Granite boulders plunge into aquamarine oceans of beaches that have our footprints only. Hidden bays wait to be explored and koalas munch on eucalyptus leaves. We are on Magnetic Island. A tropical island paradise in Townsville, Queensland.
Magnetic Island is world heritage listed and more than half of it is a national park. Its dramatic coastline is a series of bays and beaches. Some are secluded and only accessible by foot or boat. The island’s unspoiled habitat is a haven for native wildlife such as rock wallabies, possums, echidnas and over 100 species of birds including the bush stone curlew. It’s also home to one of Australia’s largest koala populations.
We start our days from our camp at Radical Bay. We bushwalk, spot koalas, picnic on boulders overlooking the beach and swim and snorkel. At night we eat at local restaurants, have drinks on the beach and spot nocturnal wildlife. We have the bay to ourselves at night and sit on the beach around our fire listening to the lapping waves and the poignant wails of the resident curlews.
Horseshoe Bay, Arcadia, Nelly Bay and Picnic Bay are the main areas of the island. They all have a selection of accommodation, restaurants, pubs, easily assessible beaches and walking tracks. Horseshoe Bay is the most popular bay famous for its iconic sunsets while enjoying an ice-cold beer at the pub and a stinger net for safe swimming all year. Acardia is not an actual bay but enclosed by Alma Bay, a pretty swimming cove with on-duty lifeguards. Geoffrey Bay is inhabited by a cute gang of Rock wallabies. The Magnetic Harbour in Nelly Bay is the gateway for the car and passenger ferries and the island’s most residential bay. Picnic Bay is a tranquil bay with pubs and dining options on the beachfront, an iconic jetty and a protected beach for swimming.
The Island has over 23 bays and beaches including the popular and the more remote beaches. They require more effort to get there but assure the presence of no one else. Arcadia is popular because of Alma Bay which is patrolled by the Surf Lifesaving Club. Horseshoe Bay and Picnic Bay have enclosed stinger nets during the stinger season, so it’s safe to swim all year. The best beaches are Radical Bay where we camp, and the nearby beach of Balding Bay. It’s more out of the way but is well worth it for the gorgeous and deserted bays. Florence Bay has pretty sunrises and shady trees up on the beach and apart from a few yachts bopping in the bay, we have it to ourselves.
We explore other beaches including the one at Rocky Bay, a private oasis between rocky outcrops. It’s a little out of the way, only accessible by bush tracks. The bush track is not obvious. Travelling towards Picnic Bay from Nelly Bay, stop at the first car park up the hill, about 100 metres past X Base Beachfront Chalets. The track begins at the large rock with black paint on it. The track is shaded from the sun and it’s an easy walk downhill. November to March is stinger season so when swimming out of protected waters wear a stinger suit.
The Forts Walk
After watching the sunrise at Florence Bay, we walked the 30 minutes to the start of the Forts Walk track. The famous walk in Horseshoe Bay has interesting historic lookout towers and a command centre built during WW2 in preparation for Japan invading Australia during the period of 1943-1945. The track is also the best place on the island to see the koalas. It is a 90-minute return walk and has some great views of Horseshoe Bay and the Coral Sea.
It’s early and we share the track only with birds greeting the new day. Screeching cockatoos fly overhead and a flock of galahs roost in a tree just off the track. We hope to spot koalas in the wild and are not disappointed.
About 20 minutes into the walk, we see our first koala. She ignores us and continues to crunch on eucalyptus leaves. It is not until she reaches out to grab the fresher and juicier leaves we notice her bulging pouch. She has a baby!
We wait and hope that she allows the baby out and soon he appears. With his large black button nose, upturned mouth, fluffy ears and dark chocolate eyes he looks typical of those soft koala toys. He clings to Mum and looks at us with wide eyes and after a while, gets bored and disappears back into the pouch and Mum falls asleep.
The next day we see another mum and baby dozing amongst the eucalyptus leaves. The baby is about eight months old and has not long left the pouch permanently. Once awake he plays and wrestles with Mum and then curiosity gets the better of him and he starts to make his way down to us.
Once down on the low branch, he wants to climb back up but isn’t confident enough. Mum’s black padded paw reaches down and grabs him back to the safety of her arms.
Not far away a young male koala is so low in the eucalypt trees we could rub his belly. He looks so small and vulnerable on his own and it makes us wonder how they survive. It’s possible he is the older sibling of the little baby we have seen. Babies have to leave their mothers and find their own home range when next seasons baby emerges from the pouch. If mum does not have another baby he can stay with her longer and has a greater chance of survival.
If you want to see koalas in the wild, we highly recommend a visit to Magnetic Island. Because of the smaller eucalyptus trees and the terrain, it’s possible to see them at eye level. Estimates vary, but it is believed there are about 500 koalas on the island. It has one of the largest colonies of koalas living in the wild and one of the few remaining havens for Australia’s dwindling koala population.
