Mackay is a small but growing tourist destination, in its own right, and as the gateway to the Whitsundays. We visited this town on our way to Airlie Beach and I want to share the top things to do in Mackay.
Mackay is nicknamed the Sugar Capital of Australia because it produces more than a third of Australia’s sugar.
FIFO workers at the Bowen Basin Coal Mine, Australia’s largest coal reserves, use Mackay as a base. This, unfortunately, has pushed accommodation prices up.
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The Best Things To Do in Mackay
Explore Mackay City
It doesn’t take long to wander through Mackay’s city centre. It is worth it, though, for the Art Deco style buildings. The majority of the buildings were built in the early 20th Century, meaning Mackay has the best collection of Art Dec Buildings in Queensland. There’s a free walk you can do.
Another popular walk in Mackay city centre is the Heritage Trail. This brochure provides all the information on the architecture and history.
Look out for the Elton John inspired Yellow Brick Road mural in Fourth Lane, off Wood Street.
The Bluewater Trail is a shared pedestrian and bicycle path, linking up popular Mackay attractions.
The trail is around 20km, so prepare for a long walk, or bike it (alternatively only do part of the walk). This map shows where the paths are.
We enjoyed walking along the Pioneer River and stopping to admire the public art along the way. The six art installations represent Mackay’s history and diversity.
Children will enjoy stopping at Iluka Park with its playground, picnic area, and public toilets.
The walk also includes the Sandfly Creek Environmental walkway and Catherine Freeman walk.
All of this is free, making it a wonderfully budget-friendly.
Bluewater Lagoon is a water park in the centre of Mackay. It won’t cost you anything to enter as it is FREE.
There are three lagoons, a water slide, and a water playground for the younger kids. This outdoor leisure centre covers an area of three 50m swimming pools.
The pools are perfect for families and anyone wanting to cool down in the tropical heat. It is also a safe stinger-free option.
The 19.5m water slide provides endless fun for the kids, while the adults can chill by the poolside. A fence surrounds the park, which provides a secure environment.
The lagoon has disabled and elderly access with suitable water levels.
If you want to make a day of it (and why wouldn’t you), there are electric barbecues to use. Bluewater Lagoon Café sells snacks, water, and ice cream.
The Caneland Central Shopping Centre is across the road, making it easy for you to buy food from the supermarket.
Bluewater Lagoon is open every day except Christmas Day. During summer (September – March) 9 am – 5:45 pm, and during the winter (April – mid-July) 9 am – 4:45 pm. It’s located at Caneland Park, River Street, Mackay.
Download the brochure.
It’s certainly my choice of one of the best free things to do in Mackay.
There are an incredible 31 beaches in the Mackay region, but these are my favourites:
Eimeo Beach is a 15-minute drive from Mackay centre along Bruce Highway. This sandy beach is 400m long and patrolled by lifeguards most days during summer.
There’s a great park in front of the beach with free BBQs. We stopped here on our way to Airlie Beach for lunch. The kids had fun on the play equipment while we took in the gorgeous ocean views.
Eimeo Pacific Hotel is a pub with beautiful views of Eimeo Beach and the Coral Sea. We haven’t eaten here, but the menu sounds delicious. It would be a perfect place to watch the Mackay sunset.
Between Shoal Point and Eimeo Headland are three beaches; Bucasia Beach, Shoal Point, and Sunset Bay.
Shoal Point Beach is a 30m wide, high tide beach. With its amazing views of the coastline, it is particularly stunning at sunset. At low tide, the sand stretches for hundreds of metres, allowing for great views of Green Reef Island. Shoal Point also has a park with a playground, picnic tables, and free BBQs.
Bucasia is a long 4km sandy beach with a designated off leash area for dogs. Flathead can be fished from the beach at high tide while taking in the views of Dolphin Heads and the Cumberland Islands.
Lamberts Beach is north of the marina and patrolled seasonally. It has play equipment, toilets, showers, BBQs, and picnic tables. Lamberts Beach Lookout has spectacular views of the Cumberland Islands and the perfect viewpoint for spotting whales in season. Visitors can walk through Slade Point Reserve, one of the last remaining coastal dunes and paperbark wetlands in the Mackay region.
Harbour Beach is home to the Mackay Surf Lifesaver Club and patrolled seasonally. It’s close to the Mackay Marina with all its facilities.
