People are amazed at just how much there is to see and things to do Magnetic Island! On what other Great Barrier Reef Island can you snorkel WWII relics, swim with sea turtles, spot koalas in the wild, enjoy reasonably priced cocktails, dine at world-class restaurants and see a theatre dinner show? Nowhere!
Dollar for dollar Magnetic Island is the best value Great Barrier Reef island in Australia and is one of the most laid back and enjoyable. Still largely unknown to many this is a place that North Queenslanders adore and it’s not hard to see why they have kept one of Australia’s best-kept secrets under wraps for so long.
Where is Magnetic Island?
Magnetic Island, affectionately known as ‘Maggie’ by locals is situated only 8 kilometres offshore from Townsville in Queensland. It is 52 km² in area and is officially a suburb of Townsville with some 2400 permanent residents. This is one of the only islands on the Great Barrier Reef where people live and work year round.
Townsville is located in North Queensland and is 350kms south of Cairns and 270kms north of the Whitsundays, making it roughly halfway between either on a driving holiday.
There is a domestic airport in Townsville that is serviced by Qantas, Virgin, Jetstar, Alliance and Air North with connections to all the major capitals as well as many regional cities.
When to visit Magnetic Island
The best time to visit Magnetic Island and indeed most of North Queensland is May through October. Between November and May, it is ‘stinger’ season which means there are deadly jellyfish in the sea. This season can fluctuate from year to year but you can still swim provided you wear protective clothing – a wetsuit or stinger suit, which can be hired or purchased on the island.
The weather between May and October is also wonderful as ‘cyclone season’ typically occurs from December to April which of course also then creates the rainy season. This doesn’t mean it will rain all day every day but inclement weather can certainly affect outdoor activities.
Average temperatures May-August is 25 degrees and glorious.
How to get to Magnetic Island
The only way to get to Magnetic Island is to catch the ferry or barge from Townsville.
The high-speed Sealink ferry leaves from the terminal on Ross Creek and takes just 22 minutes and are modern, air-conditioned catamarans. See timetable and more HERE.
You can also take a car over on the Barge which leaves from the opposite side of Ross Creek and take around 40 minutes. For the timetable and more click HERE.
To get to either you can catch a taxi or Uber from Townsville airport which should take around 15 minutes or there is a shuttle service as well.
leaving on the passenger ferry from Nelly Bay
Magnetic Island Accommodation
There is a great range of places to stay on Maggie suiting all budgets and styles.
For Luxury accommodation we love to stay at Peppers Blue on Blue, right next to the ferry terminal in Nelly Bay and in front of the excellent IGA, bottle shop and several cafes and restaurants. Groups will love stunning Driftwood House in Picnic Bay with its incredible views and amenities.
For a great overview of the different villages and beaches to stay at as well as a list of our favourite places to stay read our Magnetic Island Accommodation Guide.
Things to do Magnetic Island
There is a surprising array of things to see and do on Maggie with activities that suit all budgets and all ages.
Most Great Barrier Reef island activities revolve primarily around snorkelling, diving and marine life and, while those things are available, there are few other things to do as well – some quite unique!
Bays and Beaches on Magnetic Island
Swim at one of the many beautiful beaches including Horseshoe, Picnic and Alma which are patrolled and have year-long stinger nets. Some of the best beaches, of course, are hard to get to so you may need to hike in from the road. They are almost always worth it though!
The main beaches are:
The southernmost bay and one of the quietest, Picnic Bay has a picturesque bay with an iconic jetty, a Surf Life Saving Club that patrols the beach on weekends and school holidays and a stinger net. There is a very good pub, one cafe and an excellent Italian restaurant as well as a Golf Course, Historical Museum, Police Station, school and a lovely shady foreshore with a fully fenced playground for the kids.
Rocky is a small bay around Hawkings Point, east of Picnic Bay. It has a small sandy beach and is often protected from Southerly winds but has no facilities or amenities. It can be reached on foot by a trail just west of Ju Ju’s lookout above, or by boat.
Now the main hub of the island and home to the Ferry Terminal this is also where the main shops are found such as the IGA, Bottleshops, Real Estate agents, Mitre 10, Car hire places and the medical centre as well as the Marina, numerous resorts and accommodation and restaurants and cafes. The beach is wide and failry shallow but it is not the best for swimming nor is it patrolled.
