Magnetic attraction

With an idyllic life of its own between the tourist peaks, Magnetic Island is a unique destination that calls people back time and time again.
By Bron Willis June 10, 2021 Reading Time: 8 Minutes Print this page

Forest-fringed beaches, coral reefs and shipwrecks: that’s what passengers see when circumnavigating Magnetic Island in north Queensland. But skipper Adam Hinks sees a lifetime of memories.

“When we drive past Picnic Bay, my mind goes back to walking down the jetty every day as a kid to catch the boat to school,” he says. “Then we round the point at Florence Bay and I think, ‘That’s where I proposed to my wife.’ A bit further is the secret location my stepfather passed on to me for spearfishing, which I’ve passed down to my son. And further on is the beach where we spread my parents’ ashes.”

Adam now runs his tourism business, Aquascene, and raises his four children here with his wife and business partner,
Stephanie. “Maggie just casts her magic on you,” says Stephanie. “She tells a story.”

Holiday haven

A 25-minute ferry ride from Townsville, ‘Maggie’, as she’s called by those who love her, is home to a residential population of about 2400, and is a home away from home for countless others: Townsville locals who pop over for a day or a week year-round, southerners who warm their winter-wearied souls here and European tourists completely unperturbed by the hot, humid summers.

Adam first arrived at the island as a nine-year-old, on holiday with his mother and siblings. She fell in love with a local and the island, and left for just long enough to pack up the family home and put their possessions on the barge. Adam has lived here ever since.

Adam’s affection for Maggie, and his connection to her, isn’t unusual. With her 23 beaches, 320 days of sunshine per year and a sleepy holiday feel, Magnetic Island isn’t easily forgotten. Everyone here has a story from long ago: a memory that takes them back to a precious time or a link with their childhood.

Maggie is a place where people return again and again for rest, play, connection and sunshine. From the moment they step off the ferry and take in their first breath of island air, something changes. There’s no need to plan – the days will simply unfold.

Visitors can hire a car for a day or two if they like, but most just use the bus, which has seen better days and groans as it labours up the hills. If the bus is full, another will be along soon – and you’ll make new friends while you wait.

Old-fashioned fun

Monica Naughtin is just one of the many holidaymakers who describe a connection with the island from childhood to adulthood. In some ways, it’s the sameness of the place that has kept that connection strong.

“The island hasn’t changed at all since I went there as a kid,” she says. “There’s nothing really fancy about it. It’s never been a busy place.”

The things Monica did here as a child, accompanied by her parents every year from the 1980s through to teenagehood, are much the same as what her children do here now. According to Monica, the easy family traditions Maggie affords are the essence of her beauty.

There’s clambering the rocks overlooking Alma Bay, snorkelling the Arthur Bay fringing reefs and grabbing a Mexican dinner at Nelly Bay’s favourite, Man Friday. You might watch the sunset over drinks at Horseshoe Bay or, on a Wednesday night, check out the famous toad races, which have been raising funds for the Arcadia Surf Life Saving Club since 1980.

There is one memory, however, that stands alone. At the age of 16, Monica and two of her girlfriends decided that Maggie was the perfect place to break a few rules.

“We decided to wag school for the day. We hopped off the ferry at Picnic Bay, then walked over the headland to Rocky Bay. We had fish and chips at the beach and made a time capsule, which we buried. We pretty much just sat on the beach all day.”

Monica’s family usually stays at Arcadia, one of the island’s four main settlements. The biggest question the family grapples with each morning is, “Which beach today?” With their sparsely populated golden sands, fringing forests and clean waters, the beaches are the place’s biggest calling card.

“They are the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen in the world – and I’ve been to quite a few places,” says Monica. “I love that there are so many where you’re the only person there. That’s very rare these days.”

Accommodation at Maggie mostly has an unpretentious beach-shack feel. Sand carried inside by bare feet after a day on the beach is just part of the appeal. Luxury can be found, but Maggie remains an affordable option completely lacking in pomp – kitchens on the balcony and outdoor showers are all part of the charm.

Snorkelling on guided Aquascene tour

Community spirit

Unlike many island destinations, Maggie has a life of her own between the tourist peaks: a healthy community of locals who love and protect her. Among Maggie’s protectors are local schoolchildren serving as Guardians of the Reef (a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority program), protesters who have rallied against development, and committees keeping tabs on dredging operations nearby.

Bridget Woods of tourism organisation Townsville Enterprise credits the preservation of the island’s lifestyle and culture to its strong community. “The island is a unique offering,” she says. “As the only island on the Great Barrier Reef with its own post-
code, its residents are passionate about retaining its uniqueness.”

In the 1990s, however, residents were unable to stop a development that still turns normally buoyant voices a little wistful. Ask a local about whether the island has changed over the years and you’re likely to hear nostalgic comments about how Picnic Bay jetty used to be.

Before 2003, this rickety old jetty heralded travellers’ arrivals at Maggie as they left mainland stresses behind. Although most acknowledge that rough seas could make the exit from the boat precarious, they retain a nostalgic affection for arriving via the jetty. Nevertheless, the Nelly Bay Harbour and marina, visually at odds with much of the island’s architecture, was built amid much controversy – leaving the lively atmosphere of Picnic Bay to gently dwindle. Soon after came Peppers Blue on Blue Resort, an upmarket restaurant, hotel and apartments.

