346 km (215 miles) S of Cairns; 1,371 km (850 miles) N of Brisbane
With a population of 140,000, Townsville is Australia’s largest tropical city. With an economy based on mining, manufacturing, education, and tourism, it is sometimes—rather unjustly, I think—overlooked as a holiday destination. The people are friendly, the city is pleasant, and there’s plenty to do. The town nestles by the sea below the pink face of Castle Rock, which looms 300 m (about 1,000 ft.) directly above. In 2014, Townsville’s popular waterfront parkland, The Strand, was complemented by the addition of the new Jezzine Barracks, a A$40 million redevelopment of unused land, which is now home to a stunning collection of outdoor sculptures and memorials honoring the city’s wartime history (with more than a passing nod to the American forces who served here in World War II). It is a wonderful addition to the city’s public parklands and well worth exploring.
Cruises depart from the harbor for the Great Barrier Reef, about 2 1/2 hours away, and just 8km (5 miles) offshore is Magnetic Island—[“]Maggie”to the locals—a popular place for watersports, hiking, and spotting koalas in the wild.
Townsville’s waters boast hundreds of large patch reefs, some miles long, with excellent coral and marine life, including mantas, rays, turtles, and sharks, and sometimes canyons and swim-throughs in generally good visibility. One of the best reef complexes is Flinders Reef, which is actually in the Coral Sea, beyond the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park boundaries. At 240 km (149 miles) offshore, it has 30 m (100-ft.) visibility, plenty of coral, and big walls and pinnacles with big fish to match, such as whaler shark and barracuda.
What draws most divers to Townsville, though, is one of Australia’s best wreck dives, the SS Yongala. Still largely intact, the sunken remains of this steamer lie in 15 m to 30 m (50–98 ft.) of water, with visibility of 9 m to 18 m (approximately 30–60 ft.). Diving the Yongala is not for beginners—most dive companies require their customers to have advanced certification or to have logged a minimum of 15 dives with open-water certification. The boat is usually visited on a live-aboard trip of at least 2 days, but some companies run day trips.
Although Townsville can be hot and humid in the summer—and sometimes in the path of cyclones—it is generally spared the worst of the Wet-season rains and boasts 300 days of sunshine a year.
Magnetic Island—or just “Maggie”—is a delightful 51-sq.-km (20-sq.-mile) national-park island 20 minutes from Townsville by ferry. About 2,500 people live here, and it’s popular with Aussies, who love its holiday atmosphere. Small settlements dot the coastline and there’s a good range of restaurants and laid-back cafes. Most people come for the 20 or so pristine and uncrowded bays and white beaches, but hikers, botanists, and birders may want to explore the eucalyptus woods, patches of gully rainforest, and granite tors. The island got its name when Captain Cook thought the “magnetic”rocks were interfering with his compass readings. It is famous for koalas, easily spotted in roadside gum trees; ask a local to point you to the nearest colony. Rock wallabies are often seen in the early morning.
The island is not on the Great Barrier Reef, but surrounding waters are part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. There is good reef snorkeling at Florence Bay on the southern edge, Arthur Bay on the northern edge, and Geoffrey Bay, where you can even reef-walk at low tide. (Wear sturdy shoes and do not walk directly on coral to avoid damaging it.) First-time snorkelers will have an easy time of it in Maggie’s weak currents and softly sloping beaches. Outside the stinger season, there is good swimming at any number of bays all around the island. Reef-free Alma Bay, with its shady lawns and playground, is a good choice for families; Rocky Bay is a small, secluded cove.