Magnetic Island is a beautiful place. After going there for the first time five years ago when the kids were small, Mr Rosanna and I decided to visit again this time a bit smarter regarding logistics given the problematic late flight in to Townsville (and on return to Melbourne). While you can fly direct, it’s not as popular a destination as Cairns (and on to Palm Cove or Port Douglas). However if you are after a low key holiday in the sun surrounded by nature on an island that has over 20 beaches and bays, then Magnetic Island is your place.
We flew in last Friday night and instead of trying to take a late night ferry across rough seas from Townsville as we did last time, this time we had booked an overnight stay at The Ville (above) which is walking distance to the marina. The Ville has previously had the record of being one of the worst performing casinos in Australia (which may say something smart about the people in Townsville) and since we last visited, has had a $43 million dollar makeover. While I generally dislike casinos, I have to say whoever has fitted out The Ville has done a magnificent job from the interiors to the exterior buildings, landscaped gardens and staff uniform. The distinctly tropical Queenslander style decor from potted palms to cane furniture is a vast improvement and we enjoyed dinner at Miss Songs Chinese restaurant on our first (and last) night in Townsville, after first venturing in to the more rowdy Quarterdeck restaurant right next door – both are part of the complex and we enjoyed being serenaded by the live music dining al fresco. Ambience is not always an easy thing to create but it’s been done really well at The Ville.
The rooms have also had a makeover and while probably not as beautiful as the rest of the updated complex, if you’re just wanting a place to kip for the night, they’ll do the job. We also enjoyed breakfast downstairs at The Palm House restaurant in the morning overlooking the stylish pool area and Pavilion venue – perfect for weddings and other special occasions. The Splash Bar wasn’t open the day we were there but we enjoyed ordering drinks, pizzas and gelato, and the cool tunes by the pool, on our return.
After checking out, we walked to the marina with our wheelie bag luggage and bought a return family ticket for the Sealink passenger ferry which you can also book online. We caught the ferry on calm waters sitting out on the deck along with all the backpackers and other tourists heading to Magnetic Island. This time around, instead of a self-contained apartment, we had booked an accommodation package including breakfast at Peppers – the biggest resort on the island, which amazingly, is still pretty undeveloped and sleepy in feel.
There is still no shopping complex, cinema or traffic lights on the island however you can now hire mini mokes and pink open top ‘Barbie’ cars or scooters as well as four wheel drives outside of catching the shuttle bus around the island (with very entertaining local drivers) visiting the four main settlements – Nelly Bay (where the ferry comes in and most of the development is), Arcadia with its picture perfect beach at Alma Bay and weekly cane toad races at the pub, boutique Horseshoe Bay at the top of the island where you can also find Bungalow Bay backpackers with its outstanding animal sanctuary and water sport options, and the still deserted-feeling Picnic Bay where the ferries used to come in.
Peppers Blue on Blue resort (above) is literally across from the ferry entrance at Nelly Bay and has a beautiful mountain backdrop as well as a spectacular outdoor lagoon pool with lap area (sadly unheated). We were able to check in early after grabbing coffees at Boardwalk restaurant (where the buffet breakfast is held every morning from 7 – 10am) and also had dinner there one night, where the food is good if not great. It’s good value if you are staying there a number of days like we were although I’m not always a fan of buffets given I think they encourage some people to overeat. I think too after experiencing The Westin‘s breakfasts on Langkawi Island in Malaysia a few years ago where a host of international chefs hand made omelettes, crepes and pastries right in front of us, I’ve been spoilt for life.
If you ever go to Peppers on Magnetic Island, I’d also get in early with a booking at their in-house Endota Spa if you’re indulging in a treatment. I waited a couple of days and was only able to get a booking on our last full day on the island. Peppers is also in a good location in terms of the IGA supermarket (which closes at 8.30pm every night) across the road along with SOS (Stuffed on Seafood) which does fantastic fish and chips including sweet potato scallops (as they call potato cakes up north), the pirate-themed Scallywags cafe (BYO so don’t get caught out like Mr R who had to ride the pirate bike below to the local Bottle-O and back for his beer!) and pizza at Le Paradis. There are two car hire shops as well all within close walking distance. The Nelly Bay beach isn’t the nicest beach on the island with its fringing coral reef so if being walking distance to a swimming beach is important to you, the other settlements are better bets.
