When considering the many holiday spots on Queensland’s coastline, the most urban area north of the Sunshine Coast is sometimes overlooked. But with more than 300 sunny days a year, world-class diving locations nearby, and a range of up-and-coming restaurants and bars, Townsville is definitely worth a second glance.
It’s located on the traditional lands of the Bindal, Wulgurukaba, Girrugubba, Warakamai and Nawagi people, and today Townsville’s centre sits in the shadow of a giant outcrop of pink granite known as Castle Hill. Nature reserve Magnetic Island is only a 20-minute ferry ride away, and it’s effectively a suburb of Townsville.
As things are quite spread out and the climate is warm year-round, dockless e-scooters are great for getting around. Consider buying a multi-day pass if you’re staying for a while.
Shorts are always part of the dress code in sunny Townsville, even in the fine diners, and like much of North Queensland there’s an Asian influence to be found in much of the city’s dining options.
Riverside restaurant A Touch Of Salt provides a touch of elegance in this sometimes rowdy town, with a lovely outdoor dining area surrounded by pedestrian-only paths. Mediterranean and East Asian influences sit side by side on a menu that features an extensive (and inventive) selection of plant-based options including carrot “chorizo”, koji eggplant, and radish and cabbage dumplings.
You can look out towards the tropical playground of Magnetic Island from just about anywhere on the 2.2 kilometre esplanade known as the Strand, but the island views are improved immeasurably with a cocktail in hand on the breezy upper deck at The Shorehouse. You’ll need to book ahead on weekends, but nab a table and you can catch a glimpse of “Maggie” through waving palm trees while perusing the pan-Asian menu, featuring dishes like spanner crab panipuri with finger lime and saffron; fragrant chicken larb; or Thai-style salad with watermelon and pork belly.
For an icy treat and a seat in the shade of a large banyan tree, head to local favourite Juliette’s. Local produce is baked into the cakes, muffins and slices that are made in-house here every day, but the real drawcard is found in the freezer cabinet where there are 24 flavours of gelato and sorbet. Standouts include the lychee and lime gelato and the tart, refreshing mojito sorbet.
If you do make it over to Magnetic Island (and you really should) you’ll find the dining options are limited. The pick of the bunch is undoubtedly Cafe Nourish in sleepy Horseshoe Bay. Here you can watch the waves roll in while enjoying a fresh watermelon, lemon and mint frappe and a breakfast plate piled high with mushrooms and greens.
If you can ignore the fact that everyone’s wearing shorts year-round, Hoi Polloi is the kind of cafe that would be right at home in the middle of Melbourne. Found in a heavily graffitied laneway, this hole-in-the-wall coffee shop is furnished with op shop finds and, on Friday and Saturday nights, it doubles as a bar with live music and beer on tap.
Though it sits in the heart of XXXX and Great Northern country, Townsville has a growing number of craft beer options. Tiny Mountain sits in a former mini Moke repair shop where the industrial fans are always on and the 12 taps include a thirst-quenching kettle sour with seasonal fruits like passionfruit, orange and guava, and a deliciously smooth oatmeal stout that goes down surprisingly well in the tropical heat.
Escaping the heat is a constant task, whether that’s with a cold drink in hand or a dip in the pool. At the Ville’s swim-up Splash Bar you can combine the two. If you’re not staying at the resort, you can buy a day pass to the ocean-view pool. From there it’s a simple choice between hard seltzers and any of the half dozen luridly coloured frozen cocktails on offer. When the views are this good, why not work your way through the menu and stay all day?
Tucked discreetly between the beer barns that dominate the main drag of Flinders Street is Hooch & Fellow, which operates at an altogether different pace. It’s all exposed brick walls and dim lighting here. You can order classic cocktails or five or so house inventions that rotate regularly to make the most of fresh produce. If in doubt, the $10 hooch and juice is always a good decision.
Drawing inspiration from Palm Springs and the Caribbean, the Ville is an expansive casino hotel located on a stretch of coast next to the town’s port. Guest rooms, restaurants and a palm-fringed pool all take advantage of the dreamy sunset views out over the Coral Sea to Magnetic Island. And the hotel’s light colour scheme and airy common areas reinforce the tropical getaway vibes.
To take things up a notch, and off the mainland, Orpheus Island Resort is an all-inclusive luxury accommodation surrounded by reefs and national park. Just 800 metres away, Pelorus Island has access to the same gorgeous landscapes, both above and below water, but is completely undeveloped and has several spots where you can camp on the cheap (though you’ll need to bring everything with you, including fresh water).
This stretch of coast may not be as famous as the areas further north and south, but because the reef is deeper around Townsville it is generally in better condition and is a playground for some of the best diving opportunities around. Plus, there are a few man-made additions, which help make it more fun. The Museum of Underwater Art includes an underwater garden that is slowly being colonised by sea life, and the wrecked SS Yongala is considered one of the best wreck dives in the world for large marine life.
Ever since Butler’s Health Resort opened in the 1880s, Magnetic Island has been a place people visit to get healthy. Dominated by national park, the island’s coast is full of great snorkelling spots, while a series of hikes link otherwise inaccessible bays and lookout towers in the island’s interior. But the most memorable way to get around is in one of the many open-top jeeps available for hire. Just make sure you frontload your road trip playlists – you’ll only have the wind blowing through your hair for 10 kilometres, from the ferry terminal at Picnic Bay to the end of the road at Horseshoe Bay (and some companies will let you take the unsealed road in the other direction to watch the sunset from West Point).