Stingers are present year round in the ocean here, but peak season is between November and May. It is best to wear a stinger suit during these months.
Signs also warn of sharks and crocodiles. While the risk is very low, you should remain vigilant and preferably swim at patrolled beaches.
Kangaroos at Cape Hillsborough National Park
Kangaroos are one of the best things about living in Australia. They are seriously cute. Add that with a beautiful beach, and it’s perfect.
Cape Hillsborough National Park is where you get to see Kangaroos and Wallabies on the beach. You need to be there early to see them as they don’t hang around for long. They arrive at first light (about 30 mins before sunrise) to look for mangrove seed pods washed up by the morning tide.
As Cape Hillsborough NP is 50km from Mackay, it’s best to camp there or make a very early start. Cape Hillsborough Nature Tourist Park is ideal, located right by the beach. The cheaper option is Smalleys Beach camping area, but there are only 11 sites here, and access is via a gravel road.
There are several walking trails in the National Park, ranging from 1.2km to 5.2km. We didn’t do these hikes, but you can find all the information at the Department of Environment & Science. Be safe; wear insect repellent, a hat, sunscreen, and carry drinking water with you.
Two hours either side of low tide, the causeway to Wedge Island becomes accessible. Just be careful to note the times of the tide.
If you are visiting in late September, Orchid Rock (on the left of Wedge Island) boasts colourful golden orchids.
Mackay Aqua Park
All kids love these giant inflatable obstacle courses, ours included. Mackay Aqua Park is located at the Gowake Cable Park, 4 Michigan Way in Andergrove.
It costs $20 for a 50-minute session, which is sure to wear them out. Make sure to book ahead as it gets busy.
Children have to at least four years old and must be accompanied by a paying adult participant unless they are eight or over.
The park provides lifejackets, and lifeguards are on duty in the water park.
Mackay Aqua Park has to be one of the most fun things to do in Mackay.
Sarina Sugar Shed
Sarina Sugar Shed is where you get to learn about the sugar cane that Mackay is famous for.
The tour includes how sugar cane is grown, harvested, and crushed in the sugar mill. The price includes a cane plantation tour, watching a miniature mill in action, and tastings.
It’s interesting to learn how sugar cane grows and what types of machines are used to harvest it. When you visit the miniature sugar mill, a demonstration shows how to extract sugar from the cane.
During the tour, you taste the sugar in many forms. At the end, children receive fairy floss and adults a tasting of liqueur, or ginger beer, plus a taste of their homemade Chefs’ Gusto sauces.
Tours are run every day at 9.30am, 11.00am, 12.30pm and 2.00pm
Sarina Sugar Shed is located 37 km south of Mackay, just off the Bruce Highway.
Eungella National Park
Eungella National Park is one of Queensland’s most ecologically diverse parks. It has 860 plant species and a tremendous variety of wildlife, including the Platypus.
Eungella NP is 86km from Mackay and will take around 90 minutes by car. However, the drive through the Pioneer Valley takes you to country towns and passes by Finch Hatton Gorge, so you want to stop along the way.
There are two trails at Finch Hatton Gorge; the 2.8km return walk to Araluen Cascades and the longer 4.2km to Wheel of Fire. Make sure to read the warnings here.
At Eungella National Park, you get to witness dense sub-tropical rainforest with peaks covered in mist.
The banks of Broken River is the best place to try and see a platypus in their natural environment. They can be hard to spot and are very shy. Try and stay as still as possible and look out for air bubbles. Platypus can stay underwater for a couple of minutes and resurface for about ten seconds. Eels and turtles can also be sighted here.
At 1259m above sea level, the views of the valley from this park are stunning.
There are over 20km of walking trails here, so make it the ideal place for hikers. The walks vary from 30 minute easy walks to half-day and day walks, including the 56km Mackay Highlands Great Walk.
If you don’t like walking or can’t, several drives around the park take in the area’s nature and beauty.
It is essential to visit this area safely. Please read the guidelines on Visiting Eungella Safely.
This 5-hour tour explores the untouched locations of the South Cumberland Islands, which might include Keswick Island, Brampton Island, Cockermouth Island, Scawfell Island, or St Bee’s Island.
The use of snorkel equipment, stand-up paddleboards, and Lycra Suit & Wet Suit (wet suit in winter months only) is included in the price along with a buffet lunch, tea, and coffee.