Just around the headland from Nelly Bay is Arcadia Bay with Alma Bay directly adjacent on the eastern side. Alma is a small but very pretty bay surrounded by huge granite boulders and is home to the Arcadian Surf Lifesaving Club which also operate out of Townsville.
The Arcadia Village Hotel is the biggest on the island and offers lots of daily entertainment, great food, cold beer and there is even a swimming pool for the kids which is next to the hotel accommodation pool.
Arcadia Bay also has a number of shops and accommodation option and is home to the unique and quite wonderful Stage Door Theatre restaurant( see below).
Geoffrey Bay runs along the south of Arcadia and is where one of the two snorkel trails on the island is with a small reef and the wreck Moltike.
Horseshoe is a beautiful long horseshoe-shaped (surprise!) bay that is calm and inviting almost year-round. The foreshore has a long, shady BBQ and picnic area – Gerry Kearns Park, and a big stinger enclosure that is patrolled much of the year. It is popular with boaties seeking a sheltered harbour and for watersports enthusiasts who can rent jet skis, kayaks and standup paddleboards.
There are some excellent cafes and bars along the esplanade (Pacific Drive) and a couple of cute shops and galleries too.
Balding and Radical Bay*
These bays have pristine beaches and are adjacent to Horseshoe Bay at the north of the island. They can be reached by hiking from Horseshoe or by leaving your car on Radical Bay road (which is mostly unsealed) and finishing on foot. There are no facilities or businesses in these bays so take plenty of water and provisions. Balding Bay is popular with naturalists so be warned, the kids may be in for a surprise!
Considered one of the prettiest beaches in Queensland this Bay is on the eastern side of the island north of Alma/Arcadia and is also quite secluded with no facilities or amenities. It’s a great spot to snorkel and swim after doing the Forts Walk above.
*remember that these bays do not have stinger enclosures and are not patrolled. If you want to swim in Stinger season you will need to wear protective clothing.
Beauty, wellness and wellbeing
It wouldn’t be an island paradise without an element of relaxation and indulgence on offer as well and there are many ways you can do this on Maggie.
For fitness and yoga buffs there is Magnetic Island Yoga who have classes at various locations around the island.
There are also excellent beauty treatments available at Endota Dayspa at Peppers Blue on Blue and massage therapy on offer by Massage on Magnetic in Picnic Bay and Kate Kearns ( 07 4778 5941) in Horseshoe Bay.
There is a modern marina in Nelly Bay where many people keep their boats or use the facilities when visiting.
You can also hire boats here that seat up to 8 people at Get Around Island Boats. Pilgrim Sailing can take you out on their 58-foot yacht or Big Mama Sailing offer sunset and full-day sails on their 2 big, beautiful yachts.
Car Hire Magnetic Island
There is reliable bus service on the island but it does pay to have a car if you can.
There are a number of car-hire places and a wide range of cars including the very popular ‘topless’ or ‘barbie’ style cars, scooters, small SUVs and min-vans.
We used Isle Hire on our last visit and found the service good, the cars excellent and prices fair. We also loved that they have all their fleet tracked by GPS and monitor them on a big screen which ensures the safety of their cars and their customers. They are located right behind the IGA in Nelly Bay.
At the back of Picnic Bay, on the corner of Yule and Hurst Streets, is a very pleasant 9-hole Golf Course called the Magnetic Island Country Club.
The course is suitable for all levels and offers the opportunity to see a lot of wildlife especially birds, wallabies and reptiles. The clubhouse is fully licensed and snacks, club and buggy hire are all on offer.
Do a wonderful bush or beach ride by horseback with Horseshoe Bay Ranch. These guided tours cater for all levels and include a swim at the beach which the horses love. There are ponies available for small children and private tours can also be arranged. Book on 47785109.
Hiking on Magnetic Island
There are some excellent hikes on Magnetic Island, in fact many would say the best on offer on the Great Barrier Reef.
The Forts Walk
Grade Moderate – 1.5 hours
The Forts Walk is the most popular and takes in a circuit that visits several old WWII forts that are Heritage listed. To do this hike the track starts near the turnoff to Radical Bay and takes in amazing views north to Palm Island and south over Bowling Green National Park. The hike is considered moderate in difficulty and you are almost guaranteed to see a koala or two along the way.
Arthur, Florence and Radical Bays
Grade Easy – 2 hours
From the same start as the Forts Walk you can head north and visit these beautiful undeveloped and unoccupied bays. Be sure to take plenty of water as there are no shops or facilities.
