 24-hour hire, allowing remote access to Arthur, Florence, or Radical Bay and West Point beach. Roof-less island “fun” cars seating four people are another option at Nelly Bay. They rent for 24 hours, and include beach toys and island map.

Probably the most popular of all, Horseshoe Bay Ranch horse riding tours depart at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily, taking riders into the island bush, cantering along the beach on Horseshoe Bay, and swimming with their horse in the Coral Sea. Tour operators ensure that riders get a horse that fits their skill level (novice to advanced). Two-hour guided tours and half-day excursions are advertised. This is one adventure where early booking is essential.

Practice your swing on a nine hole golf course at the Magnetic Island Country club, off of Hurst Street, in Picnic Bay. Rent golf carts. The club is open daily dawn until dusk. At Nelly Bay, an 18-hole mini-golf course sits next to an activity center, with a refreshment stand, volleyball area, table tennis, video games, and croquet.

Aquasearch Lab, an aquarium and research lab on Elena Street in Nelly Bay offers a look at the local sea life. Relax for an afternoon while learning a little about giant clams and tropical fish at their marine exhibit.

Holiday packages, too, are a great way to have fun on the island. A multi-day backpacking special might combine activities such as four-by-four vehicle hire, and the half-day Adrenaline Plus Jet Ski tour. A seasonal dive package may include suite accommodations, continental breakfast, and three-day PADI open water reef course.

Book your trip on the web through tourism offices such as Best of Magnetic, or Queensland Holidays — a group affiliated with Tourism Queensland.

Dining and Entertainment

Nightlife on Maggie Island is not a club scene. For major dancing or bar hopping, head back to Townsville and hang around the Flinders Street district. The island offers a more low-key type of atmosphere, appreciated by those who may enjoy sitting around the campfire and talking to other travelers, or walking down to the beach to watch the tide rush in.

To put some energy into your evening, visit the hotels and hostels which have their own scheduled events, such as live bands, happy hour, or the big event, “Full Moon Parties,” at Base Backpacker’s hostel held every month near Nelly Bay. Magnums and Coconuts on the Beach are both known for their party atmosphere. Most places have a common room and some have a bar or small dance floor, where groups looking to liven things up can create their own party.

For dining on the island, there’s a restaurant to suit everyone’s taste or pocketbook. Try Fat Possum Café at Nelly Bay for burgers or sandwiches (if you don’t like carrots in yours, tell the waiter promptly; in OZ, they may assume you eat it that way, too) or Svenson’s Restaurant known for great curries near Horseshoe Bay. For Latin food, try Noodies on the Beach at Horseshoe Bay. For semi-formal gourmet dining, visit the award-winning Barefoot Art Food Wine restaurant at Horseshoe Bay. Looking for romantic atmosphere? Ask your hotel desk for recommendations. Locals still know best.

Whatever you do at Magnetic Island, the experience won’t soon be forgotten. On the island for everyone, travelers can’t help but enjoy a schedule that runs at their own pace. Come discover why people from all over the world return to visit Townsville’s hidden gem, Magnetic Island.