Townsville is often overlooked because it has fewer tourist attractions than Cairns, which is 170 mi/275 km to the northwest. But it also has fewer tourists, which means it feels more like a typical Australian town than a mecca for travelers headed to the Great Barrier Reef.

At least a one-day stop is warranted there just to see the Great Barrier Reef Wonderland, an aquarium that contains a re-created coral reef. Under artificial conditions, the aquarium fosters 150 different species of coral and nearly 200 species of sea life. In addition, the city has a lively casino, several museums and a botanical garden.

Townsville is also close to Magnetic Island, which is only 5 mi/8 km and a short ferry ride away. (It's considered almost a suburb.) The island offers a wide variety of accommodations and restaurants, beaches and coves (part of the island is a national park). Plan at least one day on Magnetic Island.

About 90 minutes west of Townsville is Charters Towers, an old gold-mining town that claims to be the east coast's beginning of the Outback.

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