On the tropical Central Queensland Coast, Mackay is at the mouth of the Pioneer River and a springboard for the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.
On the mainland there are more than 30 beaches to track down in the region, and within range are places that will leave you lost for words, like Cape Hillsborough and its deserted beaches, or the primeval rainforest of Eungella National Park.
A flight will shuttle you to the tropical haven of Keswick Island in under 15 minutes, but there’s much to love about Mackay itself where tourist attractions and calming parks line the Pioneer River.
1. Bluewater Lagoon
Right on the Pioneer River in the centre of Mackay is a free public leisure facility that wouldn’t look out of place at a luxury resort.
Set on terraces and ensconced in tropical groves and lawns, Bluewater Lagoon is a string of three outdoor pools, or lagoons, each configured for a different age group.
In all this adds up to more than three Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The two main pools are joined by a waterfall, while there’s a shallow wading pool for toddlers and an interactive playground with drop buckets and the like.
You can also ride a 20-metre water slide from the top lagoon to the middle one.
Around Bluewater Lagoon are shaded picnic tables, electric barbecues and cafe for snacks, cold drinks and ice cream.
2. Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens
At this latitude you have the chance to see the rare tropical plants native to the Mackay Region and the Whitsunday Islands offshore.
The botanic garden opened on the west side of town in 2003, replacing the botanic collection at Mackay’s Queens Park.
These collections, which also include exotic plants from the same climate zone around the world, are presented in enthralling precincts and sub-gardens.
There’s the Tropical Shade Gardens and Fernery for shade-loving species, a trial garden for screens and hedges, the Malta Garden which pays tribute to early-20th-century immigrants from the Mediterranean, a gymnosperm garden and the Brigalow Belt Garden, from the mining region and biosphere of the same name.
The gardens are enriched with public art and landscaped with lagoons, all waiting to be explored on three kilometres of trails.
3. Bluewater Trail
The simplest way to experience Mackay’s natural splendour and visitor attractions is the 20-kilometre Bluewater Trail passing through the town.
With a wide paved surface, this multiuse trail connects spots like Bluewater Lagoon and Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens.
On the stretch along Pioneer River by the CBD are six art installations by Queensland sculptor Fiona Foley, themed on Mackay’s history and diversity.
Another portion, between the CBD and the Botanic Gardens, will take you out into the riverside wetlands, while there’s more marvellous nature along the Sandfly Creek Environmental Walk linking Bluewater Quay with Town Beach via the bird-rich mouth of the Pioneer River.
4. Mackay Orchid House
The tropical vegetation, family facilities and open grassy space of Queens Park can be reached on foot from the CBD.
There you’ll discover the Ken Burgess Display House, built in 1988 to show off an astounding collection of orchids in a naturalistic setting, viewed on circular walkways.
Reopened in 2020 after a renovation, this is one of the largest attractions of its kind in Australia and has such a wealth of orchids that you could easily spend a couple of hours identifying them.
For the most part these often bizarre flowers are rock and tree orchids, but there are some growing in the ground in beds.
5. Bluewater Quay
Either side of the Forgan Bridge on the final reach of the Pioneer River is a newly enhanced public space along almost 250 metres of waterfront.
At Bluewater Quay there’s a boardwalk, viewing platform and fishing platform, complemented by public art, a children’s playground, picnic and barbecue areas and a stage for open-air performances and events.
Also here is an historic Leichardt tree (nauclea orientalis), which was used as an anchor for Mackay’s earliest maritime traffic in the 1860s.
6. Lamberts Lookout
Possibly the most scenic vantage point in the Mackay Region has been updated in the last few years.
At the north end of the gorgeous namesake beach, Lamberts Lookout grants majestic vistas of the Cumberland Islands, Slade Point to the north and Mackay’s backcountry.
May to November this rugged promontory is also the a great place to watch humpback whales on their migration along the coast.
The lookout has been equipped with a stylish pavilion, dedicated viewing areas with interpretative boards and binoculars to help you catch sight of those whales.
7. Artspace Mackay
This sleek regional art gallery in the heart of Mackay opened in 2003 and garnered architecture awards at the time.
Head to Artspace Mackay for first-rate travelling exhibitions curated from national and regional art collections.
There are also regular displays sourced from the celebrated Mackay Regional Council Artists’ Book Collection.
The gallery has three exhibition spaces and a dynamic programme that also offers seminars, workshops, guided tours, art classes, presentations and more.
There’s healthy dining at Foodspace, with salads and wraps to eat in or take away, and you can also make use of the gallery’s free Wi-Fi.
8. Harbour Beach
South of the long breakwater that encloses Mackay Marina there’s a long, curve of soft white sand with calm reef-shielded waters.
