Life is sweet in Mackay.
Queensland’s seventh largest city is renowned as the country’s sugar cane capital and produces more than a third of Australia’s cane sugar. The surrounding region is carpeted with emerald green cane fields, crisscrossed by train tracks carrying jaunty red and yellow Thomas-the-Tank-Engine-style cane trains that haul the harvested cane off to the region’s five major sugar mills.
Located on the mid Queensland coast, equidistant from Brisbane and Cairns and less than two hours’ drive from holiday hotspot Airlie Beach, Mackay enjoys excellent air access and acts as a southern gateway to the Whitsunday Coast. However, it’s well worth basing yourself in the city for three or four days and exploring the immediate region. You’ll discover some truly sublime wildlife viewing experiences, beautiful tropical coastline, a burgeoning paddock-to-plate dining scene and more than a few surprises along the way.
Enjoy this Mackay travel guide.
Base yourself: City centre, Mackay Marina, Northern Beaches
Average hotel price per room/per night: AUD $144
Great breakfasts: 9thLane Grind, The Dispensary, Moss on Woods
Awesome coffee: The Grazing Goat Café, 9thLane Grind
Top spots for a beverage: Coco Cubano, Latitude 21, The Paddock & Brew Company
Must-dos: Cape Hillsborough Sunrise with the Wallabies Tour, Fruits of the Region Farm and Tasting Tour, Eungella National Park visit
Judging by the number of grey nomads and their caravans that you’ll see in and around Mackay during June, July and August, it’s clearly no secret that the region is a ripper winter holiday destination. Balmy is the word that springs to mind (the weather, not the grey nomads). Expect tolerable humidity, warm temperate days and cool mild nights. Even though this is the tropics, you will need something warm to put on at night at this time of year. July, August and September are traditionally the driest months of the year.
Summer hits hard with the h-word. Humidity can often be 80% or more. The Wet Season runs from December to March and brings temperatures in the mid 30s and the highest annual rainfall (usually in the afternoon). The upside of braving the hotter conditions is that tourist numbers are lower and you’ll probably pick up a good deal on your accommodation. One surefire way to beat the heat is to head for Mackay’s fabulous Bluewater Lagoon. Located on the northern edge of the CBD, the lagoon features two large tropical-style pool areas, a water slide, kids’ water playground and drop-bucket, and plenty of shaded lawn to relax on.
It’s amazing what you find in regional Australian cities and towns.
In Mackay’s case, it’s a rich trove of Art Deco architecture dotted across the city centre — the result of a rebuilding of the city in the 1920s, 30s and early 40s following a fire and devastating cyclone. Download a guide from the Mackay City Council website and head off to inspect the imposing geometric façade of the old Post Office on River Street, the sublime Pioneer Shire Office on Wood Street, the petite CWA building on Gordon Street, and many others.
For another opportunity to step back in time, head down to the small town of Sarina, located about 30 minutes’ drive south of Mackay. The Sarina Field of Dreams Parkland is home to a collection of restored heritage buildings that now house the Sarina Museum, Art Gallery, and Arts and Crafts Centre. All are staffed by volunteers, so check the website for opening hours.
The Parkland is also where you’ll find the state-of-the-art Mackay Region Visitor Information Centre, which opened in the refurbished Sarina railway station in mid 2018. History buffs will find plenty of intriguing information here, including some background on the practice that was known by the region’s pioneers as ‘blackbirding’. It’s estimated that between the 1860s and early 1900s, some 60,000 indentured labourers were brought to the region from the Pacific, often under duress, to work in the cane fields. Many would never return to their families.
While she went on to become one of the world’s greatest opera singers, performing in the opera houses of Paris, Brussels and London, and for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, it may come as something of a surprise to learn that Dame Nellie Melba (then Helen Porter Mitchell) spent a year of her life living in the Mackay region in the 1880s. Both her father and then-husband worked in the sugar industry. Melba House can be found on the Mackay Eungella Road on the approach to the town of Marian. It houses the Pioneer Valley Visitor Information Centre and a small exhibition on the famous diva.
