A local’s guide to Mackay’s great outdoors
Those with a penchant for nature need no introduction to Mackay. Famed for its unique encounters with Australian wildlife, it’s a region smothered by some of the most jaw-dropping natural sceneries and adventures in the sunshine state.
But it’s so much more than just a tick off the ol’ road trip bucket list on Queensland’s Pacific Coast Way: beneath its aesthetic lure, you’ll find a community of locals who’ve discovered that when it comes to nature, there’s no limit to what you’ll find. And we’re two of them.
Follow our tracks as we take you on a journey through Mackay’s iconic blessings, dotted by lesser-known treats and secrets along the way.
If you think this low-key city lacks a foodie scene akin to the big guns, then boy, are you mistaken.
Start your culinary journey with a 30-minute scenic drive to the small cane-farming community of Sarina for brekkie at Third Ground Coffee House. Since opening in 2015, it’s quickly become a favourite haunt for the locals, and for good reason – not only have they nailed the cosy country-slash-modern-industrial decor to a tee, but all their produce is sourced locally and they do gluten-free.
Lunch is best served as a two-meal affair, at least, that’s what you’ll say to yourself when hitting up 9th Lane Grind in the CBD. The food tastes as good as it looks on Instagram, and while tempting to go straight for their in-house made sweets cabinet, the savoury menu is just as drool-worthy, with a focus on quality over quantity offering just a handful of options. (Our go-to is the KFCB, aka, Kristy’s Fried Chicken Burger with smashed avo, kale slaw and sriracha mayo. Followed by a brownie, of course.)
Winner winner church dinner! Once you’ve pulled your eyes away from the gorgeous stained glass windows and high ceilings of The Church on Palmer Street, you’ll soon discover that their menu is packing some divine delights of its own, serving up hearty meals that definitely call for your best pair of stretchy pants. (Deep-fried pistachio nut camembert or pork belly with butterscotch sauce and toffee poached pears, anyone?)
For something a lil’ more fancy (and light on the tummy), fine dine at BURP with their modern Australian à la carte and degustation menus.
Eating out with kids? We know the drill.
Tuesday burger nights at Sweet Spot Bake Shoppe are a must for little one with big appetites (plus the casual environment is perfect for not so quiet diners!). For classic pub-style food, grab a schnitty and beer at Mount Pleasant Tavern, which you can enjoy in peace while the kids are kept busy in the playroom.
Coffee connoisseurs rejoice because the caffeinated game is strong thanks to Woodman’s Axe Espresso, who’ve got two locations in Mackay: one in the city and another at Northern Beaches Shopping Centre.
If you’re a non-coffee drinker, prepare to have your life changed by these coffee snobs (and we mean that as a total compliment) who are so passionate about their grinds, they continually source current trends in the speciality coffee industry as well as serving up the liquid gold of award-winning Axil Coffee Roasters in Melbourne. (FYI the chai is also pretty damn tasty.)
Down the street from their city store, the Paleo Cafe and Nutrition Station have got your #fitspo fuel sorted with fresh juices, acai bowls, and healthy snacks.
When night falls, put on your swanky best and mosey on down to The Dispensary – the only place to be and be seen in the city. With funky booths, an eclectic vibe, and bar menu of boutique beers, whiskies and cocktails – plus an extensive wine list – you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in downtown Manhattan, let alone Mackay.
The words ‘airport hotel’ doesn’t exactly scream holiday vacay, but the Ibis Mackay sure gets away with it. Not only is it super convenient – try about a 5-minute walk from baggage collection and only a 10-minute drive to the city centre – but it’s super modern too.
If you’ve got the kids in tow, set your sights on the Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park. Although it’s a little out of town (approximately 45 minutes), it’ll make for an unforgettable family holiday waking up to one of the most famous scenes in Australia.
Fronting Casuarina Beach, the kids will be in awe of the Wallabies and roos who scour the morning tide for mangrove seed pods and seaweed.
Potters Oceanside Motel is ideal for those wanting to stick closer to the CBD, boasting bright tropical exteriors, a sparkling salt-water pool, and king-sized beds in every room (twin bedding also available).
Cape Hillsborough should be numero uno on the Mackay bucket list because, as we mentioned before, it’s home to one of the most iconic photo opportunities in Australia.
Wake up at the crack of dawn to meet the famous ‘roos on the beach at sunrise. The national park also has some of our favourite hiking trails, including Andrew’s Point Track taking you up to Turtle Lookout where you can spot turtles feeding on the grass beds in the cove below.
Inland, the Pioneer Valley is a source of endless adventures. Take your time winding through the range along the scenic route, keeping your camera handy for the incredible views back over Mackay.
On a hot day, you can’t beat the rock pools of Finch Hatton Gorge. If you’ve got little ones with you, park up and take the short bushwalk to the bottom where most of the family’s hang out; keen walkers can hit up the more challenging Araluen Cascades and Wheel of Fire tracks to work up a sweat.
For something a little different, take to the treetops with Forest Flying and glide through the rainforest canopy for a unique angle on the gorge.
(Psst, forgot your picnic snacks? Good, because the Ulysses Garden Cafe is worth a road trip in itself. Treat your taste buds with their natural and organic goodness.)
Further up the range is the bushwalking haven known as Eungella National Park, with tracks ranging from easy 10-minute strolls to butt-burning workouts through layers of bright piccabeen and Alexandra palms.
On the way, make sure you include a visit to Broken River to spot the elusive platypus in the wild. It’s one of the most reliable places in Australia to see this duck-billed critter in its natural habitat, with your best chances being early morning or afternoon. Better still, you can come face-to-face with these cuties on a rainforest scuba dive. (This is totally on our bucket lists!)
TIP: When hiking in national parks, make sure you grab a map from the information centres beforehand – it’s so easy to take a wrong turn and wind up on a track that takes hours longer than you planned!
Day trips depart Mackay via boat or seaplane, or you can stay at the island’s self-contained beach house or camping and glamping grounds.
Caneland Central is the largest shopping centre in Mackay, so suffice to say it has all your retail therapy needs covered. But for fresh produce and unique finds, you can’t beat the local markets!
The Greater Whitsunday Farmers Markets is a weekly hotbed of the region’s freshest foods and ingredients, held every Wednesday afternoon down at the CBD’s Bluewater Quay overlooking the river.
Boulder Creek in Calen is a little slice of paradise favoured by locals for its relaxing, low-key vibes and beautiful surroundings.
It’s free to camp and you’ll find toilets, wood BBQs and picnic tables, so pack an Esky and your swimmers, and sent up tent-home on the banks of the river – it’s first in, best dressed.
(PS, if you’re coming from the highway, don’t forget to swing by the Organic & Natural Store at the Leap for a chai fix.)
Note: Although the large camping ground is private property, the owners allow campers by their own good will, so please make sure you take care when camping, cause no damage to fences (to protect cattle) and clean up after yourselves so everyone can keep enjoying this pristine spot.
When to go
Autumn and spring provide the perfect conditions for getting out and about in nature. If you’re a fan of camping, winter is the perfect season for it, with crisp, cool days and clear, starry nights.
Fly straight into the city (and we mean that almost literally) at the Mackay Airport, which is only 10 minutes from the CBD. Alternatively, driving will take you just under two hours from Airlie Beach or a full 11-hour day’s drive from Brisbane.
While you’re here, you’ll be needing a sweet set of four wheels to zip you around, however, to get your bearings in the city centre we’d recommend walking or hiring a bike to explore the Bluewater Trail, which takes you on a loop past the botanical gardens, lagoon and public art installations.