The Complete Guide to Australia's Magnetic Island

Arthur bay, magnetic Island,Queensland,Australia
Peter Unger / Getty Images

Just 20 minutes by ferry from Townsville, Australia in Queensland's tropical north, Magnetic Island is fringed by 23 gorgeous beaches that make it one of the state's top getaways. The population is around 2,500 people, with half of the island covered by national park and the other half hosting a range of accommodation and dining options.

Known to locals as Maggie, this little island is packed with things to see and do. Read on for our complete guide to Magnetic Island.

History

Magnetic Island was created 275 million years ago through a volcanic eruption. Over time, the volcanic rock has eroded to create the formations we see today. Up until 7,500 years ago, Magnetic Island was connected to the mainland, but rising sea levels have since created a shallow ocean channel.

The island is the traditional lands of the Wulgurukaba people, who lived on the island and the mainland for thousands of years until the port of Townsville was established in the mid-1890s. As Europeans colonized the region, many Wulgurukaba people were forced off their lands, and the community was affected by disease and food scarcity.

Settlers also carried out timber logging, pineapple farming, and gold mining on Magnetic Island from the late 1800s. The first resort was built on the island around the same time, and it became a popular tourist destination throughout the 1900s. During World War II, Townsville was an important military base; Magnetic Island was used as a military outpost, ruins of which can still be seen today.

Plants and Wildlife

The landscape of Magnetic Island features distinctive granite rock shapes, picturesque beaches, and coral reefs just offshore. The island is mostly covered with woodland, apart from some small areas of rainforest. You can see bloodwoods, stringy bark, and gray ironbark trees, alongside hoop pines, native kapok, and cabbage palms scattered across the island.

Rock wallabies are a common sight, especially at twilight, as well as possums, echidnas, and a large population of koalas. Magnetic Island is also an important habitat for migrating seabirds and provides a refuge for threatened land species like the bush stone-curlew. In the waters surrounding the island, you can spot dugongs and sea turtles.

Best Time to Visit

Like Townsville, Magnetic Island has a sunny, tropical climate. Temperatures reach up to 90 degrees F in summer and 75 degrees in winter, and fall to 75 degrees F in summer and 55 degrees in winter.

Rainfall is highest from December to March, although it generally falls in brief, heavy downpours. During summer, humidity is similarly high, and there is also the possibility of dangerous jellyfish (known locally as marine stingers) in the water between November and April.

For these reasons, peak season runs from June to October, as visitors from the southern states head north in search of sunshine. The island is also busier on weekends with day trippers from Townsville. Prices may be higher during the peak period and accommodations can be booked out well in advance, especially during the Australian school holidays from mid-June to mid-July. With all of this in mind, the best time to visit is in May or from August to October.

Adult Koala sleeping on a tree branch in Magnetic Island
Cavan Images / Getty Images

What to Do

Magnetic Island is all about the great outdoors, so lace up your hiking shoes (unless you'd rather spend your time relaxing on a sailboat). There are more than 15 miles of walking tracks on Magnetic Island, as well as snorkel trails that take advantage of its location within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Here are our picks of the island's must-do activities:

  • The Forts Walk combines WWII history and incredible views over a 1.5-hour hike. (It is also known as a popular koala-spotting trail.) The Nelly Bay to Arcadia walk (2.5 hours) is another a great way to see the island.
  • Depending on whether you'd prefer to snorkel or dive, there are a bunch of stellar spots around the island. The snorkel trails at Nelly Bay and Geoffrey Bay make it easy to find colorful coral, while the SS Yongala is one of Australia's best shipwreck dives.
  • Magnetic Island is home to a thriving food and wine scene, so we recommend recharging after a big day out at Barefoot, Up the Garden Path, or Stage Door Theatre Restaurant.

Where to Stay

Most accommodation options on Magnetic Island are clustered in the townships of Nelly Bay, Arcadia, and Horseshoe Bay. There are hotels, Airbnbs, and hostels to suit all budgets and tastes, including family-friendly resorts and romantic getaways. While it is possible to visit the island as a day trip, spending a couple of nights will allow you to see and do everything on offer.

For wildlife fans, Bungalow Bay Koala Village is a no-brainer. It offers camping, shared accommodation, rooms, and bungalows with an on-site koala park. (Note that this is the only place you can camp on the island). Peppers Blue on Blue is the island's most luxurious offering, with two pools, a day spa, restaurant, and private marina.

Pure Magnetic offers great-value private villas, while Island Leisure Resort is perfectly situated in Nelly Bay. If you're looking for something a little more social, Base Backpackers is right on the beach with lots of daytime activities and a busy bar at night.

Elevated roadway at Geoffrey Bay,Magnetic Island,Queensland,Australia
Peter Unger / Getty Images

Getting There

Townsville is a 15-hour drive north of Brisbane and 4.5 hours south of Cairns. Flights are available to Townsville from other Australian cities via Jetstar, Virgin Australia, Qantas, and Airnorth. The Spirit of Queensland train also makes regular departures between Brisbane and Townsville.

Once you've made it to Townsville, Magnetic Island is not far away. If you're traveling with a car, you can take a vehicle ferry with Magnetic Island Ferries, which takes around 40 minutes and departs up to eight times daily. For a passenger-only ferry, check out SeaLink, which departs up to 18 times per day and takes around 20 minutes.

Both ferries arrive at the Magnetic Island ferry terminal. Here, you can rent a car, take a taxi, or use the local bus service. Many hotels also offer transfers from the ferry terminal, and bus and boat tours are available. Some of the more secluded beaches on the island can only be reached with a 4WD, but most of the main attractions are easily accessible.

Travel Tips

  • A Sunbus pass for unlimited travel is a good investment if you are not traveling with your own car.
  • WiFi and cell phone coverages are available in many parts of the island, so don't worry about being off the grid.
  • You will find all the essentials, including a grocery store and pharmacy, on the island, but prices may be a little higher than on the mainland.
  • Every Wednesday, the Arcadia Village Hotel holds lively cane toad races to raise money for the local surf lifesaving club.
  • The small Aquasearch aquarium only costs a couple of dollars to visit and is a great place to learn about the island's marine life.
  • Magnetic Island remains a significant site for the Wulgurukaba people. If you come across any cultural artifacts such as shell middens, stone tools, and rock art, do not touch or disturb them.
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