Drawn to Magnetic Island

Australian resort has a strong attraction, even for off-season guests

ONE of life's peak experiences has got to be riding a horse right into the ocean and having him stand, chest-deep in the water, snorting with delight.

Chester's back was slick with water and warm from the ride we'd just taken through fields and pungent Australian bush. As I looked around at the cove and the pale-blue Pacific stretching before us, I thought I could stay there forever.

Too soon, the other riders and I had to put jeans and shoes back on over our "swimmers," yank up some grass to feed our friends, and canter home.

The two-hour ride, offered by Bluey's stables (US$17) is one of the many pleasures that Magnetic Island offers. This tiny North Queensland island is so close to Townsville (a 20-minute ferry ride) that some of its 2,500 residents commute to work on the mainland. But it doesn't feel suburban at all.

My visit was a little early to have the kind of tropical-paradise experience that's fairly guaranteed during the dry months (April through November). The day was overcast and the water choppy, which ruled out an all-day Great Barrier Reef excursion. Box jellyfish, with their long, almost invisible stinging filaments, are also a hazard. Of 30 beaches on the island, only Alma Bay is safe for swimming in "stinger" season.

But the off-season has its charms, such as fewer people and still plenty of things to do. I had one day to spend on the island and had packed it full: riding, a koala reserve visit, and an island tour. At the end of the ferry ride from Townsville, a tour bus waited. The driver took my bag and asked what my plans were. I gave him the list, and he ran it through his mental computer. "We'll get you there," he said. For $3.75 I got the grand tour, including pickup and drop-off at my various destinations. I c ould also have rented a car or a "moke" (a small, open-air car), but this was much more fun.

The bus took us up and down hills and valleys, dipping in here to look at a tree, stopping there to examine a bay. Mt. Cook stands in the middle of the island, rising to 497 meters (1,630 ft.). It's surrounded by granite boulders, hoop pines, eucalyptus trees, small patches of rain forest, and paperbark trees (their bark, the guide tells us, was used by Aborigines to swaddle infants).

The island's National Park is criss-crossed by 14 miles of walking trails. It's a haven for such wildlife as rock wallabies, possums, koalas, and a wide variety of birds.

Small businesses catering to tourists are set up on the beach. If you wanted to learn to sail, water-ski, para-fly, jet-ski, sail board, surf-ski, or scuba dive, you could do it all right here. All-day reef trips and a variety of cruises are also available.

There are a number of shipwrecks around the island to explore. Most were sunk on purpose to shelter moorings or jetties. But others crashed on the rocks. The most famous is the Yongala, off Cape Bowling Green, which sank during a cyclone in 1911 with 120 passengers on board. It is 90 meters (295 ft.) long and lies in about 30 meters (98 ft.) of water. A fascinating array of coral and marine life are said to live in and around it.

My bus stopped at the Koala Park Oasis. It's a small, well-kept place, with caged cockatoos that squawk "Hello, darling!" One black cockatoo is 125 years old, or so says the sign. You can feed the rainbow lorikeets, gorgeous small green parrots emblazoned with crimson and blue.

One very large enclosure contains kangaroos and wallabies. They were asleep when our little group tiptoed in and didn't wake up when we stroked their heads. The literature for Koala Park says you can hold koalas at certain times, but no one was there to show us how. A gardener finally came up and put towels on our crossed arms and shoulders and lifted "Buttercup" up for a cuddle. Actually, Buttercup, who was born in captivity and does not mind being held, reached out before the towels were in place. She was a soft little gray bundle whose fur belied a coiled strength.

Had I time, I would have walked the reef at Geoffrey Bay and watched feeding time at Shark World in Nelly Bay.

Unlike other islands near the Great Barrier Reef, Magnetic Island is not a playground for the wealthy. Here, accommodations range from backpackers' hostels to motels to self-contained units to resorts with pools, spas, and tennis courts. The place attracts families.

I tried out a backpacker's hostel, remembering their conviviality from days trekking through Europe in college. Rock Wallaby was recommended as a place that attracts a wide variety of travelers. It was a clean, friendly place with a pool, a volleyball net, a dining hall-pub with a veranda, and a separate cook house for those who want to fix their own meals.

Private cabins are available, but I opted to share an A-frame cabin with two pleasant young Swedish women. It could have felt crowded had all six beds been filled, but with three it felt spacious. There were so few other guests that the manager invited me to share her table at dinner (hamburger and French fries, $2) with her and her international staff.

Because of the recession and the off-season, deals abounded. My room-and-ferry package cost $12. Normally, the ferry alone is $15. A more upscale resort hotel, Latitude 19, also had good deals: $20 a night per person (double occupancy), including ferry. Latitude 19 also has the generous policy of inviting people who aren't staying at the resort to use its pool and facilities.

The island got its name when Capt. James Cook in 1770 found his "compass would not travis well when near it." A later expedition found the island made of granite and quartz reefs - definitely nonmagnetic. The morning I had to leave, however, when I was walking down the gangplank to the ferry, it became oddly harder and harder to pick up my feet and go home.

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