At picturesque horseshoe Bay on Magnetic Island, five miles (8 km) off the tropical northern coast of Queensland, Australia, a young koala scampers past astonished picnickers, prompting the exclamation, "That's the fastest I've ever seen a koala move!" The young marsupial's speed is a real eye-opener for anyone used to thinking of koalas as eternally somnolent gray shapes, dwelling motionless in the branches of eucalyptus trees. But then one of the attractions of holidaying so close to one of the largest wild colonies of koalas in the country is the chance to witness such atypical behavior.
Koalas were first introduced to the island in the 1930s. Their habitats on the Australian mainland were shrinking, and their numbers were being reduced by disease and attacks from feral dogs and domestic cats. They have been thriving in their insular haven ever since. The popular 90-minute trek to Magnetic Island's decaying World War II forts offers probably the best chance of spotting them. You can also cuddle them, for a fee, at a local koala sanctuary. (For more travel tips and stories visit time.com/travel.)
Set within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, this ruggedly beautiful Coral Sea isle was dubbed Magnetic Island in 1770 when Lieut. James Cook, sailing past in H.M. Bark Endeavour, noticed the ship's compass going haywire. In fact, Cook bestowed colorful names on many landmarks along Australia's eastern seaboard, such as Mount Warning and the Glass House Mountains, and the names remain. The population of the island has changed, however, and very few descendants of the original inhabitants — the Wulgurukaba, or "canoe people," who knew their home as Yunbenun — are counted in the current population of just over 2,100.
Visiting Maggie Island, as it's known, is easy. It's a mere 20-minute ferry ride from mainland Townsville — an exhilarating crossing when gusty summer trade winds blow — and there's plenty of holiday accommodation available, including the usual backpacker places. A recent addition, Peppers Blue on Blue Resort at Nelly Bay, www.peppers.com.au, adds a slicker option, complete with lagoon pool and day spa.
Beyond the numerous sand-fringed azure bays, the terrain is heavily forested (but don't expect rainforest — this is the dry tropics). Just over half of this 12,810-acre (5,184 hectare) island is national park, and ramblers will love the 15 miles (24 km) of walking tracks. Another way of getting around is the reliable local bus service, but many visitors hire a Mini Moke — a topless vehicle that features natural air-conditioning, so prepare to be windblown. If you want to get on the water, there are tours of the coral reefs around the island — ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving — or you can catch a boat out to the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.
A day trip from the mainland is fine, but you shouldn't be surprised if you're taken by the urge to linger longer. Magnetic Island is a place of powerful attractions.