The largest multi-commodity seaport in the whole of Queensland was hardly more than a village as recently as the 1960s.
Gladstone is now the world’s fourth-largest coal exporting terminal, but to talk only about industry would be to sell the town short.
One of the top regional botanic gardens is right here, and national parks, quaint seaside villages or the magnificent islands of the Southern Great Barrier Reef are never more than a brief drive or boat trip away.
Gladstone itself is a tourist hub, especially by water, and has put a lot of love into its oceanfront parks and museums.
1. Tondoon Botanic Gardens
One of the best things about heading into subtropical Queensland is to marvel at the plant life that flourishes at this latitude.
The botanic gardens in Gladstone’s Glen Eden suburb is often ranked among the best in the country, and is set across a whopping 170-hectare site, with forested areas, lots of water and beautifully designed botanical displays.
There’s a deck and cafe beside Lake Tondoon, a key habitat for waterfowl, as well as a serene Japanese Garden and trails cascading down the slopes of Mount Biondello.
The dry rainforest, tropical and subtropical plants and trees here have been gathered from around Queensland, from the south-east to the very north of the state.
2. East Shores Precinct
This newly landscaped space opposite the Marina is somewhere to relax and have fun outside in Gladstone.
Set along Flinders Parade, the East Shores Precinct has a waterfront boardwalk with lots of greenery, shade, places to sit and a lookout where you can spot dolphins and see the yachts passing by.
If a cruise ship is in port there’s likely to be a market along the boardwalk.
For kids the best bit will be the massive water playground with all sorts of fountains and jets.
3. Spinnaker Park
This acclaimed waterfront park opened in 2001 on the finger of land that curls round to protect the entrance to Gladstone’s Marina.
Removed from Gladstone’s industry but with a view back to the harbour, this is a lovely place to amble or ride next to the ocean.
You can gaze out to the islands just offshore, watch the port’s cargo ships loading up, see the tugboats coming and going, indulge in something tasty at the cafe and explore native wetlands and ponds.
Spinnaker Park even has a peaceful sandy cove if you’re in the mood for a swim, and electric barbecues can be found throughout.
4. Gladstone Regional Art Gallery & Museum
The dignified Neoclassical building housing Gladstone’s Regional Art Gallery & Museum was constructed in the mid-1930s and served as the town hall until the 1960s.
After a time as a performance venue, the building was converted into a museum in 1985. Here you can dive into Gladstone’s past, through its periods of boom and bust and the waves of settlement that have made the city what it is today.
The Heritage Collection is especially strong, and features documents, maps, furniture, photographs and day-to-day objects to paint a picture of life in the nascent city.
The gallery has a dynamic exhibition program, with work by regional, national and international artists.
One recent show to make waves was 2019’s Indo Pop, presenting a fantastic assortment of works drawn from the “7th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art” (APT7).
5. Gladstone Maritime Museum
No surprise that the ocean and seafaring have been crucial to Gladstone’s story, and there’s much to uncover at this maritime museum on the wharf next to the ferry terminal.
Inside you can pore over maps, navigational instruments, figureheads, a variety of small wooden vessels and model ships, with some pieces going back to before Captain Cook’s voyage along Australia’s east coast.
Especially intriguing is a whole wall devoted to finds from shipwrecks in the region.
The Gladstone Maritime Museum keeps a library, filled with hundreds of papers and journals, and maintains the HMAS Gladstone II patrol boat, which we’ll talk about later.
6. Mount Larcom
Looking west of Gladstone, the dominating feature on the horizon is the 632-metre Mount Larcom, which was first noted by cartographer and navigator Matthew Flinders during his circumnavigation of Australia in 1802-03. He named this volcanic mountain after a navy captain under whom he had served, but Mount Larcom is often called “The Lion Mountain” as its profile resembles a lion and lioness facing each other.
You can make a comfortable round trip to the summit in about five hours, trekking through fragrant groves of eucalyptus and grass trees.
At the top you’ll be dazzled by a complete panorama of Gladstone, its backcountry and out to the islands of the Southern Great Barrier Reef.
7. Heron Island
Gladstone is the nearest major settlement to the coral cay of Heron Island, hailed as one of the great ecotourism destinations in the Southern Great Barrier Reef.
There’s a resort and eco-station for the University of Queensland on the island, where you can come to terms with the reef’s natural bounty, in particular the vast numbers of green and loggerhead turtles that nest and hatch on the island.
Nesting season is from November to March, and the hatchlings emerge around January.
The best way to experience this humbling natural spectacle is by a nature walk with one of the resort’s naturalist guides.
There are also more than 20 recognised dive sites around Heron Island, or you can just snorkel at the beach to glimpse the dazzling biodiversity in transparent seas.
Heron Island can be reached from Gladstone by boat, seaplane or helicopter.