Finch Hatton Railway Station
This cute timber building, built in 1904, was heritage-listed in 2004. It’s a great example of a country branch line station building, showing the importance of the Queensland sugar industry’s railway networks.
Artspace Mackay is the regional art gallery which has three contemporary gallery spaces. The museum hosts exhibitions by local, Australian and international artists and is a creative and educational experience for all ages.
Visit Keswick Island
Keswick Island is located 32km northeast of Mackay and is the southernmost of the Whitsunday islands. This tropical paradise can be reached by boat or a 15-minute flight. It is more of a destination than a day trip with tropical rainforest teeming with wildlife and white sandy beaches for swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving. You may even spot turtles and manta rays.
Accommodation in Mackay Qld
To view prices on Booking.com, click on the blue links. For Agoda, click on the photo.
Our night’s requirements in Mackay was a clean, family room, not too far out of Mackay, and free parking.
After extensive research, we booked the Alara Motor Inn on Bruce Highway. Our family room consisted of a Queen bed in the main room with a bar fridge and microwave, a separate twin bedroom, and a bathroom. It was spotless and spacious for a motel, and we couldn’t hear any noise from the road (our unit was at the rear). It only cost us $135 for the room and has a pool.
If you want a great value, clean, central, family-friendly place to stay you I recommend Alara Motor Inn.
If you want accommodation that has kitchen facilities, the Riviera Mackay has excellent reviews. It’s also right in Mackay’s centre, a 5-minute walk from Bluewater Lagoon and Caneland Shopping Centre. These apartments also have free parking and are more luxurious and modern. Of course, they are more expensive at around $280 for a two bedroom apartment (obviously a one bedroom is cheaper).
Ibis Mackay is located near Mackay Airport and has a 24-hour front desk. It has a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and a bar. It’s a 10-minute drive into Mackay’s centre but an option if you want to be close to the airport.
Private Holiday Rentals
Where is Mackay?
Mackay is on the coast of Tropical North Queensland, Australia.
International visitors will need to fly via either Brisbane or Sydney. A domestic flight will take you to Mackay Airport. Find details about visas, prohibited items, currency, and safety on our Australia page.
Purchase Australian currency at Crown Currency in the check-in area.
If you enjoy rail journeys, the Spirit of Queensland runs from Brisbane to Mackay. The Mackay Train Station is in Paget, 5 km south of the City Centre.
Alternatively, you could stop at Mackay as part of a Brisbane to Cairns road trip. Greyhound Australia also makes stops in Mackay.
There are a few ways to get from Mackay airport to the town centre:
Taxi – A taxi into the city takes about 15 minutes and will cost approximately $30 – $40. There are also rideshare options, like Sheba and Ola.
Car Hire – To compare rental car company prices, I use Discover Cars, an award-winning car rental comparison website. They offer competitive pricing in over 10,000 locations worldwide and are have a high rate of customer satisfaction.
Tip: The earlier car rentals are booked, the cheaper it is with more choice of vehicles.
Mackay Forecast & Weather
Mackay has a tropical climate meaning the summers are generally hot and wet. Winter days are warm and sunny, although night temperatures can drop.
The wettest months are December through to March, with the driest months being August/September.
The daytime maximum temperatures are around 30 degrees during the summer (wet months) and 21-25 degrees during the winter (dry months).
Mackay does have a cyclone season, from December through to April. Forty-three tropical cyclones have passed within 150 km of Mackay from 1910-1992.
See the detailed 7-day forecast at the Bureau of Meteorology.
Brief History & Settlement of Mackay
I would like to respectfully acknowledge the Yuibera People, the Traditional Owners, and First People of these lands. I would like to pay my respect to the Elders past, present, and future, for they hold the memories, the traditions, the culture, and hopes of the Yuibera People.
Captain James Cook first sighted Mackay in June 1770 while onboard the Endeavour. It was here that Sir Joseph Banks briefly recorded seeing Aboriginal people.
John Mackay’s expedition party were the first European settlers to the area in 1860, and by 1862, the first residents arrive.
In 1865, John Spiller planted the first lot of Sugar Cane in Mackay. Today Mackay is capable of supplying up to 6.5 million tonnes of sugar cane.
According to the 2016 Australian Census, Mackay had a population of just over 43,000. However, this figure is estimated to have at least doubled since then.
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