Mainland Towns of Mackay, Laguna, Airlie Beach, Shute Harbour & Bowen

Mackay is no mainland “town”; at 100,000 people it’s officially a “dynamic regional centre” – and is also the jumping off point for guests travelling to Brampton and Keswick Islands. Virgin Blue, Jetstar, Qantas and Tiger Airways all service Mackay Airport.

Laguna to the north was once the favoured child of the Whitsunday Coast Airport campaign, but is now simply the location of a golf resort and marina and not much else. The marina is popular with budget-conscious long-distance cruisers happy to forgo the bustle of Airlie Beach to the north during the busy cruising season from April to November.

Airlie Beach is the Whitsundays’ buzzing hub, with most charter boats departing from either downtown Abel Pt Marina or Shute Harbour, about 10km out of town. Airlie’s main street is often filled with campervans, caravans and coaches, as tourists flock to this throbbing town. It’s been a backpacker magnet since the mid-’70s tourism infancy, with hotel and charter operators initially catering strongly to this market.

But Airlie has evolved in recent years; operators now offer facilities for discerning holidaymakers looking for entertainment slightly more sophisticated than cane toad races, and the Heritage-Listed Cane Cutters Cottage is a prime example of some of the beautiful lodgings available. Proserpine (Whitsunday Coast) Airport is serviced by Virgin Blue and Jetstar, and is around 25min by road from Airlie Beach. Qld Rail runs regular services between Brisbane and Cairns, via Proserpine.

Bowen is about 40min drive north of Airlie Beach and is now pretty much synonymous with Baz Luhrmann’s epic Australia. But long before Baz and Co. came to this waterfront town, Bowen was developing its own identity, creating a fascinating series of murals across the wide streets that trace its colonial history back to 1861. After visiting one of the seven beaches, including gorgeous Horseshoe Bay, a stop at the Grandview Hotel for its superb pub food won’t blow the holiday budget.

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