Cairns and Magnetic Island
Average temperature: September (Spring): 30 degrees Celsius
Recommended Stay: 3-4 nights
The next stop along our East Coast road trip was Cairns and then Magnetic Island. Three to four days should be plenty of time to do everything in Cairns, since you’re most likely visiting for the adventure tourism rather than the city itself. In all honesty, Cairns the city isn’t all that special. It’s fairly small, but it’s beyond the city that you’ll find everything you’ve been dreaming about when you think of Australia.
Great Barrier Reef: You’re thinking yeah, of course that’s on my list! And it should be. For a very good reason. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the world and is as incredible as you’ve imagined it to be. I highly recommend Ocean Freedom for your tour for a few reasons. Their staff is hilarious, helpful, caring, and will go out of their way to ensure you have an awesome day. They’ll feed you delicious food, snacks, fresh fruit, and dessert throughout the day, and they have access to better spots on the reef than most other tour companies. Check out trip advisor if you’re still unsure.
If you’ve ever dreamed about going scuba diving before, this is the place to do it. As you may have heard, much of the Great Barrier Reef is slowly becoming bleached from climate change. If you go on the right day, with decent visibility, it truly is a spectacular place to have your first scuba diving experience, as I did. And if you’re nervous about the idea all together, or are scared sh*tless of sharks, I wouldn’t even worry. If I can do it, then you can too. When you do an introductory dive, each instructor will have two divers each, and they will literally hold your hand the entire dive. You have to pass a couple of quick and painless “tests” in the water before they let you fully dive, but these are simple if you listen to the safety briefing. If you finish your dive and you’re not completely stoked about the idea of doing it again, I’d be pretty surprised. There’s something about breathing underwater and getting that close to the most famous reef in the world that gives you a new appreciation for the ocean.
Where to stay? The most popular hostel for backpackers is in the centre of Cairns and it’s called Gilligans. I won’t sugar coat it, it is quite the party hostel, but it’s still fun even if you want to hit the hay early like we did each night. The hostel probably fits about 500+ people, and the pool and bar will make you feel like you’re in Las Vegas. If you’re looking to meet other travellers, or you’re looking for a social atmosphere, this is a great place to stay. It’s clean, it has a kitchen, semi-decent air conditioning, and there’s lots of activities you can do at the hostel, or book through the hostel both day and night.
Food and Drink: We mostly bought groceries and cooked in the hostel. There may be a few hidden gems in the area for food, but we decided to save a bit of money this time around.
Visit the night market: At night, if you stroll around near the lagoon (next to the ocean), you’ll come across a really neat night market where you can get clothing, food, and cheap massages. Definitely worth a visit if markets are up your alley.
Hike to the Behana Gorge Waterfalls in Wooroonooran National Park: This is less of a “hike” and more of a hilly walk on concrete, although locals will try to tell you otherwise. Hopefully you have a car with you at the time because the trailhead is roughly 25 minutes from Cairns. The trail feels a bit like a roller coaster as is rolls up and down over the hills. If you’re like me, you’ll be nice and sweaty when you reach the top, ready to dive into the fresh water pools. There’s nothing in the water, so don’t be alarmed when you realize that you can’t see the bottom. The water will definitely be a lot chillier than the tropical ocean temperatures in Cairns, but I promise you’ll be happy when the hike is over.
Drive to Port Douglas for the day: As you drive up the coast you’ll find this quaint seaside town after you pass aqua coloured beaches along the way. Tan at 4 mile beach then head to the main drag for lunch afterward. On your drive back, stop at one of the deserted beaches and go for another swim in the ocean.
Average Temperature: September (Spring): 32 degrees Celsius
Average Stay: 2-3 nights
Tucked away off the coast of Townsville sits a tropical island getaway only accessible by ferry: Magnetic Island. Although Magnetic Island only takes 35 minutes to reach by boat, you will feel as though you are a million miles away from the rush of the city and the routine of a normal travel destination. In other words, if you want to escape the coast and experience a genuine small town destination with zero timeline, this is the place to visit.
Where to stay: If you’re on a backpackers budget, I highly recommend Base Magnetic. This hostel is located right on the water, and has a pool, outdoor bar, and very friendly staff. The bungalows will make you feel like you’re back in summer camp, but if you’re lucky enough to score a room that overlooks the water, you’ll be laughing.
Rent a car: If you’re smart, you will already have a car to take on the ferry with you because you’re driving down the East coast. If not, it’s fairly easy to rent a car once you get to the island. Either way, you’ll want some form of transportation to get around with whilst on the island; it’s not as small as you might think. That way, you can drive to all of the nearby beaches and beach hop the entire day. Otherwise, you’ll be looking at a three hour walk to the other side of the island.
Visit the Forts: There’s a 1.6km round trip walk to an area called “The Forts”, where you can see wild koalas in the trees. Need I say more?
Beach hop between Radical Bay and Arthur Bay: The road leading to both these bays begins right next to the trailhead to The Forts. You can park at the top and venture along the 6km round trip walk, or, alternatively, if you have an off road vehicle, you can brave the potholes and drive to each bay (if you’re renting a crummy car, I’d think twice before going this route). Start with Radical Bay, the furthest away, and then make your way to Arthur Bay, which is more secluded and a little more tropical looking. Even for Vancouver standards, this hike is pretty hilly, so wear runners and pack sandals for the beach (or thongs, as they call them here).
Eating out: Like most islands, and like Australia in general, eating out can add up really quickly. Some restaurants can end up costing you around $25 per person, even without alcohol. If you want to stay within your budget while on the island, grocery shop before you leave Townsville and cook most of your meals at the hostel (grocery stores are more expensive on the island). You’ll save lots of money, and you’ll avoid having to choose between a limited number of restaurants each meal. If you do eat out, try either Man Friday’s (Mexican), or Thai Again, which are both within a couple kilometres of the hostel. Both are also BYOB (Man Friday’s will charge you $3.50 per person for this, where as if you sit outside at Thai Again, you can definitely get away with pouring your own alcohol into your water glass. Just make sure you’re drinking something that looks a bit like water). Thai Again: Approx $18 for one meal. Man Friday’s: Approximately $22 per meal.
Catch the sunset at Hawkings Point: From the hostel, drive 5 minutes (or walk 35) to the trailhead. From here, you’ll have to hike 600 meters uphill to the viewpoint. Get there 15 or so minutes before the sunset time and watch the sun descend over the entire island.