I first visited Townsville and Magnetic Island (Maggie) about 10 years ago when some sailing-mad friends chose to get married there. After a lovely Saturday night wedding on Maggie, I remember walking through Townsville’s deserted, hosed-down Sunday morning streets and thinking there wasn’t much to the city beyond backpackers and cowboys.
But the city has changed – and perhaps I have too. Townsville has long been a significant military base (during World War II Magnetic Island served as a popular spot for service personnel on leave), one reason it does not have the obvious tourist appeal of Cairns or the Sunshine Coast.
But there is plenty to do in the city – which offers events as varied as the Castrol Edge Townsville V8 meet and the Australian Festival of Chamber Music – and on Magnetic Island, a 20-minute ferry ride away.
The island is mostly national park, crisscrossed with 24 kilometres of walking trails and ringed by beaches, where the snorkelling and diving are top class, particularly for learners. Appealing as it is, there is nothing literally magnetic about the island: James Cook gave it the name after his ship’s compass went haywire as he passed.
The highlights of a visit could be squeezed into 48 hours, but we spent three nights in the region and this is island living, so why rush?
Townsville is less than three hours flying time from Sydney, and several degrees warmer. We check out one of the city’s newest hotels – Australia’s first 'glampackers', Rambutan on Flinders Street.
Not just for backpackers, the hotel has both dorms and king-sized family rooms as well as underground mobile van sites. The main level features a very inviting swimming pool and an airy bar and restaurant, serving Latin American-inspired food.
After a quick lunch, we tour the city. During World War II, Townsville was Australia’s most important air base, and Castle Hill, the highest point in Townsville, served as a lookout.
During the war, the Americans contemplated levelling Castle Hill and using the rock to create a direct route to Magnetic Island. Fortunately, it didn’t happen and the hill, which is only one metre shy of being classified a mountain, affords spectacular views.
There are a number of walking tracks that take more or less 40 minutes to reach the top, and judging by the power walkers marching up the side, it’s clearly a local favourite.
There are also plenty of locals strolling along the Strand foreshore, a two-kilometre seaside promenade winding from the army museum to Memorial Park. It’s a pleasant sunset walk, particularly while enjoying an artisanal ice-cream from Juliette’s.
After dinner at very popular Courtyard in City Lane, we spend the night at the the Grand on Palmer, one of a selection of hotels grouped together on Palmer Street, across the Ross River and with easy access to the CBD. The self-contained one-bedroom apartment with kitchen and laundry facilities costs about $160 a night. It’s wasted on us on our quick overnight stop, but it would be a comfortable base to explore the region.
One early, 20-minute ferry ride later, we’re on Magnetic Island. The island is about 52 square kilometres of hilly national park ringed by beaches. Even at this time in the morning, numerous people get off at the Nelly Bay terminal.
About 2,000 people live on the island year-round, but numbers swell between April and November. According to tourism figures, it’s the sunniest place in Queensland, with an average of 320 days of sunshine a year.
A fun way to zip around the island is in one of the Mokes or topless cars from Tropical Topless Car Rentals. There are plenty of normal cars on the island, but the topless cars are easy to drive and given our allocated vehicle is hot pink, there’ll be no forgetting where it’s parked.
The island’s main hub, Horseshoe Bay, with its palm trees, clear blue water and gentle lapping waves, is a great spot to swim or just sip beer while watching the sun disappear into the sea.
Here we enjoy a champagne bush tucker breakfast with the koalas at Bungalow Bay Koala Village. Backpackers and families tuck into eggs, bacon and jaffles with a glass of juice and champagne, while lizards and a sleepy snake are handed around. The main attraction is a placid koala called Thor, whose diet of eucalyptus leaves has left him looking stoned. Passed around from tourist to tourist, Thor has the same resigned pose in each photo.
After nachos at local Mexican cafe Noodies on the Beach, we amble through the weekend market, which sells the usual collection of curious jewellery, tie-dyed clothing and wind chimes.
