Visit Australia’s most amazing new museum, take a ferry trip to a tropical island and more in this thriving hub of Far North Queensland.
Australia’s first ever underwater museum creates another reason to visit Townsville – a vibrant coastal city already full to the brim with tropical holiday potential. Check in for amazing Great Barrier Reef experiences, dreamy island escapes and laid-back beach vibes aplenty.
Townsville’s new Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA) is the only museum of its kind in the southern hemisphere. Comprised of four intriguing installations designed by world-renowned underwater sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, MOUA is all about highlighting reef conservation, restoration and education while sharing the stories of the region’s First Nations people.
Its inaugural installation Ocean Siren is located at The Strand on Townsville’s foreshore. Rising from the water, it is modelled on Takoda Johnson, a young Indigenous girl from the Wulgurukaba tribe, and changes colour in response to live variations in water temperature.
The second installation, Coral Greenhouse, is located on the John Brewer Reef two hours’ boat ride from Townsville. It is populated with 20 ‘reef guardians’ who instigate natural coral growth and visitors are invited to snorkel or dive to view them.
No trip to Townsville is complete without taking the short 20-minute ferry ride out to magical Magnetic Island (Yunbenun). This patch of tropical paradise is home to a thriving community of 2500 and a sense of its serene, laid-back lifestyle hits you the moment you step ashore.
Set within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and rich in Indigenous heritage, the island is famed for its beautiful bays and beaches, snorkelling trails on fringing coral and plentiful hiking trails through a mountainous interior of eucalypt woodland and granite boulders (you’ll learn some intriguing Second World War history via the popular Forts Walk).
And that’s not to mention it’s also home to northern Australia’s largest wild koala colony. A visit to Bungalow Bay Koala Park will ensure an up-close-and-personal experience with these furry friends.
Other activities you can do while here include horse riding, jet skiing, fishing, water sports and setting off on a sailing or diving expedition (check out Big Mama Sailing and Pleasure Divers). One of the best ways to absorb all Magnetic Island has to offer is on tour with Aquascene or by hiring a fun ‘topless’ car from Tropical Topless.
And if one day just isn’t enough, then check in for an overnight stay. Accommodation options range from easy breezy CStay Guest House to the small boutique resort of Island Leisure Resort, with its Polynesian-style bures, to the elegant Peppers Blue on Blue Resort.
Head to the award-winning Museum of Tropical Queensland in the heart of town for a snapshot of the dazzlingly diverse North Queensland region and its rich cultural and natural heritage. Through family-friendly exhibitions and displays, you’ll learn everything about life in the tropics from prehistory through to today. Key exhibition points include the World Heritage-listed rainforest and reefs at Townsville’s doorstep and the compelling story of the shipwrecked HMS Pandora. Sent to Tahiti to capture the Bounty mutineers, the ship struck the Great Barrier Reef and sank on its return journey in 1791. A replica is mounted in the museum’s Great Gallery, along with objects recovered from the wreck – which wasn’t discovered for 186 years.
Note: The museum is closed for roof works until early 2021.
Next door to the Museum of Tropical Queensland, Reef HQ Aquarium is the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium. Head here to learn all there is to know about the Great Barrier Reef and its incredible world of curious marine creatures – without getting wet. The complex boasts windows onto the reef and a ‘reef tunnel’ you can walk through to spot some of the 300-plus species that are known to make an appearance here. Reef HQ Aquarium runs daily tours and talks (currently suspended) including shark and reef fish feeding. Don’t miss the chance to take a tour of the Turtle Hospital to see how sick and injured turtles are cared for.
5. Take a sunset hike for jaw-dropping views
Castle Hill is a heritage-listed pink granite monolith, or inselberg (and also a suburb of the same name) that presides over the city skyline. Hiking it in time for sunset is one of the most rewarding things you can do in Townsville: its panoramic views over the city and out to the ocean to Magnetic Island are spectacular.
There are several trails you can take to get to the top, including the short, sweet but very steep Goat Track, which sets off from Hillside Crescent just outside of the CBD, and the most popular Cudtheringa Track, accessed from the bottom of Castle Hill Road in North Ward. With steep and challenging beginning and end sections, this 1.1-kilometre one-way trail enjoys a moderate midsection with breathtaking views.
