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Calling all bucket-listers! Want to see the Great Barrier Reef (before it disappears), but hesitant to pay the prices it takes to see it? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing to see, but when you factor in travel & accommodation costs, plus the cost of a snorkeling and/or boat tour, things can really start to add up.
I wanted to find a way to see the reef without spending more than I was comfortable with and after some research, I found a GREAT alternative: Magnetic Island.
At over 1430 miles long, there’s more than one spot to stop along the reef to witness this amazing natural phenomenon! So if you’re ready to see the Great Barrier Reef on a budget, let me tell you about Magnetic Island!
Getting to Magnetic Island
First things first: Where is Magnetic Island?
It’s in the state of Queensland, off the coast of Townsville. Townsville is just south of Cairns, which is the more popular reef city, so if you’re near Cairns you’re not far away. For reference, a non-stop flight from Sydney to Townsville will take about 2 hrs 40 mins.
Getting to Magnetic Island is fairly straightforward. From the Townsville airport, take a shuttle into the city centre. Let the driver know you are headed to the ferry, so they know where to drop you off!
You can purchase a ferry ticket in advance, or right at the port. If you know your return date, go ahead and book a round trip ticket. Otherwise, you can opt to purchase a one-way. A return trip is only about $35 AUD, so expect slightly over half that for a one-way fare.
The ferry across to Magnetic Island is about 30 minutes, and they run multiple times throughout the day. Many people actually live on the island and commute to work on the mainland via this ferry, so it’s always running. If you drove into Townsville, you can also ferry your car over the island.
Where to Stay on Magnetic Island
There are a handful of resorts and hostels on the island. You’ll definitely want to book in advance! Some resorts are directly on the beach while others are more inland. There is even an island “glamping” option at Bungalow Bay Village.
Another option is finding an AirBnB on the island—which is the route I went. I found a wonderful host who had a nice house with a pool. He also happened to be a marine biologist, and took me out snorkeling and on a jet ski tour of the island!*
If you’ve never stayed in an AirBnb before, this would be a great opportunity to try it out.
*Note: not all hosts are this generous or offer these services. In this case, he listed these details up front in his listing so I knew they were an option. If a host doesn’t say anything about offering snorkeling gear or an island tour, don’t expect this.
How to see the Great Barrier Reef from Magnetic Island
As mentioned above, I picked an accommodation where the supplies and know-how were part of the stay. If your reservation doesn’t include this or you’re staying in a hotel, most hostels or hotels offer tours.
These boating & dive tours cost anywhere from $175 to $250 AUD, and will usually run 8-9 hours, so it’s pretty much an all-day thing. Tours will only be held when conditions are ideal (and safe!), so, like with any natural element, be prepared for some delays.
You can book a Great Barrier Reef Snorkeling tour with Viator here.
Best Time to See the Great Barrier Reef
There are actually specific times of year that are ideal to see the reef. Surprisingly, summer isn’t one of them. Unluckily for me, summer happened to be when I was in Australia. I still forged ahead and saw what I could, but I was warned ahead of time that the water might be murky and not ideal for seeing the reef.
This turned out to be true and looking back, I’m glad to have had the warning, otherwise I may have gone into it with very high expectations and been incredibly disappointed. I also happened to be on the island when a huge storm was about to pass through, so water conditions were extra choppy and murky.
The weather was otherwise fine, and I still went snorkeling and explored the reef as much as possible, but I have no doubt it would be better at a different time of year.
According to Sightseeing Tours Australia, the best time of year to see the reef is Australia’s winter and spring seasons (specifically May to October). If you’re planning a trip specifically to see the Reef then you’ll want to do it during these months.
Animal Sightings on Magnetic Island
My time in Australia was full of animal encounters, but holding a Koala was one of the highlights. Magnetic Island is home to the Bungalow Bay Koala Village where you can get up close to many of Australia’s native animals, like Koalas.
They run regular daily tours, and you can purchase an upgraded ticket to hold a koala and have your picture taken with it, which was totally worth it, trust me!
On top of holding the koala, I also held my first snake (which I’m terrified of!) and learned about a lot of other native Australian animals.
There are also plenty of wild koalas that live on the island. So if you’re on the popular Forts Walk, be sure to look up as you may just spot a Koala hanging out in one of the trees. Other mammals that live on Magnetic Island include Rock Wallabies, Brush Tail Possums, Black Flying Foxes, Little Bentwig Bats and Echidnas. *
*To preserve the health and home of these mammals please do not feed any wild animals and pick up your trash.
Other Activities on Magnetic Island
While I initially gravitated to Magnetic Island as a low cost option, the price didn’t mean it was a lesser experience and I had an absolutely great time. On top of my great AirBnB and holding a Koala, there were plenty of other activities to appeal to my sense of adventure while vacationing here.
- Walking Tracks & Lookouts: There are over 20km of walking tracks along the island with multiple outlooks. In fact, 54% of Magnetic Island is National Park land so there is plenty of untouched nature to check out.
- Snorkeling & Diving: As mentioned above, the island is off the Great Barrier Reef, so there are plenty of opportunities to go snorkeling or diving in the surrounding area.
- Water Sports: Jet Ski Rentals, Sea Kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, tubing, you name it! There are all sorts of Water Sport activities available around the island.
- Horseshoe Bay: The islands longest beach is sheltered from strong winds and has a lively beach town vibe with markets, restaurants and activities for hire. You can even enjoy a horseback ride from the bush to the beach.
- Beach Bumming: There are multiple beaches around the island, some more crowded than others, but if you’re looking for some time to chill out and beach all day, you can find your paradise on Magnetic Island.
Getting around Magnetic Island
Getting around Magnetic Island is pretty easy, but activities are all a bit spread out so you’ll need some sort of transportation while there. There is an island bus that can shuttle you from one side to the other, stopping at major points along the way—like hiking trailheads and beaches.
You can also rent an open-top car which looked super fun! You can either rent open-top vehicles (looks like a small Jeep) or ATV-like vehicles for rougher terrain.
Where to stay in Townsville
On either end of your time on Magnetic Island, you’ll likely stay a night or two in Townsville. If that’s the case, I highly recommend the Rambutan Hotel.
It had to be one of the best budget hotels I’ve ever stayed in. The bottom floor was a café (open in the mornings/early afternoon) and offered a great breakfast and perfect place to work. While, in the afternoons I headed up to the 3rd level to take advantage of the pool and covered bar area. The food was delicious, and taking work breaks in the pool was a huge bonus, especially in the scorching summer heat.
They also had a shared kitchen to make meals and nice lounge area. Another plus was that it was within walking distance of the main city centre where you could shop or eat out. The closest I came to replicating this type of accommodation was when I was in Asia, so I was pretty gobsmacked being able to find a place this good, and at such an affordable rate, in a place like Australia.
Whatever your reason for visiting Magnetic Island, whether you’re looking for an island getaway or a low cost option to see the Great Barrier Reef, I highly recommend considering it as an option. It’s a wonderful and welcoming island with plenty of activities to keep you entertained while keeping you relaxed at the same time.