Tips for Spotting Koalas
If you want to spot koalas in the wild, try and spend at least a couple of days on the island. We spot no koalas on the first morning but the next day we see 3 on the track.
The best time to look for koalas is early morning and late afternoon especially just after sunrise and before sunset as they often move during this time.
During the middle of the day (especially in summer) they rest in the trees and don’t move at all, so it is harder to spot them.
Keep your eye out for fresh gum leaves on the ground and koala scats (poo)! It’s about 2 cm long and an oval shape ranging from brown to green in colour. Due to koalas staying in one place for a long time there is a good chance they will still be close by if you see it. We spotted one koala by seeing the scats on the path and the koala was on the branch directly above.
Some koalas will stay in the same tree for days if he has plenty of fresh eucalyptus leaves.
If you do spot a koala high up in a tree, keep watch on the area. Chances are the next day he will be close by on a lower branch or tree.
When male koalas are looking for a mate, they make a loud grunting sound that defies their cuteness. We thought we heard pigs in the bush close by, but it was two male koalas.
If previous walkers spot koalas on the Forts Walk, they will often draw an arrow on the path or use sticks to point where they sighted the koala.
Rock Wallabies at Geoffrey Bay
One of the cutest attractions on Magnetic Island is the Rock wallabies at Geoffrey Bay, Arcadia. And no wonder! These cute and adorable wallabies are so friendly! They have been fed since the beginning of time so feeding them is permitted.
At Geoffrey Bay, a sign advises of foods that are good and bad for them. Please only feed them the food that’s listed and don’t overdo it. A little hint – they love sweet potato and it’s good for them! They are not very happy with carrots but will eat them if nothing else is on offer.
The newsagent across the road from Alma Bay sells little packets of pellets to feed them.
The wallabies come down and out of the rocks looking for food at about 4 pm and usually hang around until dusk.
At Bungalow Bay Koala Village in Horseshoe Bay, we see the Rainbow lorikeets which are a sight not to miss. They fly in by the hundreds and we see their personalities are as gaudy and vibrant as their colours! The lorikeets are fed their natural food every day at 4 pm. If not staying here, the staff generally don’t mind if you participate in this, especially if you buy a drink or a meal in the restaurant.
Camping on Magnetic Island
Radical Bay is privately owned and at the time of writing this camping is allowed on the land. There are no facilities here, but it’s beautiful, especially when all the day visitors leave in the late afternoon. You can pitch a tent on the beach or under the huge fig trees on the shoreline. A 4WD is necessary as the road is rough. For walk-in campers, Radical Bay is an easy 3 km walk from the start of the Forts Walk. No booking is required.
There is no camping allowed in any national parks on Magnetic Island.
The only other camping on the Island is at Bungalow Bay Koala Village.
Magnetic Island Walks
Magnetic Island is a dream for hikers. Bushland, dry wattles, eucalypt and rainforest trails look over never-ending views of the Coral Sea, rocky bays and sandy beaches. Walking and bicycles are a great way to get around Magnetic Island as the distances between most of the bays are not that far.
Some Walking Distances
The Butterfly Walk in Horseshoe Bay, where blue butterflies congregate and rest for winter (June and July) is a 100 metre walk.
Nelly Bay to Arcadia is 5 km one way (approx. 2.5 hours) A beautiful track that goes through rainforests with views over Horseshoe Bay.
Arcadia to the Forts Walk – 2 km one-way (approx. 45 mins)
The Forts Walk to Horseshoe Bay – 2 km one-way (approx. 45 mins)
The Forts Walk to Arthur Bay – 1.4 km (approx. 30 mins)
The Forts Walk to Florence Bay – 3.6 km (approx. 1 hour)
The Forts Walk to Radical Bay – 6 km (approx. 2 hours)
Picnic Bay to West Point – 8 km (approx. 2.5 hours)
More information on bushwalking on Magnetic Island
Our Favourite Cafes and Restaurants
Enjoy the laid-back dining in the tropics at a variety of local venues. Whether you’re looking for a burger or award winning-food and fine wine the island food scene won’t disappoint.
We love the zesty Mexican vegetarian bean dishes and the jugs of homemade sangria with fresh chunky fruit. The special BYO is tucked away in an outdoor rainforest setting in Nelly Bay. Wild Brushtail possums and curlews are the stars here and at home in the lush tropical outdoor setting. Loved by the owners, the possums all have names.
This place serves our favourite food on Magnetic Island. Our delectable dishes of bean nachos and enchiladas are so huge we could have easily shared one meal.
We love this authentic BYO Thai restaurant in Nelly Bay. All the dishes on the menu can be made vegetarian and the spices and flavours are absolutely delicious. The vegetable curry, vegetables with cashew nuts and coconut rice are mouth-watering.