While mining plays an important role, life in Mackay largely revolves around sugar, so it’s worth getting some insight into the industry during your visit.
It’s not possible to tour any of the region’s sugar mills, but the Sarina Sugar Shed is the next best thing. The award-winning tourist facility offers four tours a day. You’ll learn how the industry has evolved over the decades and see the production process in action, albeit on a small scale. The tour culminates in a tasting of the house-made preserves, liqueurs and schnapps for the adults, and fairy floss for the kids.
For more traditional cultural pursuits, start by dropping into Artspace Mackay. Operated by the Mackay City Council, the gallery stages a diverse annual programme of exhibitions, activities and special events. The striking gallery building is located on Gordon Street and houses three exhibition spaces, a gallery shop and cafe.
The city’s art collection isn’t confined to a building. Mackay’s Bluewater Trail is a ring of recreational assets that essentially encircles the entire city and art lovers will want to explore the section that runs along the Pioneer River at the northern end of the CBD. It’s lined with commissioned public art works from the likes of contemporary Indigenous artists Fiona Foley and Brian Robinson, visual artist Craig Walsh, environment artist Jill Chism, and sculptor Christopher Trotter (who works with discarded scrap metal). At the top end of Wood Street, you’ll notice Foley’s work YUWI. It references the First People of the region — the Yuwibara.
Street art has breathed new life into disused laneways in cities like Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide, and smaller urban centres across the county are catching on fast. Take a stroll down Mackay’s Fifth Lane, which has been transformed from what was probably a no-go zone into a colourful kaleidoscope of creativity. Stop and chat with the mural artists working on-site and discuss their motivation. The Zappar app brings key pieces to life right before your eyes.
Wood Street is Mackay’s dining and café epicentre.
There are lots of options, but here are a few recommendations to check out during your stay.
Slick and sassy, The Dispensary in the heart of Wood Street is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (Tuesday to Saturday). Clearly no expense has been spared on the fit-out and the menu is broad enough to suit everyone. Southern foodies will feel right at home here. Evening specials like roast night on Wednesdays and steak night on Thursdays keep it real.
Next door, The Paddock & Brew Company is a carnivore’s delight. Serving up American-style smoked meat platters, ribs, burgers and the like, there’s also a superb range of tap beers and imported brews. Go hungry.
Just around the corner on Victoria Street, funky Fusion 128 ranks as Mackay’s top eatery on TripAdvisor. As the name would suggest, there’s a blending of culinary styles going on here. Expect Modern Australian with Asian and European influences. The restaurant has live music on certain nights of the week. Owner David is quite the character. We were unsure exactly what to expect when he offered to perform some magic tricks at our table, but wow! He’s good!
Over in the Mackay Marina precinct, Latitude 21 is the inhouse restaurant at the Clarion Hotel Mackay Marina. Even if you are not staying at the hotel, it’s worth pushing the boat out on dinner here. Steaks and seafood are the specialties, and the restaurant has casual elegance. It overlooks the hotel’s pool area and the picturesque marina, with its millions of dollars of boating bling. Take a stroll along the palm-fringed boardwalk after dinner.
Ask any local what the region’s signature dining experience is, and nine times out of ten the answer will be the humble Pinnacle Pub and their famous meat pies. Located at Pinnacle on the Mackay Eungella Road out to Eungella National Park, the pub’s pies have a reputation of almost mythical proportions. You be the judge.
Those looking for a wider taste of what the region has to offer should check out the selection of bespoke food tours offered by the Greater Whitsunday Food Network. Tours operate between June and September. We were lucky enough to take part in the Fruits of the Region Farm and Tastings Tour, which includes a visit to Ballantyne’s Strawberries to pick a punnet of seriously luscious berries, a sumptuous three-course lunch in the rustic splendour of The Old Station Teahouse (a must-visit, even if you aren’t doing a tour), and an informative visit to Longmile Mangoes for a farm tour and afternoon tea. I won’t forget that white chocolate panna cotta with strawberries and passionfruit served for dessert at the Teahouse, and Longmile owners Ken and Mary couldn’t have been more hospitable. If the planets are aligned and your visit to Mackay coincides with a tour date, book!
