Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Magical Island

I'm back in Melbourne and the past two weeks have been a real adventure.  Where did we go in the end?  Magnetic Island off the coast of Townsville - a place that is hot and sunny 320 days of the year and boy, it surely was exactly that every day of our holiday.  Mr Rosanna actually discovered our new holiday destination this year.  We've traditionally gone to Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast the past few years - a place perfect for young families given its location, attractions, amenities and convenience but given we decided to holiday a little earlier this year, and also given our boys are no longer in prams and strollers, we opted for something a bit different from Port Douglas or Palm Cove when looking at heading further north.
Magnetic Island - view from ferry
I didn't know much about the island before we went - Magnetic Island (or 'Maggie Isle' as locals call it) is the start of the Whitsundays and is World Heritage listed as it's at the base of the Great Barrier Reef and almost 70% of the island is National Park.  I've always thought of the islands in Far North Queensland as being more high end catering to the resort crowd but Magnetic Island is more 'Muriel's Wedding' as friends who've been holidaying there for over 20 years have called it - it's low fi and affordable.  There is very little development and not many people down south seem to know about it so we felt like we'd discovered some hidden tropical secret.  And we're not the only ones given the recent article by Kendall Hill in The Weekly Review.  It's also an interesting looking island in terms of landscape with rocky granite boulders and a combination of palm, eucalyptus and hoop pine trees that reminded Mr Rosanna of Greece.
It is more involved than staying somewhere on the mainland in terms of transportation.  While it's the next further north destination that you can fly to direct from Melbourne - you need to catch a cab or shuttle bus to the passenger ferry terminal about 10-15 minutes away and then take the ferry across to the island which takes another 20 minutes.  Also some tips: catching a cab is way faster than taking the shuttle bus (which the airlines use for transfers) from the airport to the ferry terminal - we actually missed the earlier ferry as we'd pre-paid for the bus and had to wait around for the driver which was frustrating.  It also meant having to kill a couple of hours at nearby Jupiters Casino (walking distance from the ferry terminal) - having said that it wasn't a hardship to then eat fresh prawns and mussels at Aqua downstairs but made for a long night made all the worse due to the windy (read rough) conditions on the water (we went just after the yacht races were held).  The best time to take the ferry across either way is in the mornings when the sea is flat as a pancake.  I had two very green little boys at the end of the relatively short trip and we reached the island only just in time before something nasty could have happened - I had a plastic bag ready!  There is also a car ferry if you're hiring a car and taking it across and you can also hire cars (along with mini mokes, topless cars and scooters) on the island itself.  The speed limit on the island is 60 kph and there are no traffic lights.  If you're comfortable with putting your kids on buses - the Sunbus shuttle service around the island is the best way to go instead of hiring a car and all the drivers are real characters.
Nelly Bay beach
Picnic Bay jetty
Alma Bay beach - Arcadia
Horseshoe Bay
The island itself is divided into four main settlements - Nelly Bay where the ferry terminal is located, the deserted Picnic Bay to the west where the ferries used to go (and the only sound you can hear is the lapping of waves on the beach), Arcadia to the east, which is probably the central hub of the island, with the picture perfect swimming beach at Alma Bay and then the more exclusive Horseshoe Bay at the northern end of the island.  The most major development has been at Nelly Bay with the new ferry terminal and next door Peppers Blue on Blue resort which has its own Boardwalk Restaurant and on-site Endota Spa if you are after a super chilled out holiday doing not much at all.  There are a couple of smaller neighbouring resort-style apartments as well as an IGA supermarket, cafe and gelateria but given Nelly Bay beach is an unpatrolled, fringing reef beach full of coral and better for snorkeling rather than swimming, I'm surprised the resorts are located there.  I'm assuming most people just make do with swimming in the pool and then either catch the bus or drive to the other settlements if they want to go to a beach.  Speaking of pools, I'd check the location and temperature of the pool before you commit to accommodation depending on what time of year you go as if it's not heated (and most of them aren't if you're not staying at a resort) then you may find it too cool for swimming as we disappointingly found with ours.  Some of the more stylish (but also the more pricey) self-contained accommodation can be found at Best of Magnetic.  Again, I'd check the location to see how close to the road/public access some of these places are found and who your neighbours are for both noise and privacy reasons.  For instance, Base Backpackers at Nelly Bay holds a monthly full moon party and I'm tipping it would get pretty loud and messy on the nights they're held.  It is in a fantastic location overlooking the water.
Base Backpackers - Nelly Bay
Magnetic Island is a nature-lovers paradise.  If you're after retail therapy, you're not going to find it here.  There is a small strip of shops on Sooning Street in Nelly Bay where you'll find a great French restaurant and cafe along with a more upmarket retail store selling resort wear and accessories in Koko Blue but aside from that, there's not much at all besides basic amenities and the locals like it like that.  Same goes for dining options, the best food is found at Boardwalk Restaurant and the aforementioned French restaurant in Nelly Bay or the two pubs in Horseshoe Bay and Picnic Bay which do killer seafood.  The social hub of the island - the Arcadia Hotel  - does standard pub fare so I actually preferred Nell's Indonesian food (Nell's husband runs the local aquarium and snorkeling tours on the island) on offer on Wednesday and Friday nights (with Thai food on Thursday and Saturday nights) from the kiosk in the beer garden or the Italian pizzeria/gelateria which is around the corner at the front of the hotel.  You can use the hotel swimming pool if you're an in-house guest or customer at the Arcadia Hotel which is also a bonus.  Not to be missed are the cane toad races which are held from 8pm every Wednesday night and are hilarious - the best night out you'll spend on the island and a quintessentially Australian experience.  We loved it.  Instead of running a tote, they auction off each toad and hold three separate races although we didn't quite make it to the end due to two tired little boys.
Japanese oysters & oysters natural - R & R Bar Picnic Bay
Caesar salad, fresh prawns and salt & pepper squid - Marlin Bar Horseshoe Bay
Arcadia Hotel pool - sunset

And they're off and racing!

