Mackay, on Queensland's Pioneer River, is the sugar capital of Australia. The region produces more than one third of the country's cane sugar. The Whitsundays are just off the coast and the city is in the centre of two major island groups with over 100 continental islands. The Cumberland Group stretches 80 nautical miles to the north and the lesser known Northumberland Group stretches almost the same distance to the south. Almost all the islands enjoy National Park status and have pristine beaches and bays with fringed coral reefs.
The region is home to wildlife such as the platypus and dugong, rare birds and butterflies. Landscape is a mix of dramatic coastal scenery, highland waterfalls, gorges and mountains and lush lowlands. Restored colonial buildings in a tropical setting make the town very appealing.
Some of Queensland's best beaches can be enjoyed around 30 of them cover 64 kilometres between Sarina in the south and Seaforth in the north. Most have been developed for residential and tourist use, posing concerns for the survival of nesting sea turtles. The Mackay District Turtle Watch Group keeps a close eye on that!
Make time to visit Eungella National Park which covers 51,700 hectares, or the coastal Cape Hillsborough National Park, known for its rugged scenery, walking tracks and native wildlife.
Quite possibly Mackay's most famous export is Cathy Freeman. She now prefers to be known as Catherine and was the perfect person to take the Getaway crew on a tour of her home town.
Catherine not only became a world-class track star and Olympic gold medal winner, but a symbol of hope and unity for her country. Her awards are as long as her stride, yet her fame has not affected her warm disposition. Was there anyone in Australia without a lump in their throat as she lit the 2000 Sydney Olympic Torch in the company of so many other successful sportspeople? She is the only person to have been honoured as Young Australian of the Year (1990) and Australian of the Year (1998).
Things have changed in Catherine's home town since she left. For starters, there is the thriving Mackay Marina Village and Shipyard. It has an impressive array of shops, bars and restaurants and the luxury Clarion Hotel. It's a hot spot for locals and perfect for tourists as well as visiting dolphins and schools of jumping fish. Migrating whales are likely to be spotted between June and September.
The islands of the southern Whitsundays such as Brampton, Keswick, St Bees and Scawfell are just off the coast and can be seen from the sea wall.
You'll find the Lighthouse Seafood Restaurant here. They serve the best from the sea and from Friday to Sunday have live music. Sunsets are perfect and the busiest time of day and you can order fish and chips and find a spot on the grassy outdoor area.
The original Pine Islet lighthouse at the front of the restaurant is one of few working kerosene lighthouses remaining anywhere.