8. Boyne Island and Tannum Sands
Head south from Gladstone and in a few minutes you’ll arrive at the small oceanfront communities of Boyne Island and Tannum Sands, which sit side by side, linked by a bridge.
In these quiet, mostly residential communities you can go swimming year-round at sublime beaches like the patrolled Tannum Sands Beach, or go on a picturesque stroll along the Boyne River and coastline via the Turtle Way.
Tracking the foreshore at Tannum Sands is the Millennium Esplanade, blending ocean views with lush lawns under the cover of palms and gum trees.
And amid all this subtropical beauty is an unexpected industrial behemoth, at Australia’s largest aluminium smelter.
This kicks out some 660,000 tonnes of aluminium each year, and welcomes curious minds at the Smelter Visitor Centre.
9. Agnes Water and 1770
On the 300 kilometres of glorious coastline between Gladstone and Bundaberg rests the small seaside towns of Agnes Water and 1770. If you’re in Gladstone there are plenty of reasons to make the trip.
You can hike in unblemished coastal forest, surf and bathe at deserted beaches and have all kinds of wildlife encounters, on land and at the Great Barrier Reef.
Australia’s second-largest nesting site for loggerhead turtles is close by at Deepwater National Park, and the towns are a ferry ride from the paradisiacal Lady Musgrave Island.
The waters here on the Southern Great Barrier Reef are impeccably clear, and abound with brilliant tropical fish, manta rays, sea turtles and sharks.
10. Lake Awoonga
Most of the water supply for the Gladstone region comes from this reservoir on the Boyne River, about half an hour out of town.
So considering that Lake Awoonga is manmade, a startling amount of wildlife resides in its waters and on its shores.
This includes more than 220 different bird species, as well as mammals like kangaroos, wallabies, platypuses, bandicoots and brushtail possums, while around 200,000 fish are released into the reservoir each year.
People flock to the shores of Lake Awoonga to land sea mullet, saratoga, barramundi and the occasional mangrove jack, but you can also just soak up the mountain views on the shoreline and head off in search of waterfalls and birds like the red goshawk and southern squatter pigeon.
11. Gladstone Harbour Cruise
Gladstone’s emergence as a key port from the 1960s onwards is a compelling success story, and can be heard and experienced in detail on this twice-weekly cruise.
Departing at 11:00 every Wednesday and Saturday from April to November, the Curtis Endeavour II zips around industrial sites like Curtis Islands LNG plants, as well as the Auckland Inlet, Auckland Point, the tug berth and the picturesque harbour islands.
You’ll hear fascinating commentary throughout the two-hour trip, and can pick up a drink and snacks from the licensed bar onboard.
12. Round Hill Lookout
Come sunset, make sure to pop to this hilltop lookout a short drive from the city centre.
At this time you’ll be granted a heart-lifting 360° view of the Gladstone Region bathed in low sunlight.
The wall of mountains west of the city, Gladstone’s industry, harbour and the Southern Great Barrier Reef island are all easy to identify.
There are also interpretive boards for the vast cement-making facility, Australia’s largest, and Fisherman’s Landing, able to produce more than 1.7 million tonnes of cement powder each year.
13. HMAS Gladstone II
You can see this Freemantle-class patrol boat sitting off the Gladstone East Shores precinct by the Marina.
This vessel was commissioned into the RAN in 1984 and spent the next two decades intercepting illegal fishing boats, taking part in special forces operations and engaged in disaster relief and humanitarian assistance.
A thorough restoration was carried out in the 2010s, and HMAS Gladstone II now belongs to the Gladstone Maritime Museum.
You can step aboard on weekends for tours, outside of peak summer season when the deck gets too hot.
You’ll find out about the satellite navigation and communications equipment, which was state-of-the-art for the time and learn about some of its operations.
14. William Golding Memorial Lookout
For a view that encapsulates Gladstone you can climb to this lookout at the harbour entrance just above HMAS Gladstone II.
From here you can see that RAN vessel, the Marina, harbour wharves at Auckland Point exporting coal, cement powder and alumina, as well as the rippling outline of the islands of the Southern Barrier Reef.
The lookout is named to commemorate William Golding (1890-1985) Gladstone’s mayor from (1967-73), who also helped oversee the town’s remarkable infrastructural and industrial development at this time.
There are information boards just behind, where you can pause for something cold at the Outlook Cafe.
15. Gladstone Visitor Information Centre
If you’re in need of a bit of local knowledge there’s an award-winning tourist information centre at the Marina Ferry Terminal.
Loaded with maps and leaflets, this is the place to go for first-hand advice on attractions, events, travel and more.
You can also grab a souvenir, stock up on handy travel essentials and enjoy a cold drink, while there’s the bonus of free Wi-Fi to help you plot your next move.