The island is crying out for other cuisine options - I reckon a Japanese sushi bar would make a killing along with Greek and Italian.  We did go Mexican at Man Friday one night (and met the local possums) and Noodies on the Beach in Horseshoe Bay also does Mexican fare along with good coffee and margaritas.  Horseshoe Bay also has Barefoot Art, Food & Wine - an upmarket restaurant and art gallery as well as Cafe Nourish which both looked good but were closed the days we visited.
The not so wild possums at Man Friday

Horseshoe Bay - near walking track to Balding & Radical Bays
A Brahminy Kite
Hand feeding our lorikeets...

... and the wallabies at Presto Point, Nelly Bay
There are some fantastic walking tracks and over 20 beaches to choose from for snorkeling, swimming, sea kayaking, water skiing, sailing and fishing - most water sports besides surfing are on offer.  Locals reckon the two best beaches are Radical and Balding Bay (an unofficial nude beach!) which are only accessible by foot so sadly we didn't get to see them.  There's also abundant bird life - the island is known for its Curlews - native birds that make a loud wailing noise which may keep you awake at night - they are loud.  Really loud.  We saw kites, sea eagles, rainbow lorikeets, kookaburras, cockatoos, galahs, ibises and many, many more birds (there are over 160 species on the island) while we were there.  You can hand feed the wallabies at dusk at Geoffrey Bay however we found our own little group at Presto Point in Nelly Bay.  We also didn't really need to visit the very laid back Bungalow Bay Koala Village (a YHA hostel and animal park) to hand feed the lorikeets (given the hordes outside our house) which was actually a painful experience due to their very sharp claws but the park is a great place to visit to get up close and personal (and literally hands on) with a range of native animals including the cutest wombat and koala I think I've ever seen.  We met some lovely English and German backpackers on our visit there and Magnetic Island is an interesting mix - over 2000 locals (including a surprising amount of ex-Melbourne people) and around the same amount of tourists at any given time.
Bungalow Bay Koala Village

Also worth doing was a half day boat cruise around the island where we twice got to fish and snorkel.  We met some fellow Victorians from Ballarat as well as Brian - a radio music director and DJ from Brooklyn which was pretty cool.  Mr Rosanna must have had his lucky hat on as he caught not one, not two, not three but four fish - the most in our whole group although only one was large enough to keep and eat.  It was also an experience for our boys to see where fish actually come from - the whole cycle of life and the food chain.  While it wasn't a windy day, the boys were again feeling seasick by the end of the tour due to other boats rocking ours so I'm glad I had travel medication on me which I ended up using.  At almost 5, Will was a bit too young to snorkel but Thomas loved his first experience in the water.  The skipper Adam will also open up the back of the boat once he's anchored in shallow water if your kids just want to have a paddle.

We spent our last day on the island having lunch at Boardwalk Restaurant at Peppers Blue on Blue over looking the water at the marina - it is a very stylish and glamorous location and there was a bridal party having pre-wedding drinks at the bar on the day.  I'd also booked in for a treatment at the Endota Spa before I met the boys for lunch - the body treatments in particular are highly recommended.  We had no plans for the evening so held our own full moon party on the beach, complete with glow sticks and dance music!

Mr Rosanna and I managed to get really cheap flights to and from Townsville but the fly in the ointment was that they were late afternoon/evening flights which meant we had a day to kill in Townsville with luggage on our return.  There are lockers at the ferry terminals but they aren't big enough for large suitcases.  After investigating options like a half day rate for hotel accommodation or hiring a car in Townsville, we found out that Reef HQ Aquarium (which is walking distance from the ferry terminal) will store your luggage (and lock it away) while you visit as well as give you a pass out if you wish to leave at any stage and then return to pick up your luggage.  So we managed to have a lovely day out in Townsville visiting the Aquarium and seeing the Turtle Hospital in the morning before venturing up to The Strand - the redeveloped foreshore, which is fantastic.

Townsville is actually surprisingly hilly - I enjoyed taking in the different streetscapes given the trees and buildings are so different to Melbourne.  It looks like an interesting place to live and is the 13th biggest city in Australia with more people than Cairns which I found surprising.  I loved walking through the gardens past the Art Deco Tobruk Memorial Baths (where Dawn Fraser trained for the Olympics) and stopping for a bite to eat at the Tobruk Kiosk.  The kids loved the neighbouring outdoor water park (very similar to the one at WaterMarc in Greensborough) complete with life guard which was pretty funny.  After they had their fun, we ventured further down to Geoffrey Point where we stopped for refreshments at the Longboard Bar & Grill next to C Bar looking out onto the water.  Tres cool.  And a really nice way to end our holiday.

Would I go back to Magnetic Island?  The answer is yes although I wouldn't stay in Nelly Bay again due to the coral beach.  Arcadia with Alma Bay beach and playground is the best location for young families.  Mr Rosanna loved the desert island feel of Picnic Bay (and he wasn't the only one) and if you have money to burn, Horseshoe Bay would be my pick.  Other things to be mindful of are temporary problems with algae during August and September if the weather gets suddenly warm (which closed Alma Bay beach for a day as it can cause infection if you get water in your eyes or ears) and stinger season which starts from October (but more November to May).  I also think it's a better place for older kids - those who can swim and walk longer distances as well as join in in some of the more strenuous activities like hiking, sea kayaking, snorkeling and diving.  I'm just glad we discovered the secret hideaway that is Magnetic Island - it was a real boys' (and girl's) own adventure!