Magnetic Island is so close to Townsville that you can see it from many parts of the city. It basically operates as a suburb of Townsville for a lot of residents who go back and forth each day for work or school.
Yet, when you visit Magnetic Island it feels like you are light years away from the mainland, not just a mere eight kilometres (connected by a ferry that takes only 20 minutes).
It’s one of the reasons Magnetic Island feels like a little slice of paradise. The fact that there are so many things to do on Magnetic Island is a bonus. You can come for a relaxing escape or you can busy yourself exploring (or both, to be honest).
The island is full of quirks and they are what makes it such an iconic destination. For example:
- Magnetic Island is the only island on the Great Barrier Reef to have its own postcode, for instance – 4819.
- Until recently, there were no addresses on Magnetic Island and each house had its own name, which was how the mail was delivered.
- And the precarious positions of the granite boulders along the shore convinced Captain Cook that they must be magnetic, inspiring his name for the island.
But some of its little gems are best discovered yourself, by exploring the island and chatting with some of the locals who live here. For a relatively small parcel of land, there is a lot going on.
I would recommend not visiting Magnetic Island as a day trip. It’s one of the best things to do in Townsville but, unless you are really short of time, you won’t be able to experience it properly and enjoy the laziness that comes from a few days of discovering the various walks and bays.
You need at least two full days – if not longer – to try a good selection of the best things to do on Magnetic Island because the top activities are not ones you can do quickly and tick off a list.
You’re going to enjoy taking your time on a hike through the granite to see the koalas, finding a path to a secluded beach for a swim, going on a boat tour to find the best snorkelling or fishing, and relaxing with a drink as the sun sets.
To help you plan your trip to Magnetic Island, let me share some of my tips for the best things to do on Magnetic Island.
About 70 per cent of the island is a national park (and a beautiful one, at that) so it stands to reason that hiking is one of the best things to do on Magnetic Island.
The most popular hike on Magnetic Island (for good reason) is the Forts Walk, which is about four kilometres return and takes you to historic Second World War fortifications.
The highlight of the Forts Walk is often seeing koalas, which live in the trees here and are usually just a couple of metres away from the track.
There are actually seven official walks on Magnetic Island that link together to offer about 25 kilometres of total hiking trails.
From Nelly Bay (where the ferry arrives), you can head south then west along a trail to Picnic Bay, which then connects to a long 16km return path from Picnic Bay to West Point.
Heading north, there’s either an inland or coastal option from Nelly Bay to the start of the Forts Walk. From that point two other trails veer off to the west and east that go to smaller bays along the coast and then meet at Horseshoe Bay, enabling you to make it a loop.
If that all sounds a bit confusing and you need to see a map, there’s an excellent one here on the DES website.
Even if you’re not a big walker, it’s worth doing a bit of the trails. The landscapes across the island are stunning and the hikes take you up to viewpoints where you’ll get great vistas across the bush and to the water.
Some of the hikes focus on the inland bush of the island and the dramatic viewpoints, while others take you to the bays. And the beaches within these bays are another of the highlights of Magnetic Island.
However you get there – by car, bus, walking or boat (more on that shortly) – visiting the beaches are another of my favourite things to do on Magnetic Island.
The sand is so vibrant, the water so clear, and the settings so picturesque.
There are different kinds of beaches on Magnetic Island, so you have a bit of choice depending on what you’re looking for.
You’ll find long beaches with easily accessible shops at Geoffrey Bay and Horseshoe Bay – so they are good options for an easy trip for a swim or a sunbake.
There are smaller and more secluded beaches at Arthur Bay, Florence Bay, Radical Bay, and Balding Bay. These can’t be accessed by car but having walking tracks to them, so they’re going to be a lot more peaceful but make sure you take everything you’ll need for a few hours.
And then there are really remote beaches at Five Beach Bay which, as the name suggests, has five different smaller bays within it.
You can’t walk or drive to the beaches at Five Beach Bay – they are only accessible by boat – so you’ll really feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. They also face away from the mainland so you’re not even reminded you’re just a few kilometres from Townsville.
Magnetic Island is within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the fringing reef here is in great condition. (It’s actually quite impressive how good the water visibility and marine health is, considering the Port of Townsville is so busy – you wouldn’t even know, to be honest!)
There are lots of spots you can snorkel off Magnetic Island and almost every bay will have something to offer. The waters are generally quite warm and calm, so it’s usually a very pleasant experience.