We enjoyed op shopping at Vinnie’s as well as visiting the Island Living warehouse at the back of Peppers however the only real retail shopping we did was at Island Fever in Horseshoe Bay where I bought a Global Mamas organic cotton top and the boys some new thongs. The busiest it ever got was also on our first Sunday there when the State of Origin match was on and all the local boys were out having drinks at the Marlin Bar.
The beaches are still sublime and this time, besides two glorious days spent at Alma Bay (above left) we also checked out Arthur Bay and Geoffrey Bay (good for snorkelling on a sunny day), the Horseshoe Bay (above right) Sunday market as well as did the two hour Forts walk which was something we hadn’t previously done with younger kids last time around. I didn’t realise that Townsville had actually been attacked by the Japanese during World War II necessitating the building of the fort which now enjoys spectacular views of the island. You can also see koalas in the wild (which was a real highlight below right) and we shared the track there and back with lots of backpackers also there to enjoy the island which is two thirds national park.
The road out to the other bays can’t be taken even with a four wheel drive but you can hike to Florence, Balding and Radical Bays, be taken by a local driver or visit by boat. There’s no surf on Magnetic Island but snorkelling, fishing, diving, sea kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, horse-riding and hiking are all available. We hired a four wheel drive and drove to West Point for the sunset before going to Mamma Roma‘s in Picnic Bay (also BYO) for a beautifully authentic al fresco Italian dinner and dessert one night consisting of crab risotto, grilled barramundi, ricotta cannolo and coffee where we were visited by local curlew birds (below) who still make their screaming noises at night that scare all the tourists.
While it was warm during the day (mid twenties), it did get cold at night and I wore both my denim jacket and hoodie while there and recommend taking a light fleece or jumper if visiting at this time of year. All the local were in jumpers, jackets and flannel shirts and much of the dining is outside so worth taking warmer clothes. Weirdly too, not many hotel pools are heated up north (possibly because they don’t need to for 10 months of the year) so always enquire if looking to book accommodation in Townsville, Cairns and surrounding areas.
We had a fantastic week away from Melbourne getting away from it all but the downside to Magnetic Island is coming home. We caught a morning ferry back to Townsville (which isn’t as rough as going from there to Magnetic Island) but given the flight back to Melbourne (which was delayed) isn’t until 8pm – you need to kill a day either on Magnetic Island (Peppers do a 2pm late check out for an additional $20 if there’s availability) and there are lockers at the ferry terminal if you need to store luggage however we decided to go back to The Ville where we bought a family pool pass for $125 ($100 of which was redeemable against any food or drinks purchased at any of the venues there) and have our luggage safely secured at reception. You get a wristband which entitles you to sit by the pool (unheated) where you can order food and drinks at the Splash Bar and use the towels which was a very chilled out and relaxing thing to do if the weather is nice, as it was for us yesterday.
We did get bored after lunch so ended up venturing to The Strand which is about 20 minutes walk away. Previously, we spent the day at the Reef HQ Aquarium (who will mind your luggage and also walking distance from The Ville) and had walked along The Strand but hadn’t realised how close it was to The Ville and the marina as we’d caught a taxi. If we go up north again, I’d actually like to spend time in both Townsville and Cairns as places in their own right and I think Townsville has done interesting things in terms of its involvement in the Northern Arts Festival of Australia.
We walked back to The Ville late afternoon and charged our devices in the foyer waiting area before having another delicious dinner (try the Peking Duck pancakes) at Miss Songs where the manager kindly lit the outdoor heater for us and provided a throw for my son to wear given we were still in beach gear. From there, we picked up our luggage from reception, got changed into warmer clothes and got a taxi to the airport where we did have to wait for over an hour due to our delayed flight. Luckily there was a newsagency there for books and newspapers and we spent time with a rowdy young crowd returning home in high spirits after competing in the Oceania Athletics Championships.
It was a shock to the system returning to 9 degrees in Melbourne last night and I’m not ready to go back to work this week but we were very lucky to flee the winter for a short break. It wasn’t Greece but hey, I will take whatever sunshine and warmth I can to get me through the next couple of months! Enjoy your holiday if you’re lucky enough to be having a break these school holidays.