Magnetic Island, Townsville: Why this bargain island paradise is Australia's best day out

Disaster strikes three-quarters of the way through my day-long trip to Queensland's Magnetic Island.

I've just slumped into my pink topless car after a long hike, a sweaty, exhausted mess, and am met with a deadly silence when I flick its lawn-mower-like engine on.

A friendly couple approach me to tell me I'd left the lights on and I'm now stranded hillside. It's a damn good thing they know cars, then, because within two minutes they have me roll-starting my little pink beast and the engine roars back into life.

The island is famous for its mode of transport – candy-coloured, topless "Barbie" cars or old-school mini-mokes that you can zip around the island with the wind in your hair and not a care in the world. The cars are 25 years old, and admittedly a little beaten up, but they're the most fun way to get around the island, which is a grand total of 52 square kilometres and about 20 minutes by ferry from Townsville.

Since I've now got to keep the engine running for 20 minutes, it's enough time to see the entire island by road. I quickly spot rock wallabies at the town of Arcardia, where visitors can feed the tiny creatures who hide in among the island's huge granite rocks. Another treat for visitors from far and near, like myself, are koalas, which eagle-eyed European backpackers keenly spot on the popular hike to the island's forts.

The forts walk is named so as a series of forts were built here during World War II for its proximity to Townsville, a military base, and therefore have splendid views across the island's eastern coast. Another quieter hike links all the north-eastern coast beaches together. You can hike from the populous northern town of Horseshoe Bay, which has large beach with sheltered waters and a stinger net, plus loads of cafes and opportunities for water sports, through to Balding Bay, where granite boulders balance on each other like an ill-fated game of Jenga, right through to the forts.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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The island's many beaches are sheltered and beautiful, so it seems deeply unfair you could take your life into your own hands dipping a toe into the water. Unless of course you happen to be carrying a full-body Lycra suit, then swimming is a no-go as jellyfish – rather too affectionately known as "stingers" – lurk in these waters during the summer months. And not just any jellyfish – six different kinds of the hellbeast. And even if you do swim within the nets, there's a chance that parts of the creatures will pass through and get you anyway. And if that doesn't put you off, maybe the occasional croc sighting will. 'Straya.

It's also a shame, because after tramping three hikes and 35,000 steps in humidity, being slightly sunburnt and attacked by March flies and mosquitos, I could do with a good soak – but I can also do that in the safe confines of my hotel's infinity pool later.

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I cross over to the island's south in search of two points that are popular for sunsets but at 4.30pm it's a little early. As I pull over to cross-check a map a couple pull up alongside me and ask if I need any help. This is the third time I've come across people going out of their way to check if I'm OK and I'm a little nonplussed. I look up to the steep climb I've got ahead of me at Tom Thumb; and accept their friendly invitation for a drink instead. They're native to Townsville and have just moved to "Maggie Island", as its known locally, and love a chat with visitors.

All of a sudden a purple sunset erupts through the grey clouds and I take my leave to Picnic Island's historic jetty to watch as it disappears spectacularly, splitting into vivid colours of purple, orange and red, over the mountainous mainland of northern Queensland.

As I zip back to Nelly Bay to take the ferry back to Townsville, the weather has turned near perfect, warm and almost crisp, to be driving "topless" around the paradisaical, and at this time of year, pleasantly quiet island, which proves itself to be a pretty fun day out.

See also: The six Australian beaches voted among world's best

See also: Dream destinations - Australia's 20 best islands

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Jetstar fly directly to Townsville from Melbourne and Sydney, jetstar.com

GETTING THERE

Sealink ferries link Townsville to Magnetic Island 18 times a day, sealinkqld.com.au

STAY

The Ville Resort-Casino in Townsville is a three-minute walk to the ferry station (and has an infinity pool you can flop in afterwards), the-ville.com.au

Rooms priced from $155 per night, with resort king rooms from $195 per night.

Sir Leslie Thiess Dr, Townsville City QLD 4810. Phone: (07) 4722 2333; the-ville.com.au/

The writer visited as a guest of The Ville, Townsville, the-ville.com.au

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