If you’re organising your own snorkelling on Magnetic Island, there are a few spots that are particularly popular, have easy access, and even have a couple of suggested trails marked out.
I would recommend Florence Bay, which you can walk to and won’t be crowded. Or there’s a marked trail at Geoffrey Bay which is close to the road and some accommodation. Or even at Nelly Bay, there’s a marked snorkelling trail at the southern end.
If you have your own snorkel and goggles, great! Otherwise you can rent them at quite a few dive/snorkel stores in town. Just ask your accommodation for the closest one (if they don’t offer it themselves).
Now, while you can technically access every part of the island on your own, a lot of the spots would require you have a boat or do a long walk. There are also heaps of places you can choose from and it’s not always obvious where is best to go.
That’s why I would recommend doing a tour with Aquascene, which is run by the local Hinks family. The tour takes you to the best bays and beaches for swimming and snorkelling. There’s also the opportunity to head further out for some fishing (catch and release).
When I do the tour, it’s with Adam Hinks who also has lots of information to share about Magnetic Island, and he points out the various birds of prey along the way, as well as some interesting rock formations and other quirks of the island.
Aquascene uses a custom-built boat to be able to get into the shallows of the bays, which is perfect for beginner snorkellers and families. But it’s also agile and strong enough to easily circumnavigate the island.
Another option for exploring the island from the water is on a sailing ship. There are a couple of sailing companies on Magnetic Island that can take you out on yachts for a day trip or perhaps a shorter tour.
There are different ways you can go on the yachts, with different pricing packages, with private packages or small group tours.
For more information, have a look at Big Mama Sailing and Pilgrim Sailing.
One of the best things to do on Magnetic Island is to go on one of the sunset sailing cruises, with a few drinks as the sky turns a vivid orange.
There are lots of other ways you can make the most of the beautiful water that surrounds Magnetic Island. It could be kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, or even jetskiing.
You will be able to find places to rent some of the equipment at most of the major beaches on the island. One of the most popular spots to start kayaking is from Horseshoe Bay
Hire a car
Getting around the island can be a slow process if you’re doing it by yourself. The walking trails obviously take time, if you’re going by foot. And, if you’re going to use the public bus, it only comes about every hour.
That may be fine if you are trying to relax into the slow pace of life and not trying to fit too much into your day. But it can be a bit frustrating if you’re trying to do lots of different things.
What quite a few visitors do is hire a car for a day or so. There aren’t lots of roads so you get to know them pretty quickly, but it does give you the flexibility to pop around the island for different things.
If you’re staying in Nelly Bay, it’s easy to go over and see the sunset at Horseshoe Bay, for instance. Or, if you want to do the Forts Walk, you don’t need to wait for the bus to get there, then wait for it to take you back.
You can get a range of cool small cars (I got a MINI convertible) from Isle Hires.
While you’re driving around, you may want to stop at the northern end of Geoffrey Bay to see the rock wallabies that live there.
There are quite a few here and, when I visited, some of the females had little joeys in their pouches (which is always super cute). You won’t have any trouble spotting them.
Generally the Magnetic Island rock wallabies will come right up to you because they want food and a lot of people feed them.
There’s a sign that says you really shouldn’t feed them but, if you do, to make sure it’s either pellets from the newsagent or things like carrots and apples.
And, finally, for something a bit different, why not join the weekly toad races at the Arcadia Village Hotel.
Every Wednesday, the pub at Geoffrey Bay runs races with cane toads and you can even bet on which one is going to win. It’s a very North Queensland event!
The pub also has a nice atmosphere and good food, so it’s not a bad place to spend an evening regardless.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION ON MAGNETIC ISLAND
There are lots of types of accommodation all across Magnetic Island. Staying in Nelly Bay is the most convenient option, but if you go to one of the smaller beaches, it will feel more secluded.
True to the traditional backpacker ethos, Base Backpackers has a lively party scene and a wicked location right on the beach. (It also has beautiful private bungalows.)
Although it has some dorm rooms, Arcadia Beach Guest House also has affordable private rooms – and a great location across from the water.
The self-contained bungalows at Island Leisure Resort are perfect for slightly longer stays, and the facilities (like the pool) are really good.
Less than a minute from the ferry terminal, Peppers Blue on Blue has a good range of lovely luxury rooms to suit any situation.