Magnetic Island has a low-key charm but those looking for something a little swisher, will appreciate Peppers Blue on Blue at 123 Sooning Street, Nelly Bay. The resort also offers an a la carte restaurant.
After we check in for the night, it’s dinner. I opt for the barramundi with prawns and a smidge of bisque, while my companion opts for the eye fillet steak. The desserts are particularly good, notably a coconut and kaffir lime panna cotta and a gorgonzola dolce with blistered grapes, a drizzle of honey and served with lavosh.
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After breakfast at the hotel and with the weather overcast, it’s time to undertake the four-kilometre fort walk.
Magnetic Island’s strategic east coast position made it an important lookout point for allied troops during World War II. Two command posts were built overlooking the bay. Although many of the buildings and the gun emplacements are long gone, two hardy concrete forts remain.
What they lack in aesthetics they make up for in spectacular views across to Palm Island in the north and Bowling Green Bay national park in the south, so its worth the moderate 90-minute walk to the top of the hill. Although we don’t see any koalas, there are apparently frequent sightings.
Horseshoe Bay is also the island’s action hub and we’re to undertake one of the Adrenalin jetski tours around the bay. After a frankly terrifying safety briefing, I convince myself to attempt to pilot one of the enormous watercrafts.
No such hesitation for my throttle-happy partner, and we are soon bouncing haphazardly across the waves in the wake of our guide, attempting to keep up with the party of four jetskis.
The group stops from time to time, and we’re also on the lookout for whales, turtles and other sea life, but have no luck. Instead we get spectacular offshore views of Magnetic Island and OK, I admit it, a roaring rush of adrenaline.
Back on the beach, we dive into a bucket of prawns and beer at Sandi’s. We start planning our sea change and dreaming of swapping city life for island days. An afternoon that drags into the evening in the Marlin bar watching the sun go down will do that to you.
We check into family-friendly Bungalow Bay Resort, a home away from home for many of the island’s backpackers. The resort offers camping as well as accommodation in comfortable wooden A-frame bungalows, some with ensuites, surrounded by the bush.
Happy hour starts early, with $5 pints and $10 cocktails. We stop to watch the staff feed a flock of lorikeets, much to the delight of the visiting children, then amble down to Horseshoe Bay.
We return for dinner at Mexican cafe Noodies on the Beach, charmed by the friendly service and possibility of fajitas. The restaurant also promises free sombreros with jugs of cocktails, and although we resist, it’s fun to watch our fellow diners steadily increase their collection.
Our last and most delicious discovery on Magnetic Island is the Early Bird cafe. Formerly Nan’s Tea Room, it’s now run by a young Italian couple bringing excellent coffee and food to the island. I choose a flaky croissant with Nutella and an Earl Grey from their enormous tea menu, while my companion goes for baked eggs with chorizo and hot buttered toast.
Back in Townsville, we head to the Museum of Tropical Queensland. It’s a typical regional museum, filled with schoolkids on a day trip, but it does offer a glimpse into the slightly odd tropical region.
Where else would you find a mind-bending exhibition of all the area’s different coral forms? And a simulation of diving to the depths of the Great Barrier Reef.
There’s also a fascinating exhibition about the sinking of the HMS Pandora, the royal navy ship sent to pick up Fletcher Christian’s HMS Bounty mutineers in 1790. When the ship reached Tahiti in 1791, the errant men were rounded up, but in its voyage home it was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef. Thirty-one crew members drowned along with four of the prisoners who were constrained below decks.
We finish with lunch at the Brewery, Townsville’s former post office and home to the local Townsville Bitter. Given its heritage, my beer connoisseur pal opts for the paddle of eight decent-sized tasters to accompany his meal. To accompany it he tucks into a beef pie with mushy peas, while I choose fish and chips. It’s high-quality pub grub, all delicious and well-priced.
The Brewery is a great example of all that has improved in Townsville and Magnetic Island over the last 10 years. They’ve kept the friendliness and value for money, but stepped up the polish. It’s still not Cairns or the Sunshine Coast – and that’s a good thing.
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This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Alexandra Spring from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.