While it’s often not easy to find a handmade souvenir of your visit to an Australian city these days, Mackay seems to be bucking that trend.
There are two artisanal stores to check out in the CBD. Wood Chook Gallery on Victoria Street offers a vast array of locally-made soft toys, embroidered tea cosies, baby wear, hand towels, and hand-made cards. Goods are placed in the store on consignment by local artists.
Located just up the street, Fleabags & Co sells the work of a co-operative of forty local artisans. It has a more contemporary feel and offers woven baskets, fashion, jewellery and homewares. The Sarina Arts and Crafts Centre is also well worth a browse. Woodwork, weaving, paintings and pottery all feature prominently. Check out the stunning work of local weaver Helen Pickering.
Mackay has all the mainstream retail outlets Aussie shopaholics know and love. Most of them can be found under one pleasantly air-conditioned roof at Caneland Central shopping centre (adjacent to the Bluewater Lagoon). For boho homewares and a cool cafe to boot, walk back into the city centre to Gypsy and the Bowerbird and The Deli Nook. They share a possie on the corner of Macalister and Victoria Streets.
Mackay offers access to some sublime national parks and natural landscapes and there are infinite opportunities to escape the hustle and bustle of town.
The region has two signature wildlife viewing experiences that shouldn’t be missed. The first can be found in stunning Eungella National Park, 90 kilometres west of the city. The drive through the Pioneer Valley and up the Clarke Range to tongue-twisting Eungella (pronounced young-galah) has to be one of the most pleasant drives in the country. You’ll pass verdant sugarcane fields rustling gently in the breeze, rich farmland, historic towns, country pubs, rocky rivers and babbling brooks. It’s absolutely idyllic.
Once you’ve conquered the hairpin turns and reached the top of the range, take a break at the historic Eungella Chalet with its sweeping views of the valley below. Then continue on into the national park itself to Broken River. Spotting platypuses requires plenty of time and patience, but here you have a very good chance of seeing one of the most elusive of Aussie critters. There are three main spotting platforms, linked by a boardwalk through the rainforest. Surprisingly, the bridge that carries traffic over the river, while rather noisy, is also a good bet. Tiny streams of bubbles rising to the surface are the tell-tale sign that platypi are in the house…
The second experience requires a much earlier start. The beach-loving agile wallabies and eastern grey kangaroos of Cape Hillsborough National Park, 40 minutes’ drive north of Mackay, have featured in big budget tourism campaigns and a Qantas onboard safety video. Drawn to the beach at dawn to feed on mangrove seed pods washed up on the shoreline, the rock star roos draw quite a crowd and are perfectly positioned for a photo with the sun rising in the background. If you’re at a loose end afterwards, there are some wonderful walks to do in the area.
Watch our video of this experience:
Welcome to The Big Bus tour and travel guide’s YouTube channel. In this short video, we take you to Cape Hillsborough National Park north of Mackay in Queensland to meet the famous kangaroos and wallabies that gather on the beach at dawn.
Mackay has three very distinct accommodation hubs: the city centre, Mackay Marina and Northern Beaches. For those looking for easy access to the CBD, the Econo Lodge Beachside makes a great choice. This low-rise hotel is less than ten minutes’ drive from the Wood Street restaurant and café precinct and offers modern, clean and comfortable rooms. Families will love this hotel. As the name suggests, it is located right next to Illawong Beach, and well-appointed Quota Park is just across the road. Cycle the Bluewater Trail from here into the city centre.
For those looking to escape the grind of everyday life, you’ll find true sanctuary at the resort-style Comfort Resort Blue Pacific in Mackay’s Northern Beaches. Sitting pretty on Blacks Beach and set in three acres of lush tropical gardens, the resort offers a range of self-catering villa-style accommodation options. Choose from studio rooms, or one, two and three-bedroom apartments. This is a great option for those planning to rise early and head out to Cape Hillsborough to meet the wallabies. Snooze off your early start on a sun lounge on the lawned beachfront, as palm fronds sway in the Coral Sea breeze.
Do you have any tips to add to our Mackay travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.