Unless you've got an industry fetish, Gladstone, with its busy port, power station and alumina refineries, is rather uninspiring. You might want to head straight for the marina (Bryan Jordan Dr), the main departure point for boats to the southern coral cay islands of Heron, Masthead and Wilson on the Great Barrier Reef.
Pretty little Yeppoon is a small seaside town with a long beach, a calm ocean and an attractive hinterland of volcanic outcrops, pineapple patches and grazing lands. The handful of quiet streets, sleepy motels and beachside cafes attracts Rockhamptonites beating the heat, and tourists heading for Great Keppel Island, only 13km offshore.
The Central Highlands, west of Rockhampton, are home to two excellent national parks. Blackdown Tableland National Park is a brooding, powerful place, while visitors to Carnarvon National Park will be gobsmacked by the spectacular gorge. At Emerald, 270km inland, try fossicking for gems in the heat and rubble – you'll be surrounded by the good people and vibe of the outback.
West of Emerald (named after Emerald Downs, emeralds are not actually found here) sit 640 sq km of gem fields. The fields draw heart-strong prospectors who eke out a living until a jackpot (or sunstroke) arrives. Fossickers descend in winter – in the hot summers the towns are nearly deserted. Sapphires are the main haul, but zircons are also found and, very rarely, rubies.
Southern Reef Islands
If you’ve ever had ‘castaway’ dreams of tiny coral atolls fringed with sugary white sand and turquoise-blue seas, you’ve found your island paradise in the southern Great Barrier Reef islands. From beautiful Lady Elliot Island, 80km northeast of Bundaberg, secluded and uninhabited coral reefs and atolls dot the ocean for about 140km up to Tryon Island.
Great Keppel Island
Great Keppel Island is a ruggedly perfect island with rocky headlands, forested hills and a wide, dreamy fringe of powdery white sand lapped by clear azure waters. Numerous ‘castaway’ beaches ring the 14-sq-km island, while natural bushland covers 90% of the interior.
The staggeringly beautiful Byfield National Park is a diverse playground of mammoth sand dunes, thick semitropical rainforest, wetlands and rocky pinnacles. It’s superb Sunday-arvo driving terrain, with enough hiking paths and isolated beaches to warrant a longer stay. There are five camping grounds to choose from (prebook).
Other Keppel Bay Islands
Although you can make day trips to the fringing coral reefs of Middle Island or Halfway Island from Great Keppel Island (ask your accommodation or at Great Keppel Island Holiday Village), you can also camp (per person/family $5.85/21.80) on several national park islands, including Humpy Island, Middle Island, North Keppel Island and Miall Island.
Lady Musgrave Island
Wannabe castaways look no further. This tiny, 15-hectare cay, 100km northeast of Bundaberg, sits on the western rim of a stunning, turquoise-blue reef lagoon renowned for its safe swimming, snorkelling and diving. A squeaky, white-sand beach fringes a dense canopy of pisonia forest brimming with roosting bird life, including terns, shearwaters and white-capped noddies.
Heron & Wilson Islands
With the underwater reef world accessible directly from the beach, Heron Island is famed for the best easily accessed scuba diving in the Southern Reef Islands, and also for great snorkelling, although you’ll need a fair amount of cash to visit. A true coral cay, it is densely vegetated with pisonia trees and surrounded by 24 sq km of reef.