Magnetic Island is situated off the coast near Townsville, km north of Brisbane and km south of Cairns. The island is only a twenty minute ferry ride from the mainland and as it has several "normal" settlements, not just tourist resorts, it's accessible by a reasonably priced ferry (a return family ticket cost around 60 AUD).
The island is something of a tropical paradise, with the chief two attractions being bushwalking in its mostly wooded interior and swimming and snorkelling off its beaches.
Many people visit the island as a day trip from Townsville. We spend two nights (and one full day) here and as our kind hosts lend us their truck, we manage to explore a little during this time.
The weather, as befits dry season in the tropics, is hot and sunny but not unpleasantly clammy. We take a taxi from the train station to the ferry terminal and soon are on the boat across, crowded with day trippers and backpackers making their way to the island.
Tourist brochures make a lot of the "magnetic" part of the island's name, but the reason for such an enchanting title was more prosaic: the early European explorers thought that the island disturbed their compasses and thus the name (it was proved to be wrong later on).
The ferry journey to the island, despite the crowd, is fun in itself. We quickly leave the Ross Creek inlet, with the pink granite monolith of Townsville's Castle Hill raising behind us on and the green and hilly Magnetic Island quickly growing before us as the catamaran ferry approaches the terminal at Nelly Bay.
Nelly Bay is the main settlement on the island, and since the ferries started to arrive here rather than in Picnic Bay in 2003, it has also became the main centre for the island's tourism, with resorts, hotels, car hire companies and bus tour operators. Still, it's all fairly low scale and easy to leave behind once we are past the terminal with its information-cum-booking office (it's often hard to distinguish "proper" tourist information from travel agents and tour operators in Australia) and in the taxi to our hosts' home.
The house is beautiful and designed for the tropics: airy and light, with a large living area simply on a roofed deck without walls, shaded by a tropical garden and with an inviting pool accessible by steps from the living room/deck. As we are visiting in the dry "winter" season, the weather is rather wonderful, warm to hot but not unbearably so (in fact, the water in the pool seems quite cold, but our daughter doesn't mind) and the humidity levels are quite low. The humid summer is a different matter, to which tarnished brass knobs on wardrobes and window frames testify.
We walk back to the village along tree-lined streets, with flowering plants and trees, gardens filled with hundreds of birds. We spot a huge centipede among the ground cover foliage, and numerous colourful parrots, sun-birds and other birds. The beach at Nelly Bay is narrow and a bit stony, but lined with graceful palms and the promenade boasts several good examples of strangle figs growing in impressive circles.
The whole island has a resident population of slightly over 2,000 people in a string of four villages spread mostly along its eastern coast. The largest is Nelly Bay, technically and practically a suburb of Townsville from where many people commute to the mainland. South of Nelly Bay is Picnic Bay, which used to be the main centre of tourism, but with the move of the ferry to Nelly Bay, acquired a slightly desolate feel of a place who has seen better days. North of Nelly Bay is Arcadia, and then on the north coast of the island, Horseshoe Bay. The road between Picnic Bay and Horseshoe Bay is sealed and has a regular bus service, or you can hire a car or a Mini-Moke (a type of buggy based on a Mini chassis and engine: looks very uncomfortable – and most of the ones on the island seem to be virulently pink - but presumably has some kind of fun or cool factor to warrant its popularity). There are also rougher tarmac roads to several of the coves on the eastern coast, on which you can drive – carefully – in most cars, but on which the Mokes (weirdly, as they are supposed to be rough terrain and beach buggies) or rental cars are not allowed, as well as dirt track to West Point. Majority of the island is a national park, and most of the northern section and the hilly interior is not accessible by vehicle. Walking is certainly a great option as the island is fairly compact – it's only about 10km from Horseshoe Bay to Picnic Bay - albeit hilly, and there are many good walking tracks.
The next day, equipped with our hosts' truck we set off to explore a bit. With a joint objective of doing a bushwalk with views and scenery, and incorporating a beach with a swim, we decide to do the Forts Walk. We park four and a half kilometres from Nelly Bay, at the turn-off to Radical Bay on the Horseshoe Bay Road and set off on a well-marked and well-maintained track. The path follows a ridge in a steady climb and every so often we get a glimpse, or even a full view, of the island's arresting bays. The walk is through a dry bush composed mostly of eucalyptus and hoop pine and beside the track, the ground is stony and with many granite boulders. We keep on the path, especially as venomous snakes are known to live in the area. Children complain about the heat but we press on, encouraged by the hope of spotting a koala (Magnetic Island has a large resident population, but as they are solitary animals with an individual range of 3 sq km and blend well with the environment, I am not too hopeful).
The Forts Walk is named after the complex of defence buildings (observation posts and gun batteries) operated during World War II and as we get near the top, we see remains of dank looking, square, concrete military constructions. We are also told by walkers coming down that there is, actually, a koala to be spotted near the munitions store! However much we look, though, we can't see the creature and thus we concentrate on admiring fantastic views of the boulder-dotted headlands, beaches in the island's bays, mainland hills and other small islands in the vicinity.
The walk back is quick and easy. Still no koalas, and the kids who have been fed and watered as we picnic on a large boulder by a pathside are in a much better mood.
The walk is about 4km long and officially needs 1.5h to complete, less for a fit and fast walker and more for kids or those with a tendency to stop frequently, take hundreds of photos and linger over the views. There are some short, steep(ish) sections, but most of it is fairly mild and easy to tackle (but hot, even in the winter).
The beach is next, with a turn-off to Radical Bay, apparently one of the nicer beaches on the island, just by the car park. Rental vehicles are not allowed on the narrow and pot-holed (although mostly tarmac covered) road, but it's fairly easy to tackle in a normal car if you drive slowly and carefully. Radical Bay is lovely indeed, with two rocky headlands enclosing a cove of silvery sand, and a warm, clear water. It's July, so no dangerous jellyfish about, and we (in this case, your writer and the nine year old) happily wade in for a swim and a paddle as the day is drawing to the close.
On the way back we drive past Nelly Bay to Picnic Bay, where we wade on the beach (there is even a bit of the reef here, especially near the jetty) and after a coffee and kids play in a good playpark we go back to our hosts after what was one of the best days we had in Queensland.
Our train leaves the next day, so we have to leave the gorgeous Magnetic Island, but we wish we had more time here to bushwalk, swim and snorkel. Despite quite a bit of development, the island still has an authentic and popular-but-unspoiled feel and combines all the things we like. I would happily come back here and stay for a few days.