Mackay's unspoiled tropical charm

From my hotel balcony a flotilla of rich looking ocean craft rest at their moorings, golden light dancing between the masts.  Palm trees rustle a tropical tune while the warm balmy air swaths my shoulders with coastal delicacy.  Darkness will soon fall on the boardwalk below prompting a wave of alfresco restaurants to flash up their pans and cater for hungry wanderers.  Amid the ocean scenery, shipyard, lighthouse, boats and eateries, Mackay marina is a peaceful and relaxed place to watch the sunlight disappear over ships anchored on the horizon.   

Once overlooked as a tourist destination in everyone's hurry to push onto the Whitsundays or surrounding National Parks, Mackay has happily found its own niche.  In the time since my last visit some ten years ago this seaside metropolis has undergone a slick transformation from a predominately old and dreary service town to a vivacious city with personality and punch. 

It also lures families and holiday makers with loads of free stuff to do. Adjacent to the Caneland Central Shopping Centre a public walkway “the Bluewater Trail” twists and turns 19 kilometres along the Pioneer River providing a pretty path for both walkers and cyclists.  Connecting many of the regions key attractions including the well-tended Regional Botanic Gardens, it is the giant public artwork that captivates my attention.  Attracting a continual passing outdoor audience, many colourful works decorate the promenade including sculptures by Donna Marcus constructed from marine buoys which anchors both the community's vibrant economy and its ties to the sea, to Fiona Foley's “Fishbones”, a line-up of wings that evoke the fish spine and act as a marker to the wharf precinct. 

Foley suggests “Inspiration for these works was drawn from history – the Yuibera people were noted by early settlers for their fishing prowess.  However this work also describes current activity on the Pioneer River.  What strikes me about this area now is the wharves and the fish market.  Fishing is still a big part of the recreational life in Mackay.” 

The Bluewater Trail also leads to another of the city's most loved free attractions, the Bluewater Lagoon.  Sprawling over three separate pools and incorporating waterslides and aquatic play facilities, lifeguards stand on duty to increase the safety and enjoyment of families soaking up some rays and grilling a steak beside the sparkling lagoons.    

If you are interested in architectural heritage, a few streets away in the heart of town Mackay's reputation for housing the best collection of Art Deco buildings in Queensland is well displayed.  I stop for a coffee in the Old National Bank which takes me back to the wealth and prosperity of the sugar industry in the early 1920's, surrounded by elaborate facades with decorative columns and arches.  If you are in town on a Wednesday, join in a free Heritage Walk that brings to life the stories of past generations and 20 beautifully restored heritage-listed buildings.  With sugar still the farming heart of the area, tours of Farleigh Sugar Mill during the June-November crushing season can also be arranged.   

Increasing Mackay's charm is its geographical location tucked between rolling hills of sugar cane and 31 beaches providing endless fishing, surfing and beachcombing opportunities.  Surrounded by National Parks all offering their own unique experiences, I choose just one on this trip, Eungella National Park

Weaving one hour west through sunlit walls of sugar cane flowers (the area produces a third of Queensland's sugar) I make the mandatory stop at the small, unassuming Pinnacle Pub for a famous Pinnacle Pie and continue on to Finch Hatton Gorge to experience tranquil bushwalks through dense rainforest and cool flowing rock pools. 

From here it's a climb from the valley floor into misty mountains to arrive at Broken River Mountain Resort located in the Eungella National Park.  The air up here is chilly and I am happy to be welcomed by a cosy, crackling fireplace and warm dinner menu.    

Huddled on the banks of Broken River, I rise early next morning to go in search of the elusive platypus renowned in this area for sightings at dawn and dusk.  They don't disappoint – all day they ducked and dived pleasing park visitors with their comings and goings.  A few days is easily spent in this area discovering the forest and wildlife while drinking in the stunning views over the valley below.       

Back in Mackay if you're looking for a getaway with water views, Keswick Island is the region's best kept little secret.   Just 12 minutes flight away it offers camping as well as glamping facilities right beside a stunning beach.  This is the place for quiet relaxation, a lonely walk to a deserted beach, a red rich sunset on the tip of an isolated point, a pause in time with a sky filled with tiger blue butterflies, or in season, an afternoon watching whales breach in the passage nearby. 

From this calming spot I look back at the lights of Mackay, home to just under 75,000 people and gateway to the Bowen Basin coalmining reserves.  My visit has confirmed that it's not all about business here.  But business mixed with a great deal of tropical pleasure.  

Go:  Mackay is situated 970km north of Brisbane




Name: Cathy Finch
Word Count: 917

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