Photo: Mackay Tourism

Mackay: A forgotten gem

The term ‘best kept secret’ gets thrown around far too often these days, but in the case of Mackay – a coastal city located midway between Brisbane and Cairns – it’s quite fitting.

Though bordered by abundant national parks on one side and beautiful tropical islands on the other, Mackay has long been overlooked in favour of Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays just to the north – but it wasn’t always this way.

There was a time when Mackay was the premier tourist destination of the region, acting as the main transport hub for the Whitsundays Islands.

Photo: Mackay Tourism

Back in the 50s, Roylen Cruises operated day trips and charters to the islands from Mackay’s sheltered harbour. But when fleets of larger, swifter charter vessels set up shop in nearby Airlie Beach, Mackay lost its major tourism drawcard.

In the years that followed, tourism was all but replaced by the mining industry. But as people say, a good thing never stays secret for long.  Word is spreading and tourism is finally starting to make a comeback.

The Lost Years have forced locals to find creative ways of attracting visitors to the region. The annual Mackay Beach Horse Racing Festival sums up that creativity in a nutshell. It’s quirky, it’s fun, and it’s luring visitors in droves.

Photo: Chris Ashton

A recent downtown redevelopment and extensive network of walking and cycling trails have also made the city easy to explore, while a waterfront precinct with lagoon pools and a water playground has boosted it’s family friendly appeal.

The local restaurant scene has also had an extreme makeover. BURP eat drink and The Dispensary are two of the most exciting venues in town, with trendy décor and menus that will make you wish you could describe food as well as Matt Preston.

As nice as the city is though, it’s the surrounding region that really sets Mackay apart.

Photo: Mackay Tourism

Stunning nearby beaches such as Shoal Point, Ball Bay and Blacks Beach are all Instagram-worthy, while Keswick Island, with its white beaches, tropical rainforest and vibrant marine life, is a natural wonderland.

In the Eungella National Park, located roughly an hour to the West, you’ll find one of the region’s superstars – the platypus. At Broken River viewing area, you can see wild platypus feeding in the clear mountain water at dawn and dusk each day.

It’s an incredible moment when you first spot one of these elusive creatures.

Photo: Mackay Tourism

Eungella is an Aboriginal word meaning Land of the Clouds, and the reason for that name is clear when you see the view from atop the park’s Sky Window Lookout. The view as sunlight first hits the land in the early morning is pretty special.

Another spot worth adding to your itinerary is the Cape Hillsborough National Park, just 45 minutes north of Mackay. Cameras are an essential item, as you’ll regularly see kangaroos and wallabies emerging from the bush to feed on the beachfront.

Though it’s been a while since Mackay’s tourism heyday, the tide is changing and people are returning to this long forgotten gem. If you’re after a getaway with fewer crowds and amazing natural beauty, Mackay is a place worth rediscovering.

Photo: Mackay Tourism

Getting There: 

Nicknamed the sugar capital of Australia, Mackay is located roughly halfway between Brisbane and Cairns. The drive from Brisbane to Mackay will take you roughly 11 hours, while the drive from Cairns will take around eight. Mackay Domestic and International Airport is serviced by regular Qantas, Virgin Australia, and Jetstar flights.

Visit for more info.

– I travelled as a guest of Mackay Tourism.

Written by
Chris Ashton

We're Chris Ashton and Simon Ceglinski, two Aussie travellers with a love of exploration and adventure, and the odd bit of luxury thrown in. We seek out street art, street food, and scuba diving wherever we go, and prefer the road less travelled over well-worn tourist paths.

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Written by Chris Ashton