Things to do on Magnetic Island

A low-key Queensland island escape

Things to do on Magnetic Island

sunset on magnetic island
Photos: Tourism and Events Queensland & Murray Waite & Assoc.

She’s more a state of mind than any island. Sounds corny, I know, but then you didn’t spend a winter there. It just doesn’t seem right to talk about Maggie like she’s a destination, even though there are plenty of things to do on Magnetic Island.

Magnetic Island
Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland & Murray Waite

The beauty of Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island is the place I go to in my head when I need to escape… from traffic jams… long work hours and all the pressures of city living – it’s my ‘happy place’.

She shouldn’t be though, really she’s just another suburb of Townsville (albeit a very eastern one), hardly one of North Queensland’s greatest draw cards.

People live here and catch the 25-minute Magnetic Island ferry ride to work. But there’s something about a place that doesn’t like to brag. You don’t hear much about Magnetic Island. She gets lost somewhere down the long list of trendy Queensland island destinations.

But that’s the beauty of ‘Maggie’ (as the locals know her), you won’t find the abundance of five-star resorts you might further north or south, or $60 steaks… and you’ve got no chance of ordering a pina colada with a little plastic umbrella sticking out the top of it.

In fact, you won’t find that much here at all. But therein lies the appeal.

Magnetic Island 01
Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland, Murray Waite & Assoc
things to do on magnetic island
Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland & Ben Southall

Magnetic Island full moon party

One full moon I spent the night on the beach by the bay with a crazy old bloke called Bob.

It’s not a Magnetic Island full moon party as such Bob lived on the beach, he was allowed to because he reckoned his house was a boat and he was just mooring there – although he hadn’t changed his anchorage since 1984.

At dusk, we watched the sunset over the distant islands. When that was done we turned around and watched the moon rise over the mountains.

We sat and drank home-made liqueur and breathed it all in, Bob put on quite a show, he had specially trained kookaburras, massive eagle-like birds called brahminy kites… even a pet seagull called Valerie.

He also said giant turtles came and visited him some nights, he gets out and rolls with them up the sand – he says he’s married to one of them but old Bob said a lot of things. Bob’s moved on since, but not much where he was has changed.

You won’t find people like Bob on Hamilton Island, or Hayman Island. Tourists on package deals don’t want that. That’s where Maggie’s different.

Forget the Magnetic Island tours. You have to look beneath the surface to see what she’s all about if you take her on first impression you’ll have no idea why you’re so fortunate to be here.

magnetic island
Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland & Peter Lik

Magnetic Island Mediterranean escape

Magnetic Island looks more Mediterranean than tropical like she doesn’t belong in North Queensland and maybe came on lend from Cyprus.

Perhaps that’s because she’s a dry island, she has over 320 sunny days in a year and lies smack bang in the middle of a rain shadow caused by the Great Diving Range on the mainland.

things to do on magnetic island
Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland & Ben Southall
Magnetic Island
Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland & Ben Southall

Massive sandstone boulders and towering pine trees line most beaches. It’s quite possible to not see another soul on the beach all day.

Most of the island’s best beaches are accessible only by 4WD or by boat, making them all the more exotic and enticing.

Take a hire dinghy from the island’s main tourist area, Horseshoe Bay, and motor a few kilometres to the island’s best-kept secret, Five Beach Bay.

This is an area of coastline so unspoilt and gorgeous it should rate as one of Queensland’s greatest drawcards (although thank God it hardly rates a mention on any website).

Magnetic Island 7
Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland & Peter Lik

You won’t find anyone else here, there are no houses, all you’ll see are pods of playful dolphins, the odd loggerhead turtle (Bob’s wife perhaps?), whales and dugongs.

Also not far from Horseshoe Bay is Balding Bay, a 20-minute walk through untouched Aussie bushland.