GILLIGAN’S CAFÉ BAR
This little café in Arcadia has nice food and friendly owners. Though there isn’t much vegetarian on the menu, but the staff go out of their way for any special dietary request.
They made us a special veggie burger with a sweet corn and zucchini fritter, avocado, mushrooms and sauteed spinach topped off with capsicum coulis on a lightly toasted Turkish bun.
Nourish Café is a great place for a healthy breakfast or lunch at Horseshoe Bay. Enjoy great coffee, healthy, fresh wraps and yummy smoothies with great views of the bay here.
This café on Horseshoe Bay has over 24 delicious flavours of gelato, ice cream and the best milkshakes on the island.
Takeaway drinks are available at bottle shops at the Picnic Bay Hotel, Arcadia Hotel, Marlin Bay Hotel, Horseshoe Bay and the Nelly Bay Bottle Shop. With some of the best island restaurants being BYO this makes a night out with a few drinks a reasonable price.
Magnetic Island Ferry
Sea Link passenger ferry departs from the Breakwater Terminal in Townsville about every hour and takes about 20 minutes.
Fantasea vehicle ferry departs from Ross Street in Townsville about every two hours and takes about 40 minutes.
During the school holidays book vehicles in advance.
Walk-on passengers can just turn up. There are some great rates sometimes for walk-on passengers.
Both ferries depart and arrive at the Nelly Bay Ferry Bay Terminal.
Options include a classic moke or topless car at Tropical Car Rentals and late model cars at Island Car Hire. These do have conditions though and vehicles are not allowed off the main roads and not permitted at Arthur, Florence, Radical Bays or West Point.
DRIVE CAREFULLY AND KEEP YOUR EYE OUT FOR WILDLIFE ON THE ROADS
Magnetic Island Bus
Magnetic Island has a regular bus service from Picnic Bay to Horseshoe Bay return. It coincides with the ferries arrival and departure from Nelly Bay. This also includes a drop-off and pick-up at the start of the Forts walk as there is a bus stop here.
IGA at Nelly Bay Harbour Terminal
Foodworks in Nelly Bay and Horseshoe Bay
A small grocery store in Arcadia Bay
ATMs are available at supermarkets and most hotels. EFTPOS is available in most places.
Activities on Magnetic Island
We didn’t do any paid activities, as there is so much in the way of wildlife, nature, walks and beaches, but there are plenty of other activities popular with visitors.
Cuddle a koala during a champagne breakfast
Hold a baby crocodile or feed the lorikeets at Bungalow Bay Koala Village. (You don’t have to stay here to do these activities. Breakfast with the koalas is about $30per person). The feeding of the Lorikeets starts at 4 pm.
Horse riding on well-looked-after horses through the bush to the beach. On the beach ride bareback into the sea. Rides last for 2 hours and they run in the morning and afternoon.
Lunchtime and sunset cruises on a beautiful sailing yacht.
Morning and sunset eco-adventures exploring the bays and coastline of Magnetic Island. Experienced kayakers can hire kayaks privately.
Jet Ski Hire
Ski in the sheltered waters of Horseshoe Bay.
A fun way to explore the island!
One of the best ways to get around the Island!
The shallow waters and perfect conditions make it the perfect place to learn scuba diving.
Sunrise and Sunset
The sun doesn’t rise and set at all the bays because of the seclusion and the dramatic coastline of the island. The best sunsets are at Horseshoe Bay and West Point. Sunrises at Florence Bay and a hidden cove in Arcadia with a really nice sunrise. At the very end of Olympus Street, take the bush track to the right. From the boulders, there is a view of the sun rising over the bay.
There is a range of accommodations from luxury resort-style, self-catering apartments, backpackers to simple beach cottages.
Bungalow Bay Koala Village/ YHA – Famous for the breakfast with the koalas and feeding of the lorikeets, this accommodation in Horseshoe Bay is popular with backpackers and visitors on a budget.
X Base – Beachfront chalets outside of Nelly Bay are also popular with backpackers and visitors on a budget.
Sails on Horseshoe Bay – Modern apartments with a beachfront location.
Arcadia Hotel – Opposite the rock wallabies at Geoffrey Bay and only 100 metres from Alma Bay.
Tropical Palms – Self-contained units at Picnic Bay that also have 4WD hire. Unlike the moke and topless cars, the 4WDs are allowed at Radical Bay and West Point. They have some great specials and package deals at times.
Amaroo on Mandalay – A great affordable family resort in Nelly Bay with a swimming pool and lots of wildlife.
Bed and Breakfast
We spent a few days on Magnetic Island and could have stayed longer. It has so much to offer and the best things are free! The bushwalking combined with wildlife and bird watching, the picturesque sandy beaches and bays make it a nature lover’s paradise.