It’s a fair bet that most cruising sailors venturing north from the Whitsundays will include a stop at Magnetic Island in their plan. Just 8km offshore from Townsville, the island is considered a suburb of that city but, with 78% protected as National Park and just 2500 permanent residents, laid-back “Maggie” is arguably the most scenic, accessible and popular tropical island in Australia.
Known as “Yubenum” to the Wulgurukaba people, the indigenous history of the ‘canoe people’ is interpreted and shared with visitors along Gabul Way, an impressive modern walkway connecting the main hub of Nelly Bay to Geoffrey Bay and Arcadia. Dreamtime stories include the creation of Yubenum and how the Big Carpet Snake linked it to Palm Island and the mainland. Sadly, very few Wulgurakaba people still live on the island, but shell middens and art sites remain as testament to their long connection to the land.
The compass fluctuation that saw Lt. James Cook note “Magnetical Island or Headland” on his chart when passing through in 1770 was likely an anomaly but, in recognition of his explorations, the island’s highest mountain still bears his name. These days, the natural attractions of Maggie keep it high on travel wish-lists with stunning beaches, reefs, bays, mountains, waterfalls, native animals and walking trails all major drawcards.
Tourism on Maggie began to flourish as far back as the 1800s, with the first resort completed in 1890. The only fully self-contained island within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, it offers most amenities, a wide range of accommodation and plenty of opportunity to interact with local wildlife. We loved discovering the wallabies at Geoffrey Bay and spying on sleepy koalas along the walking trails.
WHEN TO GO
South-easterly trade winds dominate between May and October before the breeze swings back into the north-east between December and March. 23 sheltered bays and beaches around the island offer cruising yachts year-round protection from prevailing winds.
Water temperatures vary from a comfortable 21 degrees in Winter to a balmy 31 in the wet season. As water temperatures rise, so too does the possibility of encountering marine stingers so stinger suits are a must for those visiting later in the year.
Truly tropical, Maggie enjoys a stable, warm and mostly sunny climate with temps ranging from 25C in July to a warmer 32C in December. Visitors are typically treated to dry days between April-December with the possibility of evening rainfall and thunderstorms gradually increasing towards the end of the year. Even when it’s wet though, it’s hot and humid. Humid conditions can encourage mould. Clever cruisers keep a spray bottle with a mix of water, vinegar and clove oil on hand. A quick wipe down will help to keep the spores at bay. Peak tourist season is June-October and the island’s transient population also noticeably increases most weekends with the arrival of day-trippers from Townsville.
WHERE TO GO
It's entirely possible to motor/sail around the island in a day, and many do. Depending on breeze direction, favourite spots to drop anchor include Florence, Alma, Radical, Balding and Arthur Bays in the east and Rocky and Picnic Bays to the south. Extended shallow fringing reefs at Nelly and Geoffrey Bays make those areas less popular for anchoring so look for better options elsewhere. Take care also to confirm good holding outside the reef at Picnic Bay, as dragging is common. In extremely strong winds it may be advisable to seek shelter in other bays or nearby Magnetic Island Marina.
Magnetic Island Marina has berthing for 70+ boats but many are permanent or semi-permanent. Securing a casual pen is often on a first-come, first-served basis so always call ahead and check. Located within the Peppers Blue Resort complex and adjacent to the ferry terminal, the marina offers protection from most winds, secure berths and basic water/power/shower facilities.
Generally, cruisers will choose Horseshoe Bay, with its ample room and good holding, as a ‘home base’ until the northerlies begin to blow. It’s not uncommon to see up to a hundred yachts anchored in the bay when the trades blow. Catamarans congregate closer to the beach under the headland dividing Horseshoe from Balding and Radical Bay while deep keel monos sit comfortably further out. Walking trails connecting these bays offer a great half-day adventure and a chance to stretch those sea legs. Cafes, take away food outlets and tavern adjacent to Horseshoe Bay’s beachfront park are a mecca for locals, cruisers and tourists. When the bay is busy with boats, Sundowner sessions are a regular occurrence. Don’t wait for an invite. As dinghies begin to park up along the high tide mark late in the afternoon, simply pack a cooler bag, head ashore and join in.
PROVISION AND EXPLORE
Travel around the island by jumping on the local bus which runs two services from Nelly Bay to Picnic Bay (west) and Horseshoe Bay (north). Cars and motorbikes may be hired but the bus is by far the easiest and cheapest way to get from place to place. Download the timetable HERE
It's a quick and easy 20-minute fast ferry (or slower 40-minute barge) trip from Nelly Bay across to Townsville if you need to access major amenities and services such as hospitals, supermarkets, shopping centres, chandlery and hardware stores. SeaLink QLD Ferry Timetable is viewable HERE. While no marine filling stations are located on-island, a 24/7 fuel dock at Townsville’s Breakwater Marina is a just a short motor/sail away.
Two snorkelling trails have been developed for island visitors. Located close to the beach at Nelly and Geoffrey Bays, both trails offer easy access for beginners. Snorkel Trail ‘Swim Cards’ with information about local corals and fish, attach to the wrist and are available from local retail stores. Complementing the existing Snorkel Trails, Queensland’s famous Museum of Underwater Art currently has plans to install eight “reef science” sculptures at various underwater locations mid-late 2022.
In 1942 the island became an important military base. A complex of military fortifications was constructed, manned and operated until the end of the war in 1945. Today, the “Forts Walk” is extremely popular and just one of many walking trails for all levels of fitness which dissect the island. As Maggie is also home to the largest colony of koalas in Northern Australia living in the wild, it’s quite likely that you’ll spot one along the way. Queensland Parks walking trails information can be found HERE
An IGA Supermarket and liquor store are a short walk across the Ferry Terminal carpark in Nelly Bay. A smaller supermarket is located along the road to Picnic Bay and the general store at Horseshoe Bay provides many basic items. Cafes, hotels, restaurants and takeaway food options are listed in the local Guide. A valuable resource for current island information, it can be accessed HERE
Magnetic Island will always reward the cruising sailor who loves to explore nature, uncover fascinating history and just kick back and relax in a tropical paradise. Be warned! We once sailed across from Townsville to spend a few days and ended up staying for more than two months. Drop the hook and explore! There’s every chance that you, too, will be totally captivated and consumed by the magic of Maggie.