It was once the state’s undiscovered river city, a centre of industry that grew rich from gold and cattle farming. But in 2021, Rockhampton, on the banks of the mighty Fitzroy River, is having a moment. Today’s Rocky combines easy access to nature with a lively dining, bar and arts scene, without losing any of its relaxed charm.
Where to eat
If you rate a place on the quality of its coffee, head straight for Dingles, a hip café pouring specialty brews within a grand early-20th-century corner terrace. The food is as impressive as the contemporary interiors, with local produce sourced to create eggs Benedict with zingy kaffir lime hollandaise and mango salad spiked with radish, pickled cucumber and blueberries.
With a deck that hovers above the Fitzroy River and walls of glass to maximise every diner’s view, the Boathouse (pictured top) is like nowhere else in this city. The slick eatery serves a tempting breakfast menu and Campos coffee, before share plates, pasta and pizza take over for lunch and dinner.
Skyring’s Restaurant and Bar
Towards the northern end of town, this brand-new riverside establishment boasts water views accompanied by great local produce. Order fresh chilli crab pasta and seafood bouillabaisse from the à la carte menu or head for the outside terrace for sangria and share plates of chilli pancetta mussels and lamb kofta with a salsa verde harissa.
The Criterion Hotel
You’re unlikely to find a better steak than in Australia’s beef capital and local cattle graziers supply the restaurant at this 131-year-old family-run institution. Order yours how you like it, from classic to crumbed and Philly-cheese style. Take note: it’s “The Cri” to those in the know. Be sure to book and pre-order your steak.
The best places to drink
Riverston Tea Rooms
During the heat of the day, take a seat under the chandeliers at this elegant parlour (186 Quay Street; 0429 215 926). Within the 140-year-old Queensland National Bank building – and styled in harmony with its heritage – the café serves the Gold Coast’s Paradox Roasters coffee and Harney & Sons tea, alongside an all-day menu of light breakfasts, lunches and sweet treats. Don’t leave without sampling the custard slice.
All exposed brick, timber and concrete floors, this award-winning brewpub and restaurant reflects the industrial past of its premises – a former merchant’s warehouse. It’s the hub of the city’s craft-drinks scene; try the popular Fitzroy American pale ale or a refreshing Queensland ale for something light.
A few blocks west of Headricks Lane, CocoBrew Rockhampton’s old-school Whiskey Lounge is a moodily lit bolthole. If you can’t choose between Glenfiddich and Glen Moray on the list of more than 92 whiskies, consider the 18-year-old Japanese Yamazaki single malt (a real treat at $180 a dram).
Where to stay
Empire Apartment Hotel
On the river’s edge, this sleek property looks over the water as well as offering knockout views of Mount Archer. All rooms have a kitchenette, with the larger apartments boasting balconies spacious enough for entertaining. The hotel is a short stroll from the heritage precinct and the riverside walk, with its easy access to cafés and restaurants.
The best things to do
Rockhampton has retained many of its original buildings, with a selection along leafy Quay Street, Australia’s longest National Trust heritage-listed street. Take a self-guided heritage walk with a brochure from the Spire Visitor Information Centre on Gladstone Road. Start at the Harbour Board Building and gaze into the city’s past as you wander by old banks, gold-mining headquarters and iconic Customs House.
Rockhampton Botanic Gardens
With its wildflowers, rainforest and ancient banyan figs, the Botanic Gardens is a great spot for a picnic, particularly under the shady pergola in the Japanese Garden. Visit the on-site Rockhampton Zoo, home to more than 60 species of animals, including a mob of newly arrived meerkats.
Feel the temperature plummet at the opening to these limestone caverns, 30 minutes out of town. Channel Indiana Jones as you cross the suspension bridge and take a tour with a guide to experience a light show inside the huge Cathedral Cave.
If the six bull sculptures dotted around town or the excellent steak seared at The Cri didn’t convince you that Rocky is our beef capital, the Beef Australia triennial will. To be held from 2 to 8 May with live entertainment, exhibitions and cooking demonstrations, it’s a fitting tribute to the more than 3 million head of cattle in the area. But you can sink your teeth into the local beef culture at any time of year. Download a map of the city’s Bull Statue Tour and try to find them all; watch a livestock sale at the CQLX exchange; and enjoy a farm stay at Henderson Park Farm Retreat, a fifth-generation cattle station that offers charming accommodation, guided tours, bushwalking and canoeing.
Cattle may be king in Rockhampton but fishing enthusiasts also find plenty to keep themselves busy here. In fact, since the removal of commercial netting in the Fitzroy River in 2015, the city has become a haven for recreational fishers. It’s one of the few places in the country where you can fish right in the centre of town, meaning that you can fly in, check into your hotel and throw a line in the water within the hour. Visit explorerockhampton.com.au to find out more about land-based platforms and boat ramps in Rocky and the varieties of fish you can hook – the famous barramundi is the main prize but you might also catch king threadfin salmon and saratoga.
Image credits: Ed Cunningham, Urbis © Florian Groehn