Soon after arriving at our tucked-away spot at Mackay's Bucasia Beachfront Caravan Resort, Nan unpacked her fold-out deck chair and buttered the freshly-baked scones picked up on the way.
Pulling up a chair to catch the morning sun I soon realised the only pressing decision for the day was whether I should face the chair east to the Great Barrier Reef or west to the lush natural parkland.
Thelma and Louise knock yourself out. This was a new-age drive holiday taking the most unlikely travelling duo – my former girl guide and current go-getting Gran and I - from Mackay to Ayr, an hour south of Townsville.
For two weeks, we planned to zip along the Central Queensland coastline and explore the secluded beaches, elusive wildlife and the charming towns that dot the landscape in between.
Our starting point was Australia's sugar capital, Mackay.
At its heart, Mackay's CBD is peppered with Art Deco buildings and quirky parallel streets lined with iconic Queensland palm trees. It may look like a movie set out straight out of the 1930s, but the town has more than 150 years of European settlement and there's a cauldron of modern creativity, artist's havens and coffee shops to explore.
With Nan's sun-hat in check, our first port of call is the new Bluewater Trail Public Art – one of the most significant public art developments in Australia commissioned a few years back to mark the town's 150 year milestone. Trailing 19km along the banks of Mackay's Pioneer River, it features six eye-catching installations by Fiona Foley, including YUWI, a striking red three dimensional sculpture and The Crows, a masterpiece that features a willy wagtail and three flying foxes hanging from a tension cable. But it's the river itself that's the headlining act: blue and calming and the perfect tonic for Summer eyes.
If art suits your palate, don't miss Artspace Mackay, the city's award-winning gallery housed in an environmentally sensitive building. The big sloping roof is not only a good looker, it is in perfect keeping with the tropical city's need for shade and protection.
Like most regional towns, Mackay has its own charms and iconic Aussie characters. Unlike most towns, it also has a raft of beaches - 31 in fact; some with resident roos roaming the shores.
Any local who stops for a yarn will point you in the direction of “The Eimeo” as a “must do”. This pub overlooks a beach to the north of the city and on any given day, it serves up post card perfect views of the Whitsunday Passage alongside hearty steaks and cool ales.
After looking at the islands, Nan and I agree that first-hand experience is always best. A quick 20 minute ferry trip north from Mackay, sitting at the southern entrance of the Whitsunday Passage is Brampton Island. Almost entirely National Park, Brampton is a natural haven for native bush and wildlife where open eucalypt forests meet sheltered bays, dense vine forests and white sandy beaches.
If you go, make sure there's room in your backpack for plenty of water and re-energising treats as the hike to the picturesque lookout is slightly tough – but worth every step. It's also a good place to go wildlife spotting! We spotted several grey kangaroos and rainbow lorikeets.
Mackay done, we were ready to tackle our next destination, Airlie Beach – the gateway to the Whitsundays 74 islands.
We settle in to the Big 4 Whitsunday Resort in on the Shute Harbour Road, just outside the township, and spend our first day soaking up the sun on the Boathaven Beach at the Port of Airlie Development. Once the poor cousin to the vast number of beaches flanking the offshore islands, Boathaven now offers locals and tourists an all-tidal beach within walking distance of town.
It's also a short stroll to Mr Bones Pizza; touted as “the best pizza in Airlie”. We weren't disappointed and the lamb and babaganoush selection is worthy of a return trip.
As expected, there are endless water activities in Airlie and feeling a little adventurous, we opt for Salty Dog Sea Kayaking and a “freedom” double kayak at a cost of $90 per day. Playfully known by the family as “Gran Grylls”, Nan assures me I am in good hands should we decide to forego our lush caravan resort and camp out under the stars on one of the nearby uninhabited islands.
Our paddle takes us across clear waters brimming with corals and turtle feeding grounds. The sea was choppy and the wind a little strong at first but never scary. Kayaks are buoyant and with two paddlers in the boat you don't need shoulders the size of boulders to enjoy the experience.
Not nearly exhausting the region, the next day we venture to “Queensland's Salad Bowl”, Bowen, for a quick stop before the long drive to Ayr for a few days fishing.
Bowen, the northern-most town in the Whitsundays region grows a vast range of fresh produce known to end up on Aussie dinner plates. It produces 55 percent of the country's tomato supply and is celebrated for its delicious mangoes. It's also renowned for the Jackman Pie.
In 2008, this tiny town of just 14,000 residents was the backdrop for the epic Baz Luhrmann movie, Australia, and the local bakery was rumoured to be a preferred fuel stop for the world's sexiest man, Hugh Jackman. So much so, that the owner renamed the bakery's signature pie after the star.
Nan and I chow down on our 'Jackman' pie and marvel at the permanent display of movie memorabilia on the Bakery walls.
With a tummy full of good tucker, we head off to our last adventure, the annual fish off at the Barrattas.
Every year in the darkest depths of winter, when Pop was still alive, Nan would pack up the camping car and head thousands of kilometres north to the Burdekin Shire, just shy of Townsville.
This may be the sugar region of Australia and a bird-watcher's paradise, but my grandparents didn't go for the scenery. Their mission was to hit the Barrattas, a legendary estuarine waterway that yields good sized barras and succulent muddies.
With Pop's recent passing, it was my turn to take up the batton. We turned off the Bruce Highway about 20km north of Ayr and on the advice of a local fisherman, planted our rods just off the ramp before the mouth of the creek. The trick according to a new friend was to fish under lurking trees or to troll the edges of the water.
Eagle-eyed and ready, we waited on the bank with lines dangling in the water and rods firm in hand. It only took a few minutes before we snapped up three barra – two large enough for the plate.
That night, sitting back with a thousand starry night overhead and fresh fish straight off the barbeque, we realised we had not only conquered the Barrattas, but also the gap between Gran and the Girl.
Word Count: 1166
Author: Kathryn Stavropoulos and Shelley Winkel
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