It put Captain Cook in a spin – and that was before Magnetic Island got stretch jeeps and snorkel trails. Your crew will be equally spellbound, writes Larissa Dubecki. Photography by Kara Rosenlund.
Could Magnetic Island be magical? British explorer Captain James Cook suggested it might possess its own magnetic force, as his compass acted erratically when he sailed past in 1770. Nearly a quarter of a millennium later, families experiencing the wonder of this stunning wilderness are sure to feel its insistent pull.
“Maggie”, as it’s known to the 2500 or so residents, boasts some compelling vital statistics. A dramatically mountainous island of 52 square kilometres, it lies in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area but is just 20 minutes by ferry from Townsville.
It’s a supremely laid-back place. And with more than two-thirds of the island designated national park, it’s the perfect destination for a no-fuss, activity-packed family holiday. Locals boast of the 320 sunny days they enjoy every year so the chances of fine weather are as high as the UV rating. Here’s how to best enjoy it...
Ride the big yellow taxi
Take a guided tour of the island in Magnetic Jeep Tours' bright-yellow stretch jeep. Over three hours, your eye-catching limousine will take the family to Maggie’s coastal sights, from Nelly Bay to (deep breath) Picnic, Cockle, Geoffrey, Alma, Arcadia and Horseshoe bays. Along the way, you’ll be treated to wildlife sightings and morning tea by the sea.
Make a splash
It can be hard to choose a favourite from Magnetic Island’s 23 bays and beaches. Lapped by the warm waters of the Coral Sea, each one has a swathe of yellow-gold sand and is backed by mountains studded with gums, shrubs and the occasional hoop pine.
But your best bet for the little ones is Alma Bay. Situated next to sweeping Arcadia Bay, it’s shallow, usually calm (but still patrolled by surf lifesavers) and tucked snugly between two little headlands, whose granite boulders create fun climbing opportunities and harbour interesting rock pools.
Beside the 150-metre picture-postcard bay is a lush, tree-shaded lawn and kids’ play equipment. The only way to add value to this piece of paradise is to take some sausages for the gas barbecue and make a day of it.
Walk on the wild side
They’re cute, they’re furry and they’re famously lazy. Get to know one of the amiable koalas living at Bungalow Bay Koala Village on one of three daily two-hour tours.
It’s not just koalas offering themselves up for gentle pats (and a professionally shot souvenir photo). The keepers will introduce you to a giant friendly wombat (the only member of the entourage with his own air-conditioned enclosure) and fascinating Australian lizards, including a shingleback and a bearded dragon who’s fond of perching on shoulders. The kids can also make friends with turtles, pythons and even a baby saltwater crocodile.
Meet the locals
You can often see humpback whales during the migratory season, from June to October – a mother and her calf playing in Nelly Bay recently prevented the Townsville ferry from docking on schedule.
On land, the fauna is no less spectacular. There are more than 100 species of bird, for starters, including eerie-sounding bush stone-curlews and the friendly rainbow lorikeets at Horseshoe Bay that will sit on kids’ hands.
Sunset is the perfect time to view the rock wallabies that come out to play on the granite boulders overlooking the old barge jetty at Arcadia Bay. The critters bound up the steepest outcrops and are fond of a snack but don’t be swayed – a sign asks visitors to refrain from feeding them.
Raise the roof
Get around in true north Queensland style with an open-top hire car. Choose from a classic Moke – the beach buggy from central casting – or a modern runabout with a pink or blue interior. Each vehicle seats four and there’s the option of booster seats and a sun canopy. The kids will love the novelty of a topless car – and, let’s face it, adults will also get a kick out of ditching the family sedan.
Come to Mama
Take to the high seas – or rather the relatively calm ocean waters – and circumnavigate Magnetic Island on the elegant 60-foot (18-metre) yacht known as Big Mama. Passionate boaties Lisa Sampson, Stu Tivey and their teenage son, Fletcher, live on board with their seafaring pup, Coco, and will make sure the day-long voyage is whatever you want it to be. Laze on deck in a beanbag, take an active role in the sailing or enjoy sea kayaking, paddleboarding, snorkelling and swimming at expertly chosen spots along the way.
Groups are capped at 12 and the trip is fully catered, with a barbecue lunch and tea breaks. All gear is provided, from snorkels and masks to buoyancy vests for little kids and stinger suits for all.
Big Mama will take you to otherwise inaccessible spots such as Five Beach Bay, where you can indulge your shipwreck fantasies. From the deck, you’ll spot dolphins, 100-year-old sea turtles and, if you’re lucky, an elusive dugong. If the entire family isn’t thinking of running away to sea at the end of the day, we’ll eat our sunhat.
Lead a horse to water
For a horse ride with a Magnetic Island twist, try Horseshoe Bay Ranch. The guide will pair the family with horses that suit your skills and experience (the stable includes some extra-gentle steeds for novices) and lead you through native Australian bushland to a pristine beach. There, you can remove the saddle and ride your equine companion bareback through the water. ￼
Dive right in
The waters around Magnetic Island offer some of the best snorkelling in Queensland and Maggie’s two self-guided snorkel trails will help you and the teens make the most of them.
The Nelly Bay trail is particularly good for beginners, starting 100 metres off the beach and following the reef closest to the shore (use the five white buoys for guidance and as resting spots). You’ll see a great selection of corals including lettuce, cauliflower, boulder and staghorn varieties.
More suited to stronger swimmers, the Geoffrey Bay trail starts 390 metres off Arcadia Bay. It will take you to historic relics including a World War II aircraft propeller and the German barque Moltke, which sunk in 1913 and is home to an abundance of sea life, including sweetlip, batfish, tuskfish, barramundi cod and harmless epaulette sharks.
Before you go, pick up a handy waterproof swim card to help you identify the fish and coral you’re likely to see along the way (available at a number of shops on the island).
The place to stay and play
Maggie’s mountainous terrain provides the perfect backdrop to Peppers Blue on Blue Resort, a quintessentially Magnetic Island version of a family stay.
Situated in prime position in Nelly Bay (what passes as Maggie’s big smoke), the resort is next to the ferry terminal and right behind the marina. There are two pools, including an enormous lagoon pool that’s kitted out with sun loungers and gas barbecues.
Accommodation includes light and breezy one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, all with kitchens and generous balconies and some with a private plunge pool.
The in-house Boardwalk Restaurant & Bar at the water’s edge offers a breakfast buffet that covers all bases, from fresh fruit and yoghurt to eggs, bacon and all the trimmings. There’s a two-speed approach to lunch and dinner, with a list of child-friendly fare and a modern-Australian menu for the more adventurous. Whether you’re cocktail or mocktail age, there are few things better than ending the day at Boardwalk with a cold drink in hand, overlooking the yachts at the marina and the sparkling turquoise waters beyond.