The word Whitsundays immediately conjures thoughts of tropical island paradises, clear blue waters, beautiful beaches and, of course, the Great Barrier Reef.
And while many will fly into Whitsundays airport then ferry across to one of the islands, there’s a better way to see more of Queensland’s north-east coast and countryside.
My tip is to fly into Mackay Airport and spend a few days in this region. I stayed in a super affordable two-bedroom apartment at the Riviera Mackay, where you can get a one-bedroom apartment for as little as $159 a night; and longer stays will get you a better nightly rate.
The apartments are light-filled and spacious and, most importantly, cool. It can get pretty warm in Mackay, even in winter. When booking, ask for a suite that overlooks the Bluewater Lagoon – you won’t be disappointed. The staff are so friendly and accommodating, and you’ll be staying right in the thick of it. A quick five-minute walk will have you in Wood Street, where you’ll find some cool bars and fab food options. Bars of note are Moss on Wood, which has a great range of craft beers, good wine and classic pub food mixed with more cosmopolitan fare. Take a seat on the faux grass terrace with a cold drink and have a chat with the locals. The restaurant services the Rydges Mackay Suites, which is another great place to stay – bang in the middle of the entertainment district and with rooms from as low as $130 a night. Just up the road you’ll find The Paddock & Brew Company, which has around 140 craft beers and a fabulous Mexican and smokehouse barbecue-inspired menu. The food is amazing, the beer better and the staff, the best.
Mackay itself boasts access to a section of the Great Barrier Reef, a city water park, good food, supermarkets and entertainment and, depending on the time of year you visit, a number of music, arts and plain old fun festivals.
Rent a car and take a quick drive inland until you hit Eungella National Park, home to stunning bushwalks, swimming holes and rivers where rare frogs and platypus live. On the way, make sure you stop and experience Rainforest Scuba, or pop into Finch Hatton Gorge for a picnic or simply wander along to the Wheel of Fire Cascades, another beautiful waterfall with a large rock pool perfect for swimming.
While you’re in the area, stop in for lunch at Church Café Pinnacle, where owners Giuseppe and Genny will serve you the best Italian food you’ve had in Australia – well, that’s my opinion, anyway. The café sits inside a 103-year-old church in Pioneer Valley, and the food is so good you’ll wish it was your local Italian restaurant. Open for lunch and dinner, Church Café Pinnacle easily serves the best Italian food I’ve eaten, so get there and try it for yourself.
Then, head north and spend a couple of days at Cape Hillsborough Resort. Situated in a national park, the resort hugs the shoreline famous for its early morning visitors – the Eastern Grey Kangaroos and wallabies that make their way to the beach each morning to feed on seaweed and mangrove seed pods which have washed up from the overnight tides, as well as the food given to them by the local ‘ranger’.
And if that doesn’t grab you, the spectacular sunrises and bushwalks there may float your boat. Either that, or the chance to actually go boating, sailing or fishing may entice you. The resort also has a cute ‘bar’ and diner, as well as a pool, putt putt mini golf, a general store, barbecue facilities and everything you need to enjoy a holiday away from the hustle and bustle. It’s also in a digital free zone, which means you can enjoy a digital detox while you’re there. But don’t fear, if you really need a signal, you can get it near the diner.
A one-hour drive on super easy roads from Cape Hillsborough will have you at Airlie Beach but, on your way out, make sure you stop at The Old Station Teahouse about 15 minutes from the resort. Hosts Michelle and Dwayne will regale you with the history of this establishment, while you sip great coffee and enjoy one of the best breakfasts in Queensland. Don’t leave straight away – take the opportunity to visit the bird sanctuary and admire the beauty of their spectacular property.
There is no shortage of accommodation options at Airlie Beach. We pull into The Seabreeze Park at Cannonvale, just outside of Airlie Beach proper. The bungalow suite is everything you could ask for in accommodation, but there’s a range of other options available, including Bali-style villas, powered sites and pet-friendly cabins. Clean, quiet and cool, it’s the perfect place to unwind after experiencing the Mackay region. Food trucks serve food most nights, otherwise, head next door to the supermarket (there’s a shopping centre up the road) and grab some food to cook in the shared campsite kitchen or in the privacy of your own temporary home.
The park puts on fun activities, such as parties and karaoke nights (the staff are known for their amazing ‘pipes’) and there are two pools and easy access to botanic gardens, shopping, food and Abell Point Marina. Rates are seasonal, so visit the website for the best price.
You could also spend a night or two perched on the hillside at Toscana Airlie Beach, with awesome views of the Coral Sea in huge rooms at great prices. The resort features four pools, a seasonal restaurant, all in a tranquil garden setting inspired by the villages of Tuscany. The rooms are well-equipped and spacious and, with a short, albeit challenging walk, you’re about 200m from the beach and town, main street shops, bars, restaurants and entertainment.
While in Airlie Beach, take a day trip with Cruise Whitsundays to visit Australia’s best beach – Whitehaven Beach. But if you really want to spoil yourself, book a berth on the Derwent Hunter – a tall ship that puts cruise in cruisy.
The crew of the Hunter will take you off to Hook Island, stopping at superb snorkelling sites along the way. I can almost guarantee you that it will be the highlight of your Whitsundays visit – as it was mine. You’ll learn the history of the region, as well as the local marine life and the astonishing story of the Derwent Hunter itself, and you’ll even get to be a member of the crew (it’s almost compulsory!). Trust me, no boat you’ve ever boarded has as much character as this beauty. Food, snorkelling gear and fun are all provided.
Once back on dry land, book a table at the Boathouse Fishbar for the best seafood feed on ‘the beach’. Mouth-watering dishes are paired with lip-smacking cocktails on tables overlooking the Port of Airlie, and staff who know the area like the back of their hands. Ask them about the best the region has to offer, and they’ll reel off suggestions aplenty.
There’s so much to see and do at Airlie Beach and the Mackay region that a week will hardly do it justice. You can visit the islands, snorkel the Reef, go bareboating, hang around town or take short drives inland or along the coast and fill a month if you’re so inclined.
Have you been to Mackay or Airlie Beach? What did you get up to? Where did you stay? Why not share your tips with our members?
Leon travelled as a guest of Mackay Region and Tourism Whitsundays