Town for all seasons
A gateway to rainforest, reef and outback
Air Nuigini is now flying between Port Moresby and Townsville, but if convenience and a quick connection aren’t reasons enough to head for this chilled Australian outpost then consider a few other facts.
Townsville is northern Australia’s biggest settlement with a regional population just under 300,000, guaranteeing the destination offers shopping choices, dining possibilities, a sports scene, cultural encounters, and an events calendar to rival what’s found in some state capitals down south.
The city serves as a gateway to rainforest, reef, and outback – the Paluma Range National Park is a 45-minute drive north, the Great Barrier Reef two hours east by boat, and Charters Towers 90 minutes south by road – with visitors spending just three days in town able to experience a trio of different, and uniquely Australian, environments.
But, perhaps best of all, is that this quiet corner of the Queensland coast enjoys more than 320 days of sunshine every year, making it the ideal location to holiday when clear skies are a prerequisite.
The dry-season months that mark winter in Australia’s tropical north are delightfully tepid and when clouds roll across neighbouring locations – like Cairns, 350 kilometres north and Airlie Beach, a three-hour motor south – Townsville will be basking below a flawless blue dome.
Even during Cyclone Debbie, the fierce 2017 weather system that dropped biblical amounts of rain on Queensland all the way from Hamilton Island to the Gold Coast in a few very damp days, Townsville only received several millimetres of precipitation.
All this sunshine makes it easy to get outside with locals routinely savouring seaside picnics in a park on The Strand, pedalling the beachside boardwalk to neighbouring Pallarenda, hiking to Castle Hill’s scenic summit, sunset sailing, alfresco drinking and dining, doing sunrise yoga, and snorkelling above coral reefs.
It’s the winter sunshine that draws Sydneysiders Clare and Paul Ley north every year. They navigate their elegant 17-metre yacht
Pilgrim to Magnetic Island – the Townsville ‘suburb’ a 20-minute ferry ride across the sparkling Coral Sea – and spend dry-season days taking visitors on sailing adventures.
They initially set sail for Hamilton Island, but decided to continue north on a recommendation from friends, and knew they had found their winter playground after rounding the Cape Cleveland Lighthouse.
The seafaring pair now offers lunchtime cruises to secluded bays, where the crew prepares a barbecue lunch, while guests swim from the yacht or stroll along the sand, and longer voyages that circumnavigate Magnetic Island to take in the beaches along the lonely north coast that sits inside the boundary of the Magnetic Island National Park.
I join them for a twilight sail and, after leaving the ship’s berth in the Nelly Bay marina, I settle into a beanbag seat below the mast to sip a local beer, while Pilgrim darts across Cleveland Bay before turning to sail towards the setting sun.
The city serves as a gateway to rainforest, reef, and outback.
The sky is gold, with the setting sun dropping a carpet of sparkles on the water beyond the yacht’s bow, and the breeze is blowing just hard enough to tilt the yacht to port as she races across the whitecaps towards Cape Pallarenda.
But there’s more to my north Queensland encounter than a sunset sail and – aside from a visit to the Turtle Hospital at Reef HQ, which is the Townsville aquarium that serves as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s education centre – I rarely settle inside except to sleep.
I join long-time local Nick Dametto for a jet-ski tour that follows the coast past Kissing Point to Pallarenda, linger over a long alfresco lunch in a park on The Strand prepared by Pineapple Picnics, and spend Saturday night at City Lane enjoying the vibe after the local NRL team, the North Queensland Cowboys, wins another home game.
Townsville is a military town, with thousands of army and air force troops and their families stationed in and around the city, but men and women in uniform are nothing new with more than 50,000 American and Australian troops stationed here during World War 2, so I take the time one peaceful morning to learn more about this history.
Jezzine Barracks, the park at the northern end of The Strand, was home to battalions of wartime combatants and now there’s a walk in the gardens that offers not only views across the Coral Sea but murals and information plates detailing the role Townsville played in the Pacific War.
There’s another helping of history near Paluma with the stone bridge spanning Little Crystal Creek – a peaceful place where meandering waterfalls carve pools that provide the shady places to paddle on a hot day – built during The Great Depression as part of a program that remunerated unemployed residents to participate in building projects.
After taking a dip at Little Crystal Creek, I decide not to continue along the mountain road, also built by Depression-era labour, to Paluma – the village where cafes and art galleries line the streets and walking trails disappear into the national park rainforests – but return to the flats and the famous Frosty Mango.
This ice-cream shop on the Bruce Highway rests at the heart of an orchard growing all sorts of tropical fruit, which become the key ingredients for the homemade sorbet, and I sit below a palm tree to savour a delicious scoop of macadamia gelato.
Turns out there’s no better way to finish a day that starts with a walk through wartime history than by savouring a single scoop of perfect macadamia ice cream.
All aboard ... the 17- metre Pilgrim (left); skipper Paul Ley (above); Little Crystal Creek (opposite page, right); the 'perfect' macadamia ice cream from Frosty Mango (opposite page, far right).