Harbour Beach is patrolled seasonally and at the north is the Mackay Surf Lifesaver Club, which has a busy events schedule on weekends.
One of the landmarks in the calendar is the Horse Racing Festival in August, with races run right on the beach and attracting several thousand spectators.
You’ll notice that Harbour Beach is a cherished angling spot, especially along the breakwater.
And although the beach itself is quiet, it’s only a short walk to the upscale marina which has a clutch of bars and restaurants.
9. Greenmount Homestead
Travel into Mackay’s hinterland, and within 20 minutes you’ll come to a typical Queenslander homestead that was established more than a century ago.
This was donated to Mackay in 1984 by the Cook family, who had lived here since 1915. Along with the main house, with a beautiful veranda, there’s a series of outbuildings, including a blacksmith’s workshop, kitchen/schoolhouse, plant shed and garage.
There are more than 20,000 artefacts to check out on your way round, among them original furniture and fittings belonging to the Cook family.
The grounds have been left as they were when the Cooks were here, and boast an arbour, fernery and a sweet formal front garden.
10. Bucasia Beach
If you’re willing to travel a little there’s a sublime white sandy beach, more than four kilometres long, about 20 minutes north at Bucasia.
At the south end of Bucasia Beach is mangrove forest, and at high tide this is popular with anglers casting for flathead.
The beach meanwhile has silky sand and some inspiring views east across Sunset Bay to Dolphin Heads and out to the Cumberland Islands.
If you come at low tide there’s a massive expanse of sand, while early birds will be treated to a glorious sunrise.
There’s a shaded esplanade just behind, and Seaview Park is a welcoming grassy space for picnics.
11. Keswick Island
Keswick Island, the southernmost of the 74 Whitsunday Islands and also a member of the South Cumberland Islands, is little more than 30 kilometres north of Mackay.
You can get there in just 15 minutes by air, or through a cruise operator from Mackay Marina.
Protected as part of a national park, Keswick Island has pockets of tropical rainforest brimming with wildlife, as well as paradisiacal white sandy coves for swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving, spotting sea turtles and manta rays.
This is more of a destination for a few nights rather than a day trip, and there are self-catered options to meet your needs, from roughneck island camping to plush beach houses.
Keswick Island is also famed for its hives of purebred Caucasian bees, introduced in 1986 and producing some of the best honey you’ve ever tasted.
12. Eungella National Park
Set a course for Mackay’s backcountry, which is blessed with what may be the longest continual stretch of rainforest in Australia.
This is protected by Eungella National Park, around the township of the same name.
The rainforest is on misty mountain slopes, commanding the plain and accessed on trails for light strolls or tough multiday hikes.
The scenery is dreamlike, whether you’re surveying the vast cleave of Pioneer or exploring secret rainforest pools and gullies.
Rare plant and animal species abound at Eungella National Park, from the Mackay tulip oak to the Eungella day frog, honey eater (bird) and spiny crayfish.
On the Broken River you’ll find a platform where you can catch sight of platypuses and turtles.
13. Cape Hillsborough National Park
Another journey that needs to be made is the 40-minute road trip north to this volcanic peninsula under a thick mantle of rainforest.
Cape Hillsborough has fine sandy beaches that will seem almost uncharted if you come at a quiet moment.
Bubbler crabs leave strange speckled patterns in the sand, and you can investigate rock pools for colourful marine life.
But most incredible are the wallabies and kangaroos that emerge from the forest and sunrise and sunset to forage for food on the main Cape Hillsborough Beach.
The Diversity Boardwalk is so called for the variety of flora on its margins, from mangroves to eucalypt forest, while the 1.6-kilometre Juipera Plants Trail will fill you in on local Aboriginal culture and history.
14. Mackay Aqua Park
At a lake in nearby Andergrove, Wakehouse operates a cable for wakeboarding but also has an enormous, fun-packed inflatable course floating in the water.
In 50-minute sessions, this is available to children as young as four and has long walkways, slides and all sorts of tricky obstacles to climb.
One of the best bits is the giant water blob, propelling people several metres into the air.
Wakehouse also runs a restaurant making tacos, pizza, breakfast dishes and sweet treats.
15. Caneland Central Shopping Centre
This mall next to the Pioneer River and Bluewater Lagoon has been in business for more than 40 years, but was given a huge expansion in the 2010s and now has more than 200 tenants across two floors.
This is the big shopping destination in the Mackay Region, and a good way to escape the afternoon sun in summer.
All the essentials are here, at branches of Target, Coles, Myer, Big W, Woolworths and Harris Scarfe.
There are also quite a few independent businesses, for anything from gifts to water sports equipment.
For food to go, you’ve got a smattering of cafes and national and international chains like McDonald’s, Red Rooster, KFC, Subway, Sushi Sushi and Donut King.