For the adventurous at heart try the rock jump here 200 metres out from the beach, it’s a rush you won’t forget in a hurry.

magnetic island
Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland & Amber Toms

Magnetic Island things to do

You must spend at least one day in a 4WD, the only vehicle you can use to access Magnetic Island’s most western point, West Point, and another two of the island’s best beaches, Radical Bay and Florence Bay.

Make sure you time your run to take in a sunset at West Point, the colour show Mother Nature puts on here at around six o’clock is out of this world.

things to do on magnetic island
Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland & Rob Middenway
magnetic island
Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland & Paul Ewart

There’s a million bush walks to do on Maggie and plenty to explore; there’s koalas to see, sun baking, swimming, diving (or Magnetic Island snorkeling, Magnetic Island fishing and jet skiing.

But it’s not the attractions that suck you in, it’s the people (some of the biggest characters in Australia), the pace of life. It’s the fact you start to memorise the moon cycle so you know where to come full moon time.

It’s waking up in the morning to a ripple-free warm blue ocean and sparkling bay, with nothing to do but swim in it, lie beside it and watch the distant Australian coastline like it’s some kind of weird illusion.

Magnetic Island 6
Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland & Amber Toms

It’s drinking in a beachside bar while you watch a humpback whale and her calf swim past. It’s dancing at a backpacker bar under a full moon till the sun comes up in the morning. It’s knowing that life is never going to be better than what it is right now.

I’ve travelled to Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, Ibiza and the Caribbean and I’ve visited many Queensland islands but nothing compares to Maggie.

Maybe I’m biased, I did fall in love with her so I’ve probably overlooked her flaws, but take it from me, spend some time here and immerse yourself in Maggie life and watch out because you’ll soon find yourself shipwrecked here for a whole winter too.

Magnetic Island is one of Queensland’s best-kept secrets.

10 more things to do on Magnetic Island 

1- Sleep with the Magnetic Island koalas

Wake from a deep sleep to a cacophony of screeching birds. For a split second, the strange noises and the unfamiliar layout of the room throw my mind into confusion. Slowly drift off into another slumber to be roused by a flock of wailing peacocks or a grunting koala.

The abundance of wildlife around the Bungalow Bay Koala Village makes it difficult for city slickers to sleep soundly, but who cares, as it’s not every day you get the chance to sleep with wildlife.

Accommodation is in a refurbished air-conditioned 1950’s one-bedroom shack beneath the gum trees, cheekily named the Love Shack.

2- Mini moke Magnetic Island adventure

At Magnetic Island’s Nelly Bay ferry terminal, pick up my Mini moke. Magnetic Island’s mini mokes come in happy colours and have fun personalities, such as a lime-green one called Tweety with a picture of Tweety (the cartoon bird) painted on its bonnet.

Crunch a few gears and drive along the island’s winding coastal road past pristine beaches, sweeping views and sparkling bays with intriguing names like Horseshoe Bay and Picnic Bay.

3- Discover Magnetic Island beaches

The island is a natural sanctuary for wildlife, with over half of the island’s 5184 hectares protected as a national park and the surrounding reefs and waters falling within two marine parks, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Townsville-Whitsunday State Marine Park.

In 1770 James Cook mistakenly named the island Magnetic, when he thought that the island’s large granite boulders were affecting his compass.

Arcadia, Horseshoe Bay and Picnic Bay are three patrolled beaches on Magnetic Island.

4- Discover local restaurants on Magnetic Island

The island’s main restaurant precinct is located along the Horseshoe Bay waterfront. Barefoot Gallery is a delightful restaurant cum art gallery that displays works from local artists.

You can dine among the oil paintings, pastel floral art and hand-painted silk scarves while listening to the gentle sound of the lapping waves. It’s a romantic way to spend the evening.

5- Meet the wildlife at Bungalow Bay Koala Village

Meet an assortment of reptiles and tuck into a hearty breakfast while a curious Magnetic Island koala watches from a tree. After a quick cuddle pat one of Australia’s smallest wallaby species, the pademelon.

Typical of the dry tropics, Magnetic Island is covered with open eucalypt woodland of bloodwoods, stringybarks and grey ironbarks.

