Australians keep chasing an overseas beach fix, but an old favourite at home ticks all the boxes, writes Dugald Jellie.
We're a nation of beach bums. It's a bottom line confirmed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics' travel numbers: residents made a record 8.04 million short trips abroad last financial year, with departures booming to Thailand, Indonesia and Fiji. Lying on a beach or by a pool in south-east Asia or the Pacific, wrapped in a sarong and sipping coconut juice is how we imagined our annual sojourn would be, too. A cliche, buoyed by an uppity Australian dollar.
Funny how travel turns out. That we find ourselves instead in a town named Arcadia in north Queensland, at a pub on a Wednesday night whooping for bow-legged cane toads at the weekly races ("We don't pay on the nose, we pay on the backside," the barefoot ringmaster says) is pure serendipity. The price of international flights spiked during the week it took us to decide where to holiday, so holiday plan B became Townsville, from where we caught a ferry across the Coral Sea to an island the locals know as Maggie.
In the great daisy chain of isles along the Great Barrier Reef, is any more democratic in its pleasures than Magnetic Island? Eight kilometres adrift of Australia's largest city in the north, it's an island to dream about - ideal for holidays and honeymoons, putting watery distance between one life and another. And it offers value for money in the serious business of R&R.
"Magnetic is not Noosa or Port Douglas," says a friend - a retired academic from Melbourne who has lived part-time on the island for 10 years - of its fibro-cement sensibilities. "It's not owned by a resort company. It has a life of its own. It's an island paradise, but it's not without its troubles."
Resort development around the island's Nelly Bay ferry terminal divides local opinion, but last winter's discontent is also about a pesky set of traffic lights - an island first, albeit a temporary measure to guide vehicles while construction of a $5.3 million walkway linking Nelly Bay and Arcadia takes place.
Dark clouds also gather about tourism: forget 2011's tropical cyclone Yasi; the dollar's strength has hit Maggie like a perfect storm, leaving For Sale signs and closed businesses in its wake. "Operators who've been here 20 years say we've just had the worst season ever," says the chairwoman of the island's tourist group, Lindsay Simpson. "It's slim pickings. We simply can't match the prices of Bali package deals."
The Asian beach holiday, it seems, is the new Queensland. "The island economy's never been worse since we've been here," says George Hirst, a Bowral, NSW, boy who worked in Canberra before moving north 23 years ago and starting the Magnetic Times. "The flow of backpackers has been hammered by the high dollar and Australians are going elsewhere. But if you're not looking for exoticism and just want to relax, this place is still hard to outdo."
It's easy to see why. Attractions are immediate, from Magnetic's dramatic boulder-strewn topography, coastal fringe of hoop pines and secluded beaches to its glorious sense of detachment, laid-back demeanour and the pub's cheap Tuesday schnitzels.
We holiday as most others do on Magnetic, renting accommodation; in our case a three-bedroom apartment in Arcadia that we share for eight days with friends who, like us, have a two-year-old. We soon fall in step with the island's rhythms of bus timetables, collecting coconuts, kips at noon and afternoons spent at the beach with plastic buckets and spades. Disturbances are caused only by the nightly chorus of curlews and the early-morning wrangle of two young boys negotiating shared custody of a toy truck.
On most days we catch buses on their run between Picnic Bay and Horseshoe Bay to walking trails into the island's national park, following paths to Radical Bay and Arthur Bay and the remnants of the island's World War II coastal battery. Built as a defence for the military base at Townsville, it's now a spectacular vantage from which to see nearby Palm Island and its satellites - and bulk cargo freighters moored in Cleveland Bay waiting to be loaded with copper, zinc, nickel and sugar.
It feels only natural to climb to a high point to confirm the ocean is all around. If we had a conch shell, here would be the place to blow it.
Every other afternoon we make the short walk to the picturesque Alma Bay via a foreshore playground, where in radiant warmth against the bay's great knuckles of granite we meet the people locals call "snow birds". They're a gaggle of silver-haired retirees, most from "the south", and now in togs, with beach chairs and books, and talking about cryptic crosswords, travel plans and what's for dinner tonight.
Of the 8222 islands in Australia's maritime borders I doubt there's another like this: a dormitory island, an outer suburb (when islanders "go into town" it means Townsville), but a place that's also had an overlay of tourism since Picnic Bay in the 1890s became a popular weekend pleasure ground.
Our holiday isn't as we had hoped (Bali or Fiji or Koh Samui), but it is closer and without passport queues. If this is the Great Australian Compromise, it could hardly be better.
Getting there Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar fly from Melbourne and Sydney to Townsville. Passenger and car-passenger ferries depart daily to Magnetic Island from South Townsville's Ross Street terminal. Walk-on passengers are $29 return (adult) and $17 return (child). Standard car is $178 return. See magnetic-island.com.au.
Staying there Accommodation ranges from private house-lets and B&Bs to apartment, hotel and resort stays. Grand Mercure Apartments at Nelly Bay has rooms from $150 a night; Peppers Blue on Blue Resort costs from $179 a night. See queenslandholidays.com.au; stayz.com.au.
While there Kayaking, cycle hire, horse riding, fishing charters, sailing, scuba diving and wind/kitesurfing are available on Magnetic Island. Whale watching takes place August-October, coral spawning October-November and turtle breeding-hatching November-January. See whatsonmagneticisland.com.au.