Townsville is the gateway to a natural wonderland of north Queensland flora and fauna, writes Judy Bailey.
One of the truly wonderful things about travel is the delightful surprises around every corner. Townsville is one of those surprises.
I had thought maybe Townsville would be a bit frontier-ish, a bit rough and ready and populated by cattlemen and miners on leave from the interior. (Mt Isa is only a day's drive inland, not far by Aussie standards.) What I find is quite the opposite.
Townsville is on the move. It's a young person's town, full of backpackers seeking adventure and young families seeking a sound start in life. It's wealthy, its affluent suburbs boasting the highest annual income in the state.
This is the town that gave birth to WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. It is a cultured town with a wealth of historic buildings, a town that is home to James Cook University, a world leader in the fields of marine and tropical biology. It is also a town that has seen its fair share of devastating cyclones sweep in from the Coral Sea.
It was a cyclone, though, that led to the redevelopment of the town's waterfront. Tony Mooney, then Mayor, was a man of vision. "If we're going to redevelop this," he said, "it's got to be momentous."
Well, it is. With the stunning backdrop of Magnetic Island sitting enticingly just a 20-minute ferry ride away, a tropical garden now graces the foreshore, dotted with exotic banyan figs, their above-ground roots forming intriguing sculptures.
There is a great free mini water park for the kids and a huge ocean-fed pool for those who want to avoid the dreaded stingers in the summer months.
Then there are the restaurants with spectacular views and equally spectacular food.
A keen snorkeller, I head to Townsville's Reef HQ. This is the place to come if you want to learn about the Great Barrier Reef. It's the world's largest living reef aquarium and the national education centre for the reef. It offers reef video conferencing where a diver with a camera and a communication mask takes the reef into classrooms all over the world, talking directly to kids while underwater.
Reef HQ's mission is to teach the world about conservation, about the dangers to marine life from plastic rubbish and about the threats to the reef from global warming, coastal development and illegal fishing.
Quite possibly because I'm a Kiwi, director Fred Nucifora tells me the Great Barrier Reef's size is the equivalent of 70 million rugby fields. Unlike a rugby field, it's one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet and much of that diversity can be seen at Reef HQ; you'll probably see more species here in a morning than you will in several dives out on the reef itself.
I see hammerhead sharks, red-toothed triggerfish, crown-of-thorns starfish, lionfish, deadly stone fish, they're all there.
Fred's team runs a leopard shark breeding programme. Apparently I'm to swim with the sharks - and not from the safety of a cage. "No worries," says Fred, "they're the puppy dogs of the shark world."
I'm tentative as I slip into the tank. Of course the big male comes to check me out; he's a couple of metres long and intimidating with that shark mouth of his grinning grimly. But he's just curious. Soon I warm to the experience of this underwater show. It's surprising how quickly I feel comfortable with the sharks swimming around me.
I spend a happy few minutes snorkelling and then Fred invites me to feed the sharks. I sit on a duckboard, my feet dangling in the pool, holding a small fish. The shark comes from nowhere and launches himself onto my knee. I hadn't counted on this being quite such an intimate dinner. He inhales the fish and then slips away. I hold out another fish, but this time he returns and wraps his considerable jaws around my thigh. Maybe he's a leg man. Fortunately, a leopard shark's teeth are not like the teeth of other sharks. They're tiny, so no great threat, but he doesn't seem to want to let go. A quick tap on the nose from Fred though, and he gets the message.
The waters around Townsville are alive with turtles, and the sick or injured end up in Reef HQ's turtle hospital. The research done here is vital as not much is known about turtle ailments.
If you're planning a trip to the reef, Reef HQ is a fascinating place to visit.
Another of Townsville's gems is the quaintly named, Town Common Conservation Park. Just 10 minutes' drive from the town centre, it's like a mini Kakadu with a sprawling wetland in the shadow of the towering Many Peaks Range. The indigenous people called this place home more than 5000 years ago. Now it's the birds who rule and there are hundreds of them - ospreys, magpie geese, black-winged stilts even the spangled drongo. You have to love the spangled drongo, a perky little bird with wonderful iridescent blue and green spangles around its neck.
My guide Tony O'Connor was born and bred in Townsville and is passionate about this wonderland in his backyard. He says the blossoming of the trees told the Aboriginal people where and when to hunt. When the wattles are in flower, the mud crabs are full of flesh.
Tony and I watch the sun go down on the common, gazing in companionable silence as the sky turns pink then orange, the reeds bright green in the fading light. It's a magical end to a day of memorable experiences.
The Great Barrier Reef
Stretching more than 2300km along the Queensland coastline, the Great Barrier Reef is accessible from various areas, including the Townsville region.
Townsville is the centre for learning about the Great Barrier Reef, with Reef HQ inviting guests to visit the world's largest living coral reef aquarium. This award-winning tourist attraction is the education facility for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and home to thousands of fish, corals and North Queensland's first dedicated turtle hospital.
From Townsville or Magnetic Island, you can take a snorkel or dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Magnetic Island offers fringing reef, accessible from the beach for snorkellers with guided snorkel trails. Experienced divers can visit the SS Yongala, a 28m-deep shipwreck south of Townsville. Rated one of the world's top 10 dive wrecks, the SS Yongala is home to hard and soft coral and marine life including sea turtles, sea anemone and inquisitive reef fish.
Try the great restaurants and bars on The Strand, looking out to the Port of Townsville and Magnetic Island, as well as views stretching all the way to Cape Cleveland.
The Brewery: Once home to the Townsville Post Office, Townsville Brewing Company is now a pub and brewery offering Townsville Bitter, Bandito Loc and Diggers Golden Ale. Don't forget to try the food!
For relaxing waterfront views try the Long Board Bar and Grill, or C Bar, both on the Strand. They are great spots to relax, lunch or watch the sun set.
Watermark Restaurant on the Strand has a modern Australian menu highlighting the abundance of fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables. Offering a twist on modern Australian cuisine, the menu provides guests with the opportunity to taste the flavours of North Queensland. The desserts have a South American influence and the tres leches dessert is not to be missed.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Fly there with Air New Zealand. Book now.
Find out more at: Australia.com.