Granite boulders plunge into turquoise 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 private and secluded and only accessible by foot or boat. The island’s unspoilt habitat is a haven for native wildlife such as rock wallabies, possums, echidnas and over 100 species of birds including the bush stone curlew and it is also home to one of Australia’s largest koala populations.
We start our days from our camp at Radical Bay, and bushwalk, spot koalas, picnic on boulders overlooking the beach and swim and snorkel in the clear oceans. 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 haunting wails of the resident curlews.
Horseshoe Bay, Arcadia, Nelly Bay and Picnic Bay are the main areas of the island and they all have a selection of accommodation, restaurants, pubs, easily assessable beaches and walking tracks. With its bars, cafes, ocean views, isolated beaches, iconic sunsets, and a stinger net so swimming is safe all year, Horseshoe Bay is the most popular bay for travellers. Acardia is not an actual bay but enclosed by Alma Bay, a pretty swimming cove with lifeguards, and Geoffrey Bay which is inhabited by cute rock wallabies is another favourite. 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.
Magnetic Island has over 23 bays and beaches including the popular and the more remote beaches which require more effort to get there but assures 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. Our favourite beaches are Radical Bay where we camp, and the nearby beach of Balding Bay which is more out of the way but is well worth it for the gorgeous and deserted bay. 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 and we have the whole bay to ourselves too. The bush track is not obvious and a few people have asked us how to find it. Travelling towards Picnic Bay from Nelly Bay, it’s at the first car park up the hill, about 100 metres past X Base Beachfront Chalets. It 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 a stinger suit needs to be worn.
The Forts Walk
After watching the sunrise at Florence Bay we walk 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 of 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 see her bulging pouch as 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, he gets bored and disappears back into the pouch and his mum falls asleep.
The next day we see another mum and her baby dozing amongst the eucalyptus leaves. The baby is about eight months old and probably 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, so 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 mother 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 get close and sometimes at eye level with them. 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 is 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 if possible. One morning we saw nothing at all, but the next morning three koalas were 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 as chances are the next day he will be close by in 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 most popular attractions on Magnetic Island is the rock wallabies at Geoffrey Bay, Arcadia. And no wonder! These cute and adorable wallabies are friendly and we get really close to them!
The rock wallabies have been fed since the beginning of time so feeding them is permitted. At Geoffrey Bay, there is a sign that advises of foods that are good and bad for them. 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.
They rock 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 feed 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 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 this time campers are allowed on the land. Though it’s not a national park it is a marine park and fishing is not allowed. There are no facilities here, but it is beautiful, especially when all the day visitors leave in the late afternoon. Tents can be pitched on the beach or under the huge fig trees on the shoreline. A 4WD is necessary as the road is very 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 is a dream for hikers. Never-ending views of the Coral Sea, blue skies, rocky bays and sandy beaches can be seen on the many walking tracks through thick bushland, dry wattles, eucalypt and rainforest ranging from 30 minutes to 2 days. Walking and bicycle 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) 100 metres.
Nelly Bay to Arcadia 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
In the afternoons we have an ice-cold beer and watch the sunset over Horseshoe Bay and later relish a meal at Man Friday, our favourite island restaurant. The Mexican dishes are huge and we love the vegetarian bean dishes and the jugs of homemade sangria with fresh chunky fruit. Wild brushtail possums and curlews are the stars here and they are at home in the lush tropical outdoor setting.
This is our favourite place on Magnetic Island. This special BYO is tucked away in an outdoor rainforest setting in Nelly Bay and the Mexican dishes are so huge we could have easily shared one meal. The vegetarian bean nachos and enchiladas accompanied with homemade jugs of homemade sangria are to die for!
Not only does the setting and the delectable Mexican dishes make this place unique but an extra bonus is the friendly possums and curlews. Loved by the owners, the possums all have names.
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.
This little café in Arcadia has nice food and friendly owners. Though there isn’t much vegetarian on the menu, the owners are very obliging and 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 and thickshakes 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 are not permitted at Arthur, Florence, Radical Bays or West Point.
Drive carefully and keep your eye out for wildlife on the roads, especially early morning, afternoon and night.
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 the 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.
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.
Ski in the sheltered waters of Horseshoe Bay.
One of the best ways to get around Magnetic Island!
The shallow waters and perfect conditions make Magnetic Island 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 we found a hidden cove in Arcadia with a really nice sunrise. At the very end of Olympus Street, there is a bush track to the right. From the boulders, there is a view of the sun rising over the bay.
Accommodation popular with travellers
There is a range of accommodation 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.
Canopy Tropical Chalets – Boutique style resort set around lush gardens and a pool in Nelly Bay.
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.
Peppers Blue on Blue Resort – Marina front location on Nelly Bay Harbour
Pure Magnetic – Upscale beachfront villas at Nelly Bay
Bed and Breakfast
Magnetic Bed and Breakfast – An award-winning and traditional B&B in Horseshoe Bay surrounded by National Park
Magnetic Sunsets – Also an award-winning B&B located 5 minutes walk from Horseshoe Bay
We spend a few days on Magnetic Island and could have spent a lot more time. 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.
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