I have been so fortunate to travel in my life, a lot. I have been around the world, lived overseas for many years and then more recently, spent a lot of time exploring Queensland with my photography.
It’s a funny thing, the more I travel, the longer my bucket list gets. I am inspired to go to so many places and then share them so hopefully I inspire people to do the same. There’s just something so therapeutic about travelling, it makes everything seem amazing when you see all the natural and diversified wonders there are in the world.
Interestingly though, one place that was never on my radar was Mackay in North Queensland. No particular reason why, I just never really knew anything about it. That all changed for me 12 months ago and hopefully when you read this, you will be so excited you’ll be rushing to book a trip there too, as soon as you can.
This time exactly one year ago I was part of a photography competition that took me to Mackay where my brief was to showcase the region. I’m always up for a challenge and I think every destination has something that makes it worth visiting, perhaps not more than once, but I always believe it’s good to at least say you’ve been. This was kind of how I felt about Mackay – before.
However, even from flying over the area coming into land, I was pleasantly surprised. It reminded me of the Whitsundays. From the air you could see lots of little islands dotted around the place, swirly sand banks and reefs as well as those stunning turquoise blue waters of North Queensland. I was so motivated to get on land and discover this new treasure.
That trip was a whirlwind weekend of 4am starts and long days not finishing up until midnight. By the end of it, I was exhausted, but also excited. I felt like Neil Armstrong discovering something everyone knew was there, but hadn’t explored yet. Mackay is a beautiful region of inland waterfalls and forest walks to stunning deserted beaches and tropical treasures, not to mention some surprisingly great tea houses, restaurants and gastronomic delights.
Fast forward 12 months and I was invited back by Mackay Tourism to experience the natural wonders of the area once more, this time on a trip with 3 other photographers and a host. Of course I couldn’t accept fast enough. An opportunity to come to Mackay again and have more time to explore this place was a dream job. Mission accepted!
As always with a photography Famil, the itinerary is pretty packed to maximize every possible moment in the day, so I’m going to give you a run down of my favorite things to do in Mackay that I have found so far, but please don’t think this is all the region has to offer, because from research I know there is so much more, this is just the best of what I have seen on my two visits and experiences that can’t be missed if you are in the region.
First up, where to stay? Both visits I stayed at Choice hotels, first at Blacks Beach, which location wise was stunning. One of the best beaches and cute little self contained units backing right onto this palm tree lined oasis. Then this visit, at the Clarion Hotel at the Mackay Marina. This is more modern and a bit closer to town with great views and fantastic service.
Once my bags were unpacked and I was showered up (was another very early flight) it was time to get out and explore. Hands down the number one thing to do when visiting Mackay is a trip to Cape Hillsborough. This is pretty much a given. Hey, even as you walk into the Airport there is a giant wall with an image of a wallaby on the beach from Cape Hillsborough. This is not negotiable. What I will say however, is the two times I have been to Cape Hillsborough, both have been day trips and I can tell you right now, this just isn’t enough. Yes there’s the wallabies on the beach at sunrise here and realistically you could just take the 40 minute drive from town and only see this and leave, but I promise you, you are missing so much. Tucked in right on the beach behind the palm trees is one of the best caravan parks I have seen in Australia. Firstly for location, but mostly for the staff that run the park and make the experience the best you can ask for. Ben, Renae and their team run this park like they are inviting close friends to stay. Everyone is welcomed like family and their passion for the environment and the welfare of the wallabies as well as being able to share this experience with visitors is just beyond words. They are a credit to not only their business, but the entire region and tourism in general. Next visit I am absolutely staying at this park for at least a couple of nights and here’s why!
First, the early morning alarm to take the drive to Cape Hillsborough doesn’t particularly bother me, but it would be so much nicer rolling out of bed at the Park, taking a few steps to the beach and watching sunrise as if it’s your own back yard. After sunrise and a bacon and egg breaky roll (thanks Ben, was delicious), I would suggest a walk through the national park surrounding you. It’s just gorgeous. There are caves for children to go nuts exploring in and the most breathtaking views out over the water as well as Cascade Creek waterfalls in the wet season – I still haven’t made it this far so that’s also on the bucket list for next time – see one day isn’t enough!
There is also the walk out to Wedge Island just off the coastline. This is accessible two hours either side of low tide so plenty of time to head out and explore. Once you’re finished with all the exploring and bushwalking, of course you have the beach where you can kick back and just take in your surroundings and the lovely Mackay sunshine, winter or summer.
Other than Cape Hillsborough beach, a little closer to town and perfect for a sunset picnic is Sunset Bay in Eimeo. 15km out of town you can spoil yourself and get an amazing platter from Plattered Up, a local business who provide catering for functions, or as we delightfully discovered, couples or small groups. Find yourself a spot on the beach and watch the sun set over the water with the stunning sand ripples at low tide – pure heaven. Another great sunset spot is Shoal Point where the famous Mackay Lone Tree used to be, again this has beautiful sand ripples at low tide, but if you only have the chance to visit one, my first choice would be Sunset Bay.
Inland from Mackay is the Finch Hatton Gorge and Eungella National Park. The Gorge is a 70km trip, about an hour’s drive with the National park about another 40km further inland. If you have the time, these two places are definitely worth the trip. You can easily do both in a day. The Gorge has a 30 minute easy walk to some refreshing waterfalls, especially on a hot day. Great for a dip, a nature walk and a bit of fun.
