Top 10 Things to Do in Mackay, QLD inner banner

Top 10 Things to Do in Mackay, QLD

The Mackay region is possibly Queensland's best kept holiday secret, and one that will have you planning a return visit before your first one is over. Tick off these ten amazing things to see and do.
Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
Ten of the best things to do in Mackay. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

Life is sweet in Mackay.

The seventh largest city in the Sunshine State 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, an innovative dining scene, and more than a few surprises along the way.

Here’s a checklist of our top ten things to do in Mackay.


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1. Cool off at the Bluewater Lagoon

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). The Wet Season runs from December to March and brings temperatures in the mid 30s, significant rainfall (usually in the afternoon) and high humidity. 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.

Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
Bluewater Lagoon. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

2. Follow the Art Deco trail

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.

Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
Ten of the best things to do in Mackay: Admire Art Deco gems. Image: Adam Ford

3. Visit the Sarina Sugar Shed

While mining plays an important role, life in Mackay largely revolves around sugar. Therefore, 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. Located in the small town of Sarina, 30 minutes’ drive south of Mackay, 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.

Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
Sarina Sugar Shed. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

Leave yourself enough time to explore the neighbouring Sarina Field of Dreams Parkland and its assortment of relocated and restored heritage buildings — now home to 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 occupies the refurbished Sarina railway station. History buffs will find plenty of intriguing information on offer 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 Pacific Islanders were brought to the region, often under duress, to work in the sugarcane fields. Many of the labourers would not survive the shocking conditions and were buried in mass unmarked graves.

4. Get arty at Artspace Mackay

To explore the city’s creative side, 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.

Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
Ten of the best things to do in Mackay: Artspace Mackay. Image: Adam Ford

The city’s art collection isn’t confined to a building. The 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.

Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
YUWI. Image: Adam Ford

Street art has breathed new life into disused laneways in cities like Melbourne, Perth, and Adelaide, and smaller urban centres across the country 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.

5. Walk in the footsteps of a Dame

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.

Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
Ten of the best things to do in Mackay: Melba House. Image: Adam Ford

6. Explore the city’s diverse dining scene

Wood Street is Mackay’s dining epicentre. There are lots of cafes and eateries to choose from, but here are a few recommendations to get you started. Slick and sassy, The Dispensary 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 most tastes. Evening specials, like roast night on Wednesdays and steak night on Thursdays, keep it real. Just a couple of doors up, a Cuban-style cocktail bar might be the last thing you’d expect to find in a regional Queensland city. Surprise! Settle into the comfy wing-backed chairs at Coco Cubano and graze on your choice of tasty tapas dishes. Situated in an arcade across the road, 9th Lane Grind is a hip bolthole that you’ll be glad you stumbled across. The cafe’s minimalist interior, innovative menu and artful presentation make it something special.

Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
Ten of the best things to do in Mackay: The Dispensary. Image: The Mackay Region

Just around the corner on Victoria Street, funky Fusion 128 ranks as Mackay’s top place to eat on Tripadvisor. As the name would suggest, there’s a blending of culinary styles going on here (think modern Australian with a Pan-Asian twist). Owner David Ting 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!

Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
Image: Fusion 128

Over in the Mackay Marina precinct, Latitude 21 is the inhouse restaurant at the Mantra Mackay. 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.

7. Tuck into a Pinnacle pie

Ask any local what the region’s signature dining experience is, and nine times out of ten the answer will be the Pinnacle Hotel and their famous meat pies. Located in the small town of 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.

Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
Tuck into a Pinnacle Pub pie. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland/Cathy Finch

8. Shop for a souvenir made with love

While it’s often not easy to find a handmade souvenir of your visit to an Australian city these days, Mackay bucks that trend. Check out Wood Chook Gallery on Victoria Street in the CBD for 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.

Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
Ten of the best things to do in Mackay: Wood Chook Gallery. Image: Adam Ford

The Sarina Arts and Crafts Centre is also well worth a browse for woodwork, woven homewares, paintings, and pottery. Look for the stunning work of local weaver Helen Pickering.

9. Go platypus spotting in Eungella National Park

Mackay offers access to some incredible national parks and there are infinite opportunities to escape the hustle and bustle of town. The region has two signature wildlife viewing experiences, the first of which can be found at Broken River 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 in the country. You’ll pass verdant sugarcane fields, rolling paddocks, historic towns, country pubs, rocky rivers, and babbling brooks. It’s absolutely idyllic.

Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
Ten of the best things to do in Mackay: Eungella Chalet. Image: Adam Ford

Once you’ve conquered the hairpin turns and reached the top of the range, take a break at the historic Eungella Chalet to soak up the sweeping views of the valley below. From there it’s just a ten-minute drive to Broken River, where you’ll have a very good chance of seeing one of Australia’s most elusive critters — the platypus. Eyeballing these notoriously shy guys does require time and patience, but it’s very likely to pay off. There are three spotting platforms, linked by a boardwalk that weaves its way 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 of the water are the tell-tale sign that platypi are in the house.

Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
Go platypus spotting at Broken River. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

10. See rockstar roos on the beach at dawn

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 celebrity macropods 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. Drop into the rustic Old Station Teahouse for lunch on the way back to town.

Where to stay in Mackay

Econo Lodge Beachside

Mackay has three distinct accommodation hubs: the city centre, Mackay Marina and Northern Beaches. For easy access to the CBD, you can’t go wrong at the spick-and-span Econo Lodge Beachside. This low-rise hotel is located less than ten minutes’ drive from the Wood Street restaurant and café precinct, and offers modern, comfortable rooms. Illawong Beach and well-appointed Quota Park are both on the hotel’s doorstep.

Ten of the best things to do in Mackay
Econo Lodge Beachside. Image: Choice Hotels
Comfort Resort Blue Pacific

Sitting pretty on Blacks Beach in the Northern Beaches area, and set in three acres of lush tropical gardens, the Comfort Resort Blue Pacific offers a range of self-catering villa-style accommodation options. This is quintessential Queensland; laze your days away on the lawned beachfront, as palm fronds sway in the cooling Coral Sea breeze.

The writer travelled as a guest of The Mackay Region and Choice Hotels.

Browse our range of Queensland tours and experiences here.

Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Mackay? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Adam Ford

About the writer

Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours & Travel Ideas, 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.

 

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  1. Love this! I’m a Mackay local and just love the area and surrounds. The one thing about Mackay is that it’s hard to get around unless you have your own wheels. For anyone that hasn’t, Mackay Adventure Tours have just started up and they do tours to Cape Hillsborough to see the wallabies and roos. It’s a great tour with a local guide, and they give you a nice breaky and take you on a hike too!

    1. Hey Michelle. Thanks for the heads up! I will check them out online. I agree, Mackay is an amazing destination. It doesn’t get enough coverage. We are hoping to film a Mackay video for our YouTube channel at some point, and it would be great to do a tie-in with Mackay Adventure Tours. Regards, Adam Ford (Editor)

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