Whether you want to walk with the wildlife, cheer on the rodeo heroes, or dive a shipwreck, you'll find it all within striking distance of Queensland's northern capital, writes Christina Pfeiffer
1 Waterfront delights
Enjoy Townsville's beachfront by strolling along the Strand, a vibrant recreation area with stretches of green lawn, trees and fountains, large colourful waterslides where children can cool off on hot days and paved areas for power-walkers, rollerbladers and cyclists. Townsville, which has a hinterland of tropical rainforest, is close to historic gold-mining towns, the Outback, islands and the Great Barrier Reef. Go to www.townsvilleholidays.com.au.
2 Pandora's puzzle
Follow the voyage of HMS Pandora at the Museum of Tropical Queensland. In 1791, the ship was sent to capture the Bounty mutineers but sank after hitting the Great Barrier Reef. The Queensland Museum has been excavating the wreck and is piecing together the Pandora puzzle, most of which is displayed in a museum that prides itself on its focus on maritime archaeology. There is a replica of the ship, scenes from the journey and relics dug up from the ocean. Peek into the behind-the-scenes window at the far end of the Great Gallery and watch the taxidermy team at work.
3 Breathless views
The pink granite monolith that towers 286 metres above the city is aptly named Castle Hill and is the place for a bird's-eye view of Townsville and the surrounding area, from Cape Cleveland to Cape Pallarenda. There's a sealed road with vehicle access, along with two main walking tracks that lead to the top. If you're a hiker, take the Goat Track, which starts at Hillside Crescent and leads up the eastern ridge.
4 In the deep
The tropical waters make diving possible all year, and Townsville is the gateway to one of the best scuba-diving sites in Australia, the SS Yongala wreck (www.yongaladive.com.au). The Yongala leans on her starboard side 30 metres below the surface among soft coral trees that sway gently with the current while vibrant fish dart around the wreck. A luxuriously appointed passenger and freight ship, SS Yongala sailed into the eye of a cyclone in 1911, vanished into the ocean and was not discovered until 1958. An open-water certification is the minimum requirement for this dive. If diving is not your forte, you can still go nose-to-nose with reef sharks, stingrays and sea turtles at the world's largest coral reef aquarium, Reef HQ (www.reefhq.com.au). Home to 130 coral and 120 fish species, as well as hundreds of varieties of sea creatures such as starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, worms and sponges, this aquarium is also unique because the environment is open to the elements. Thousands of reef organisms are exposed to natural daylight, moonlight, rain, wind and storms.
5 Breakfast with koalas
Sleep in the forest among the wild koalas at Bungalow Bay and breakfast with the locals. Park rangers from the Wulgurukaba (or canoe people), the island's Aboriginal owners, will introduce you to an assortment of reptiles. They include a sleepy crocodile, a python, a fiery frill-necked lizard
and a blue-tongue skink - and you can hold or touch most of them. The bush breakfast is pretty scrumptious too: help yourself to bacon and eggs, sausages and chops, pan-fried red emperor fish, bush hash browns, blueberry pancakes and billy tea. The meal, along with Squirt the koala staring balefully over your shoulder, is a quintessential Aussie experience. Go to www.bungalowbay.com.au.
6 Bush tucker
Hunt for bush food on nearby Magnetic Island with Aboriginal botanist Warren Whitfield, who will teach you to hone hunting spears with leaves from a 'sandpaper' tree and have you squatting by a creek making bush soap by rubbing leaves on a rock. If you've never tasted green ants, here's your chance to wrap your lips around a tangy morsel that the Aborigines use to treat sore throats, coughs and colds. Magnetic Island is teeming with wildlife and Whitfield knows all the spots for tracking down the koala and the unadorned rock wallaby. Another highlight of the tour is a demonstration of how to make fire by vigorously rubbing a firestick - a skill anyone planning to lose themselves in the bush for a while should learn. For more information on Great Green Way Eco Tours, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pull on your cowboy boots and join the thigh-slapping, whip-cracking locals at Black River Rodeos (www.blackriver stadium.com.au), where an action-packed show stars the best bull-riders, barrel-racers and bareback riders from all over north Queensland. The grandstand, and the hill overlooking the arena, promise 'the best seat in the house' for everyone. And even when the rodeo action ends, the frantic pace continues with a disco until 3am.
8 Cheer on the Cowboys
Sample the electric atmosphere at a National Rugby League match when the mighty North Queensland Cowboys are playing a home game - you'll have as much fun watching the spectators as you will the game. Visit www.cowboys.com.au for information on forthcoming games at the 25,000-capacity Dairy Farmers Stadium.
9 Go for gold
Visit the ghosts of Charters Towers, a beautifully preserved gold-mining town that once boasted a major stock exchange. The Charters Towers Stock Exchange was linked to the world via telegraph, and during the heady days of the gold rush it had a major influence on international financial markets. The Queensland Heritage Trails Network project has kitted out a few of the main historical sites with hi-tech production facilities that bring the gold rush back to life. The Ghosts of Gold Heritage Trail is narrated by ghostly figures that appear as holograms on wide plasma screens. The trail includes One Square Mile (lovingly renovated buildings in the heart of town), the old Stock Exchange, Towers Hill Lookout and the Venus Gold Battery historic gold milling site. Start your evening watching a brilliant sunset with a glass of champagne at the top of Towers Hill. For more information go to www.charterstowers.qld.gov.au.
10 Lap of luxury
Spend a few days in tropical luxury at Orpheus Island Resort, which stands within its own national park just off the coast. Like its namesake, the mythological Greek father of song who could tame wild beasts and coax the trees to dance, Orpheus Island exudes its own brand of magic. Translucent waters lap the shores of palm-fringed bays, themselves full of hundreds of species of fish, clams and coral. The candlelit fresh seafood platter set out on the jetty is a resort trademark, as is the seaplane landing and taking off from the waters around the island. With a maximum of 42 guests and no day-trippers, you'll be waited on hand and foot in your own private tropical paradise. Prices start at A$725 ($4,200) per person per night twin share. Go to www.orpheus.com.au.