6- Learn about Magnetic Island’s aboriginal history

A Magnetic Island tour is an eye-opener to the region’s aboriginal past.

The aboriginal people were masters at utilising the forest. They used the “sandpaper” tree’s rough leaves for sanding spears and fire sticks. They made bush soap by rubbing a wad of leaves on a rock with some water.

The “rotten cheese fruit” tree that attracts green ants which are used by Aborigines to treat sore throats, coughs and colds. Green ants taste delicious and tangy, like lemon sherbet.

Along the waterfront at one of the bays, spot black cockatoos cracking open almonds which have fallen to the ground from the almond tree above.

7- Feed the Magnetic and Palm Island Unadorned Rock Wallabies

A highlight of the island is the wild Magnetic and Palm Island unadorned rock wallabies, a species found only on these islands. There is a colony which hides behind the giant boulders at Geoffrey Bay.

Entice them out onto the rocks with seed. At first, they might steal shy glances but keep persisting and they will eventually eat from the palms of your hands.

8- Fishing Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island has a variety of tropical fish habitats. The island’s rocky ledges, sandy bays and lush weed beds, along with colourful coral bommies attracts fish like  Sweetlip, Barramundi, Barracudas and Cod. You’ll also find tropical rock lobsters, Coral Trout and Mangrove Jack.

Saltwater Barramundi lurk in the caves and around the rocks of Horseshoe Bay and Nelly Bay.

There are plenty of reef areas around the island to fish, including the appropriately named Fish Cove. Arthur Bay, Nelly Bay and Picnic Bay are other good places to go fishing on Magnetic Island.

9- Magnetic Island horse riding

Horse riding Magnetic Island is a bucket list experience. Take a horseback ride through the bush and arrive at a beautiful Magnetic Island beach. It’s fun for all the family. Horseshoe Bay Ranch has -calm-natured horses suitable for beginners.

10- Magnetic Island forts walk

Magnetic Island Forts Walk is a trek past fascinating WWII fortifications. The hike offers lovely views of the Palm Island Group and Bowling Green Bay National Park.

There’s a chance of spotting koalas in the trees along the track and the view from the top of the complex is fantastic. The Australian Coast Artillery Units controlled the forts between 1943 and 1945.

Discover Magnetic Island

The trip from Townsville to Magnetic Island is 20 minutes by ferry. Sealink operates the Magnetic Island car ferry services seven days a week, except on public holidays. Fantasea cruises provide passenger (and bicycle) services to the island.

There are no domestic flights to Magnetic Island, however, major domestic airlines fly to Townsville from several Australian cities. Regional airlines operate flights between a number of Regional centres and Townsville.

Getting around Magnetic Island

Hire a car in Townsville and put it on the Magnetic Island ferry to Nelly Bay. Or travel as a passenger on the ferry to Magnetic Island and hire a car on the island. Magnetic Island car hire options range from mini mokes to late-model, air-conditioned vehicles.

Using the Magnetic Island bus service is a cheap way to get around but it’s more fun to hire a mini moke or a scooter. Magnetic Island scooter hire is available at Nelly Bay and available to beginners with a driving license.

There’s also a Magnetic Island taxi service.

Weather on Magnetic Island

Magnetic Island weather usually ranges from 19.5 to 29C. The dry season occurs between April and November while the wet season is from November to April.

Magnetic Island accommodation

There are motels, guest houses, vacation homes and apartments for rent on Magnetic Island. Magnetic Island resorts in Nelly Bay include Peppers Blue on Blue, which is a large resort on the waterfront, and the boutique Island Leisure Resort.

Compare prices of accommodation here

For more ideas on what to see in Queensland go to Best of Queensland.

Tolga Bat Hospital is a top spot to check out baby bats! Find out about Paronella Park here, which is between Innisfail and Mission Beach. If you enjoy exploring tropical spots, head to Kuranda on the Kuranda Scenic Railway.

Magnetic Island

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