6. Hit up Townsville’s thriving beach foreshore
A 2.2-kilometre parkway where palm trees practically kiss the ocean, The Strand is Townsville’s thriving beach foreshore.
With lovely views out to Magnetic Island and dappled with shady spots, this is the place to while away some time any time of day. Enjoy breakfast with a view at Strand View Cafe, a gelato on the grass from Juliette’s Gelateria, a Mediterranean-style lunch at Odyssey on the Strand and a fish and chip dinner on the beach (pick up some takeaway from Tobin Fish Tales just a few blocks back in North Ward).
Also on The Strand, you’ll find family fun in the shape of playgrounds and the popular Strand Waterpark, rock pools to swim in and the Jezzine Barracks at the northern end, where you’ll get an insight into the stories of Townsville’s settlement.
7. Go chasing waterfalls in Paluma Range National Park
Head north out of town from Townsville to get deep within Paluma Range National Park, the southern gateway to the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. Within an hour or so you’ll hit Little Crystal Creek, an oasis favoured by weekending Townsville locals.
Swim in the freshwater creek fed by a pretty cascading waterfall and framed by a heritage-listed stone arch bridge built in the 1930s depression era. It’s the perfect place to cool down on a hot summer’s day in the tropics.
Half an hour further north lies rainforest-encased Jourama Falls. This scenic spot sees Waterview Creek tumble down cascades and rapids, creating crystal-clear rock pools to soak in and refreshing falls to shower under. With birds, turtles and goannas attracted to the creek, it’s a top spot for wildlife watching too.
Follow the three-kilometre return Jourama Falls track for a moderate bushwalk that rewards with views out over the falls and rainforest and pitch a tent at the popular camping spot if you fancy soaking in the serenity some more.
Since opening in 2018 in South Townsville, Bridgewater has become Townsville’s dining hotspot and in 2020 it earnt its first chef’s hat. Be sure to make a reservation here for modern Australian cuisine in a contemporary, coastal-inspired space overlooking the river.
Dishes include entrees of Townsville half-shell scallops with soy pumpkin, pickled fennel and candied ginger; mains like King George whiting, tossed Asian greens and mushrooms and desserts of caramel parfait, bee pollen crumb and glazed pear. Or opt for a five-course degustation with or without wine pairing.
Bridgewater is the latest venture from renowned chef Matt Merrin (along with chef Ty Samuel), who also operates the award-winning and hatted restaurant JAM Corner, located just a block away.
9. Explore one of the most incredible dive sites on the planet
Off the coast of Townsville lies one of the most unique experiences you can have on the Great Barrier Reef. The S.S. Yongala, a passenger ship that hit a cyclone and sank en route from Melbourne to Cairns in 1911, is one of the largest and most intact historic shipwrecks in Australian waters. Today the coral-encrusted wreck is regarded as one of the best dives on the planet due to its proliferation and sheer size of marine life you’ll encounter there – including giant gropers and giant trevally and schools of barracudas, eagle rays, turtles, sea snakes and bull sharks. Certified divers (minimum open water diver with six logged dives) can join a day trip from Townsville with the likes of Adrenalin Snorkel Dive.
Beginners can head 1.5 hours south of Townsville to Alva Beach in Ayr to enroll on a diving course with Yongala specialist and PADI 5 Star Dive Resort Yongala Dive. Here, you’re all but guaranteed one of the most amazing training grounds on the planet. Certified divers can take Yongala Dive up on its adventure-centric day trip to the wreck.
For your chance to hold a koala (Queensland is one of just three states along with South Australia and Western Australia that permits this), hug a wombat, hand-feed a cassowary, hold a small crocodile or indeed watch the feeding of giant estuarine croc or saltie, head to Billabong Sanctuary 17 kilometres south of Townsville in Nome. This ecotourism accredited sanctuary is set against 11 hectares of tropical North Queensland bushland and provides one of the best interactive wildlife experiences you can find in Australia.
Between animal experiences, stop for a bite to eat at Blinky Bill’s Cafe and take a dip at the resort’s tropical resort-style swimming pool.