Hawkings Point Track
Grade Easy – 1 hours
This walk from Picnic Bay to Hawkings Point rewards you with stunning views across the bay and township, over to Nelly Bay and back over to Townsville.
Picnic Bay to West Point
Grade Easy – 2.5 hours
As the name suggests West Point is on the northwestern point of the island and is only accessible by 4WD. The bush track passes mangroves, wetlands, swamps and savanna grasslands and is quite a bit different to the rest of the island.
Nelly Bay to Arcadia
Grade Moderate – 1.5 hours
Heading north from Nelly Bay along Mandalay there is a modern boardwalk and well-signed track that passes through a patch of rainforest at Gustav Creek. At its peak, you can see right across the island to Horseshoe Bay and can continue there on the same track if desired (another 1.5 hours).
Markets on Magnetic Island
There are a couple of excellent markets on the island.
The Horseshoe Bay markets are held on the foreshore every 2nd and 4th Sunday in the mornings. There is also a night market in Arcadia every Friday night.
Horseshoe Bay Markets
Snorkelling and Diving on Magnetic Island
There are a number of diving and snorkelling options on Maggie and it’s one of the main reasons people visit the island.
The SS Yongala was a passenger ship that sank off Cape Bowling Green in 1911. It is considered in the Top 5 wrecks to dive in the world and can be done from both Townsville and Magnetic Island with Adrenalin Snorkel and Dive.
There are other wrecks and relics around the island including the yacht Moltke in Geoffrey Bay and various WWII artefacts. Geoffrey Bay is also where you will find one of the two main snorkel ‘trails’ with the other being in Nelly Bay.
If you would like to get your open dive ticket it is also possible to do this at Prodive in Nelly Bay and Pleasure Divers in Arcadia.
Magnetic Island is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and watersports lovers. Apart from sailing, boating, diving and snorkelling mentioned above, you can also do the following:
- Horseshoe Bay – jetski, sea kayaks, catamaran, stand-up-paddle board rentals and tube rides.
- Nelly Bay – join Aquascene for a boat tour that includes snorkelling, SUP boards and more.
Marine and wild life
Magnetic Island is teeming with opportunities to see wildlife in natural habitats as well as learn more about the local fauna and ecosystems.
The island has one of the highest numbers of koalas in the wild per kilometer in Australia and locals have worked hard to protect them. As stated above under Hiking it is possible to see them when out and about exploring the island and there is also a good possibility you will come across sea turtles, dugongs, dolphins, reptiles and wallabies.
You can also visit the following places for a more up front and educational experience:
Located in Horseshoe Bay this is a small, family run business that operate budget Eco-accommodation as well as wildlife tours where you will see and learn about turtles, pythons, wombats, lizards, crocodiles and of course, koalas. Their rangers will offer local stories and personal experiences with the wildlife.
This small but very intersting Aquarium is located at the back of Nelly Bay and has been run for over 20 years by Dr Richard Braley, a Marine Biologist who offers world wide consultancies, local aquaculture training and educational tours. It includes a small laboratory and research facility and tanks that are home to a number of local marine creatures that have been bred by Dr Braley, including Giant Clams.
For only $3 entrance fee Dr Braley will happily chat with visitors about the various species and their eco-systems and is one of the best people on the island to talk about the local habitats and the diving and snorkeling trails, which he helped put together. Be sure to ask him to show you which fish have developed an Hibiscus Flower addiction!
Coffee and Cafes on Magnetic Island
There is a decent number of good places to get a coffee or a snack on the island and this ramps up during holidays seasons when temporary coffee carts and food trucks operate.
Our favourites include:
Lee at Maggie Lee’s on the waterside of the ferry terminal will ensure you have a great coffee, a bite to eat and all with her famous big smile and good humour.
Scallywags is just around the corner from the Terminal and is hard to miss with its corner position and distinctive decoration.
The guys and girls at the pink coffee cart further south in Nelly Bay make good coffee and light meals during peak periods and weekends and there are often bean bags and shady spots to sit near the beach.
In Picnic Bay the only coffee offering is from the Reef Cafe Bar where the boys from Mama Rosa next door will look after you.
Horseshoe bay has a number of excellent cafes including The Early Bird, Nourish and Adele’s Cafe at the end of Pacific Drive.
Lee at Magie Lee’s
There are also a couple of very good seafood places on the island that do takeaway, and often dine-in. These are old school fish & chip shops with fresh food, big portions and some surprising bonuses.