Driving further inland to Eungella National Park is the famous Platypus viewing platforms at Broken River. It boasts being the world’s most likely place to see Platypus in the wild. Unfortunately, our schedule got shuffled around and we missed this experience (again), however I mention it because having spoken to people who have been, if you are into that sort of thing, it is well worth the drive, and yes, I have not heard of anyone who visited and did not see a Platypus (although please don’t hold me to that!)
Eungella itself has incredible views over the rolling landscape and ocean in the distance. You can stop and eat at the Eungella Chalet at the top of the mountains, but I would highly recommend saving your hunger for the best pies in Queensland, perhaps Australia, or even the world! And I don’t say this lightly. I’m a pie lover but I don’t hand out recommendations easily. I am rarely impressed so when I was told we were eating at The Pinnacle Pub on the drive back to Mackay from Eungella and despite being so hungry I could have eaten the grass, I saved myself like the professional I am. Well, what can I say? This pie on first impressions was ENORMOUS. I took a photo and it’s so big, it makes the full size plate look like a side plate. I went for the straight up beef pie with sauce and I have to tell you, I was not disappointed. It was delicious. The pastry alone was amazing, had that gorgeous homemade chunky taste and generous filling. You can apparently buy take home pies, which I most definitely would have if I didn’t have to transport back to the Gold Coast. I could happily say this is one of the best pies I have ever eaten and worth nearly dying of starvation for (okay perhaps slight exaggeration there).
Besides Eungella National Park, Gorge, Cape Hillsborough and the many many, gorgeous beaches, there is the Marina Village and plenty of great places to eat in Mackay. A couple of my favorites are The Old Station Tea House on the way to Cape Hillsborough. A quirky café literally in an old railway station house with the most amazing scones, usually still warm out of the oven, served with in-house made jam. Too delicious. Then there is the delightful restaurant B.U.R.P. in Wood Street. They market themselves as Modern Australian Dining with a twist and it’s a pretty good description. Some of the best food I have eaten. I honestly could have tried everything on the menu. For me, any restaurant that has steak tartare on the menu, and does it well, is already a winner.
I am sure there are a billion other great eateries around Mackay, especially if these are anything to go by, but in my short visits I have only managed a few. As we were on the road a fair bit and often in remote locations, we also enjoyed meals from local business The Family Table Mackay. We were supplied with all the ingredients for meals as well as complete instructions (idiot proof they were so thorough) on preparation. Meals were so tasty I can highly recommend using them for any catering needs you have. We enjoyed marinated skewered prawns, pulled pork buns with slaw, amazing salads and so much more. Also a great way to eat if you are in the region for a period of time and don’t want to eat out every night. They were ideal for Keswick Island where there are no restaurants or shops so you need to take your own supplies.
From Mackay mainland, on our last night we took a short 15 minute flight to Keswick Island. Never heard of it? Me either! This place however is one of the most spectacular, untouched islands I have ever seen in North Queensland. Flying in, Keswick and St Bees islands are separated by a passage down the middle. St Bees is a private island with a koala sanctuary and only two houses, including the owner’s. Keswick holds a small airstrip where we landed in a six seater Cessna from Mackay Airport. There is a 15kg luggage limit per person that is strictly adhered to (for obvious safety reasons) so pack smart.
On the island, there are very limited facilities. This is a true shipwrecked, secluded island kind of experience so as long as you are prepared for this, you will be able to maximize the location and get the best from the experience. There are some houses on the island for private residents, as well as a Beach House to rent (2 night minimum stay) but other than that, there is a camp ground including four permanent tents around 100 meters from the beach, a portable toilet and cold showers, and a hut at the gorgeous Basil Bay that was available for visitors to use. This was the only place we found with power and lights so useful information to know if you are visiting overnight. It also has a kitchen with fridges and picnic tables so if you took food over, this would be a great place to prepare and store. The Kiosk on the island wasn’t open whilst we were there so I would suggest taking everything with you just in case.
Once you’re set up, this island is absolutely breathtaking. We were the only visitors at the time and did not see another person, other than the island caretaker. We had the beaches completely to ourselves and pretty much free reign of the island. One thing I loved was, being so small, you could find a perfect beach to suit the weather and wind conditions, as there are little coves on every side of the island. We had a golf buggy to get us around the island, however the roads were pretty limited so you have to be prepared to walk to some places. Being only 5 km in total, nothing was really too far away. The signs on the island were a bit misleading as the maps looked like you were in for long walks, however the most we had to hike was about 20 minutes. It would probably be helpful if they indicated distances to give you a better idea. The walks were definitely worth the effort though as sunset from Connie Bay was spectacular as was sunrise from the top of Langton Bay through the grass trees. Snorkeling is apparently popular, unfortunately we ran out of time and only managed a quick dip in the turquoise blue waters. For me, this would be an ideal place to visit by boat, with protected little coves around every part of the island and the most stunning beaches and waters. I will definitely be back to explore some more.
As I have said many times before, for me, Mackay is a region that seems to fly under the radar, but one of my preferred places in North Queensland. The beaches are spectacular, the people are warm and friendly and it is not overrun or busy and of course you can enjoy that tropical Queensland climate and crystal clear blue waters. You are not fighting for space on the beach or battling busloads of other tourists, however you are treated to spectacular and unique natural wonders and experiences. On the one hand, I want to shout it from the rooftops (sorry for the lame cliché) but on the other hand, I want to keep this un-spoilt treasure all for myself. Honestly, do yourself a favor and next time you are looking for a break away and time to recharge the batteries, give Mackay a go. I will certainly be back to explore some more!