A bike, a tropical island and some barramundi feature in this dreamy Far North Queensland holiday escape.
A 52 square kilometre island, just 20 minutes off Townsville in Far North Queensland and with not much more than 30km of paved roads … hardly an ideal cycling destination? But for those looking for a tropical island escape that harbours some surprising cycling secrets, Magnetic Island just may be the holiday option you’ve been dreaming of.
Some 1700km north of Sydney and 19 degrees south of the equator, ‘Maggie’ as it’s affectionally referred to by the locals is considered a suburb of Townsville, the unofficial capital of the Far North.
Getting there from just about all mainland capitals is surprisingly simple. Just fly to Townsville, get a transfer (minibus or taxi for around $20) to the ferry terminal on the Townsville Breakwater, then catch one of the regular ferries (up to 20 services a day between 0530 and 2230) to Nelly Bay.
Picking up a Trek Checkpoint gravel bike from the friendly crew at Cycle de Vie – a well-known Townsville bike shop – we boarded the Magnetic Island ferry with just the bike, backpack and some fishing gear.
With a 5-night booking in self-contained accomodation in a reasonably-priced harbour view Nelly Bay apartment, the itinerary was simple. Ride the island’s sealed roads, explore the gravel tracks, read books and magazines, go bushwalking, drink beer, eat seafood, check out the local sites, and go fishing.
“…This is the tropical north, the land of fresh reef fish, XXXX Gold and lazy margaritas as the smooth sounds of Jimmy Buffett and Graeme Connors waft through the air…”
Just a short trip across Cleveland Bay, once you’re aboard the Maggie Island ferry island time seems to kick in.
This is the tropical north, the land of fresh tropical reef fish, thongs and sarongs, koalas sleeping in trees, easy drinking XXXX Gold and lazy margaritas. The smooth sounds of Jimmy Buffett and Graeme Connors waft through the air. ‘Changes in latitude, changes in attitude…’, ‘Yes I am a pirate, 200 years too late…’, and ‘I get a little further north each year’ lyrically summarise the Magnetic Island vibe.
Just about all aspects of island life follow the laid-back word picture we’re painting here. The IGA and bottle shop – the island’s main supermarket and bottle-O, the fish and chip outlet, the numerous bars, cafes and quirky local restaurants and indeed a lot of the accommodation options are fairly priced, run by chilled-out friendly locals, and help make Maggie the perfect back-to-basics holiday escape.
But Not Much Bitumen
“But with the two furthest residential areas of Horseshoe Bay and Picnic Bay being just 9.7km apart, how on earth can Magnetic Island be considered a cycling destination?” you may ask.
Limited Bitumen, But Blissful
Magnetic Island’s two farthest points connected by sealed roads are Horseshoe and Picnic Bays. Horseshoe is on the eastern side and a visiting yachties’ paradise and Picnic is a historic landing and popular day trip site within view of the mainland on the western side of the island.
The sealed road between the two beautiful bays may be just under 10km in length but it offers scenic, undulating and, in parts, quite challenging cycling with three short but decent climbs along the way.
This is seriously picture-perfect cycling – a dawn patrol with the low rising sun, lush green foliage and glistening blue sea makes for truly memorable riding. Although just a 20km return ride, side roads, back streets and rides around quieter residential areas help add to the kilometre count. What Magnetic Island road riding lacks in distance, it certainly makes up for in scenery and views.
To truly open up the island’s cycling options a gravel or all-road bike is highly recommended. The SRAM AXS-equipped Trek Checkpoint SLR7 was ideal for the island. A proven gravel platform that performs surprisingly well on the road as well, the 40mm GRI Team Issue tyres morphed seamlessly between bitumen and the island’s many sandy dirt roads.
Without a doubt the highlight of our time on Magnetic Island were the early morning road rides followed by the day lolling around the pool with a good book, then late afternoon bike-based fishing trips to West Point.
A 25km return trip, Nelly Bay to West Point includes a steep climb and 3.5km of bitumen to Picnic Bay before around 10km of absolutely brilliant light gravel riding. There are hidden bays, creek crossings, mysterious side tracks, washouts, low-lying paperbark forests and swamps that quietly scream ‘crocs & mud crabs’.
With a 4-piece travel rod Velcro strapped to the top tube, and a selection of lures, tackle and spares in the small backpack, we arrived at the isolated West Point outpost soon after the tide started to swallow up the sandbanks. Walking south and gently flicking a surface lure on the light spin rod, it was heartening to see baitfish, jelly prawns and the occasional swirl as the tidal flow increased and small creeks started to fill.
‘Boof’ went the first barra as it inhaled the lure and instantly started jumping. Thrilled to be on, it was so good to see the bike leaning against a beachside pandanus while holding a bent rod and battling the first barra for several years. Several acrobatic jumps later, the fish gave in as I walked it backwards up the bank to gently drag the fish ashore. The first of several small to medium barra of the trip, the first was a nice and very legal 65cm but went back to hopefully grow into a healthy ‘metery’.
It was getting late in the day, the lights were on, and the ride back from West Point to Nelly Bay was not too shabby at all. Into cycling and fishing? Bikes and barra are a match made in heaven. Add to that an affordable, laid back and memorable holiday destination and Magnetic Island really does have it all.
Cycling on Magnetic Island – and particularly gravel cycling – can be a great way to explore the dreamy isle and its many attractions. The island is located off the coast of Townsville and is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. There are several designated cycling trails on the island that offer stunning views of the surrounding area and provide access to many of the island’s popular attractions.
Some of these trails include the Forts Walk, which takes riders through the island’s historic World War II fortifications, and the Horseshoe Bay Circuit, which offers stunning panoramic views of the island’s beaches, visiting yachts and coastline.
If heading to the island again would we take the bike? In a word, absolutely! While it may not be the ideal destination for those wanting to rack up several hundred kilometres in a week, it does offer truly memorable gravel and adventure riding. And that metre+ barramundi beckons.
Looking back, the Trek Checkpoint was certainly one of the major highlights and it opened up countless opportunities while on ‘Maggie’. Enjoy fishing and cycling? A bike-based barra trip is an absolute must!
Getting To Townsville: There are numerous daily flights into Townsville from most major cities.
Getting To The Island: Two operators offer regular trips to the island, both ferrying walk-on passengers, bikes and vehicles and both departing from Townsville’s breakwater. It should be noted that Magnetic Island Ferries leave from the southern side of the river while SeaLink departs from the northern side. More at https://magneticislandferries.com.au and https://www.sealink.com.au
Getting Around The Island: Want to simplify your trip and make more of a holiday of it? Leave the car on the mainland or even at home. You can hire bikes, scooters and small motorbikes plus small and medium-sized cars for reasonable rates on the island. There’s also a regular local ‘SunBus’ service plus electric scooter hire with Beam. Our tip, take your own gravel bike and explore the island’s sealed and unsealed roads. As mentioned, the ride out the West Point is the #1 highlight!
Local Bike Shop: Cycle de Vie is a well-known Townsville institution. The helpful staff can assist with bikes, service, spares and repairs. More at https://cycledevie.com.au or 07 4740 4068. You can hire basic bikes (commuters, MTB’s and e-bikes) on the island.
Where to Stay: The island features accommodation options to suit all budgets or levels of luxury – from camping and van sites through to 5-star waterfront luxury. We’d recommend contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or phoning 07 4778 5955
Local Info: The ‘This Is Magnetic Island’ website offers a wealth of helpful local information – more at https://www.thisismagneticisland.com.au