Our pick of the bunch is SOS (Stuffed on Seafood) in Nelly Bay – right on the roundabout as you leave the ferry terminal/marina. As well as the usual fish, chips, calamari and potato scallops ( including coral trout, whiting and a lot more) they offer up delicious food such as lobster rolls, oyster shots and fresh crab sandwiches.
They are licensed and also run the Gelato shop next door for a full dining experience. Great value too!
Mudcrab sandwich at SOS
Bars and Pubs on Maggie
This is the only island on the Great Barrier Reef that has 3 excellent pubs.
The Picnic Bay Hotel is a large, old-school pub offering up decent meals and cold beers with lots of outdoor tables looking over the jetty. They also have a small bottle shop around the back.
The Arcadia Village Hotel is the busiest on the island and is popular with lots of families in the holidays and on weekends, making the most of the swimming pool and the excellent bistro meals. It also has several shops and a bottle-o attached to it and there is live music and other forms of entertainment on a regular basis.
In Horseshoe Bay, the Marlin Bar is a great spot to down a pint while looking over the sparkling bay, and their counter meals are good too.
You may also be surprised to hear there are a couple of bars on the island now too. Smugglers Wine Bar is on the main road in Nelly Bay in unassuming premises but they do make a good Cosmopolitan and often have live music.
Arcadia Village Hotel
Picnic Bay Hotel
Smugglers Wine Bar
Magnetic Island Restaurants
Despite its humble resources and isolation Magnetic Island restaurants and cafes are surprisingly good! Other than high-end resorts restaurants on tropical islands in Australia tend to be expensive and often ordinary with service often a real challenge.
Yet somehow Maggie has managed to create a number of excellent places to dine and several are serving up food as good as anything we’ve had anywhere.
Here’s a few of our favourites:
Saltwater – Nelly Bay
Located in a cute little cottage with a lick of white paint and festooned in fairy lights, this relatively new establishment is serving up really beautiful and very delicious food with one of those menu’s that make you want to order everything. With dishes like scallops ceviche, stuffed Moreton Bay Bugs, seared yellowfish tuna and salmon truffle tartare the menu is heavy on seafood but there are some delicious options for carnivores and vegetarians too. Live entertainment and hampers are often available. Book early!
Mama Roma – Picnic Bay
This cute Italian trattoria is the best spot for a meal in Picnic Bay and they offer up charming Italian service with great pizzas, pasta and more. They cater to all dietary requirements and are available for functions. Live music is often on offer on the weekends. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 5 pm, again bookings are essential.
The gnocchi is to die for!
Up the Garden Path – Nelly Bay
This tranquil restaurant and bar is located in the Amaroo on Mandalay resort at the back of Nelly Bay. Set in lush tropical gardens the restaurant is a lovely spot for a casual romantic dinner and a sunset cocktail or two. They also do a good breakfast on the weekends.
Barefoot Art Food Wine – Horseshoe Bay
This quirky little restaurant doubles as an art gallery featuring local artists and their work. With beautiful views over the bay they offer up great food with items such as curries, steaks and seafood with friendly service by locals. Open for lunch and dinner Wednesday to Saturdays with breakfast and lunch also on weekends.
Pub Food – Picnic, Arcadia, Horseshoe
As stated earlier all 3 pubs are good, with generous portions, big drinks and friendly service.
Picnic Bay Hotel does a great Parmigiana and a decent steak with a different Roast of the Day each Sunday.
The Marlin Bar does a great seafood platter and some excellent burgers with wonderful views over Horseshoe Bay.
Seafood Platter at Marlin Bar
The Parmy at Picnic Bay Hotel
Stage Door Theatre Restaurant – Arcadia
Without a doubt, the most unique restaurant on the island, if not all of North Queensland, is the much-loved Stage Door Theatre restaurant. Now in its sixteenth year the team – Bernadette and Kevin, have been wowing and entertaining audiences every Saturday night ( and some Fridays) with Abba revues, Rocky Horror hits and various other acts. Great live singing, hilarious comedy and tongue in cheek impersonations along with dazzling costumes and orchestral backing tracks.
The night includes a 3-course meal and at only $89 per person represents tremendous value.
It’s possible to book a Sealink/Bus combo that gets you right to the door of the restaurant and back again for the last ferry so many people from the mainland come just for the night. Do not miss this!