The development is contained, however, and suits a different kind of traveller: girls’ weekends away, couples seeking a slap-up experience and travellers after comfort in a hotel-style setting.

Locals acknowledge the improved facilities of the marina, and seem eager to move on, remaining hopeful that future development will be more sympathetic to the island’s environment.

Magnetic Island wildlife

Natural history

Maggie is a suburb of Townsville and enjoys the benefits of its services. Fresh water and electricity is pumped across the channel and refuse travels back on barges. But Townsville also offers an intellectual influence: several leading international marine research institutions are based there, offering a steady supply of professionals, some of whom retire on the island.

Dr Rick Braley is one of them. A former Research Fellow with James Cook University and an international leader in aquaculture and giant clams, Rick was first drawn to Maggie in 1982. His passion for marine research and conservation led him to design and create the Geoffrey Bay Snorkel Trail, where tourists experience the inshore reef right off the beach.

Among the trail’s offerings are 14 endangered giant clams, which Rick cultured 33 years ago at Orpheus Island, about 60km to the north. The clams were once found in waters around Maggie but before Rick’s work they’d become locally extinct.

Rick and fellow scientists lovingly nurtured and translocated these clams to the island in 1990 and ’93, where they flourished. The clams were moved to the trails in 2013.

Seventy per cent of the island is national park and native animals are observed from the many walking tracks. Rock wallabies entertain tourists at dusk at Geoffrey Bay, bush stone-curlews wander the streets and koalas gaze at tourists on the famous Forts Walk. There you’ll also see historic remains of two gun emplacements that were at the ready during World War II.

The island has long been a sanctuary for both animals and people. Maggie’s Picnic Bay museum cites a long history of visitation and inhabitation by the Wulgurukaba people, evidence of which includes middens and stone tools from thousands of years ago. Tourism has been thriving here since the 1880s, when pioneering Henry and Elizabeth Butler opened Butler’s Health Resort at Picnic Bay. During WWII, Maggie provided relief for soldiers from Townsville who came for R&R, to drink, court women and swim.

But the soldiers are long gone. While the forts still stand sentinel, they watch only over yachts and leisure craft sailing peaceful seas. And as tourists arrive at Nelly Bay, they’ll anticipate the same things they always have as they wave at friends awaiting them at the terminal.

The weekly toad races will be cancelled only when a State of Origin game is broadcast at the pub. Couples will walk hand in hand down the Picnic Bay jetty, peering in the fishers’ buckets to assess their catch. Families clinging to the day will glance up to notice the sun slip silently away at West Point. And those who were once tourists, but have long since called the island home, will wonder how they ever lived a life without Maggie in it.

Climate

Maggie enjoys 320 days of sunshine per year with annual average maximums of 28.7°C and minimums of 19.5°C. You might need a jumper on winter nights or for boating but it’s warm enough to swim year-round. Summers are hot and humid.

 Where to stay

There are four main settlements on Magnetic Island: Picnic Bay, Nelly Bay, Arcadia (Alma Bay) and Horseshoe Bay. 

Picnic Bay is a quiet settlement around a lovely swimming beach and jetty. There’s a pub and two restaurants, as well as the island’s museum.

Nelly Bay is the location of the ferry terminal, marina, Peppers Blue on Blue Resort and fine-dining restaurant, supermarket, scuba-diving shop and probably the greatest number of accommodation and dining options on the island (along with Horseshoe Bay). 

Arcadia (Geoffrey and Alma bays) is popular with families, with Alma Bay being a pretty swimming beach framed by granitic rocks for clambering.
The Arcadia Village Motel and surf club are located here,
as well as a cafe, general store and scuba-diving shop.

 Horseshoe Bay is the main tourist strip where kayaks, jet skis and stand-up paddleboards can be hired during the day. Marine tours and sailing boats operate here, as well as tourist eateries and plenty of accommodation.

 Getting to and around the island

Ferries Magnetic Island is 10km and a 25-minute ferry ride from Townsville. Ride the SeaLink passenger ferry if you’re taking your car.

Buses Travel between the island’s settlements using the relaxed bus services. Buses depart the five bus stops scattered around the island every 40–60 minutes, with a few exceptions, from 6am to almost midnight at weekends.

Cars Bring your car (or hire one from Townsville) on Magnetic Island Ferries or hire one on the island – including topless (and brightly coloured) cars that are reminiscent
of Mini Mokes.

What to do

Magnetic Island is loved for its nature-based, outdoors lifestyle.

Walks

There are many walking tracks on the island, some of which take you to otherwise hard-to-access beaches. Your efforts on these walks (to Florence, Arthur, Rocky and Radical bays) are rewarded by relatively empty beaches and footprint-free sand.

Horseshoe and Alma bays are the most popular for easy-access swimming (take precautions against marine jellyfish in stinger season: Nov–Apr). Stinger suits and nets are available for hire.

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