Surfin’ Byron Bay
Happy hippies and blissed-out backpackers make for a heady holiday mix in Australia’s capital of cool. Carolynne Dear took the kids along for the ride.
It’s nice, flying to Australia. Pick the right night flight and you can end up soaring over the magnificent “top end” just as the sun rises, a pink glow casting its rosy hue over the Gulf of Carpentaria and the vast plains of the Northern Territory.
Of course the enormity of the country means you still have a good three hours until you land in Sydney, but that first glimpse of this vast land is quite special.
We were flying en famille for a southern hemisphere summer break in Byron Bay, the surf-haven that lies on the northern-most stretch of the New South Wales coastline. Byron’s closest airport, Ballina, is a tiny, domestic-only affair, so the options were to fly into Brisbane with a 150km drive south, or fly to Sydney and transfer either to a Gold Coast flight (which involves an hour’s drive south to Byron) or, as we did, a flight into Ballina Gateway Airport, and a 20-minute cruise north along the slick new A1 freeway.
Door-to-door, Clearwater Bay to our holiday house in leafy Federal, Byron Shire, took most of the night and all day, but with just a three-hour time difference and an incredibly easy drive at the end, we arrived in much better shape than the previous July following a twelve-hour night-flight to Paris, a seven-hour time difference, and having to negotiate the notorious Peripherique during the Parisian morning rush-hour. My husband certainly looked a lot less grim as we sped along the empty roads past a sparkling ocean and leafy gum trees.
The surrounding countryside may be peaceful, but Byron town in the summer is busy, no two-ways about it. What with hippies, holidaymakers, backpackers, locals and day-trippers, all attempting to drop in and hang out, there really isn’t much space in the grid-locked town centre, so with past experience under our belts, we’d opted to stay in the lush, green hinterland – the complete antithesis of bustling Hong Kong.
The specifics of our property – a large, single-storey building with huge open plan kitchen, lounge and dining area leading onto a verandah, lawn and pool, all with sensational views over the lush green fields and gum trees to the ocean – will remain under wraps, suffice to say it is in the little village of Federal which is a 20 minute drive from the coast. And that’s all I’m prepared to give away.
As blissed out as its reputation is today, Byron has had a busy past. The local Arakwal Aboriginal people originally named the area Cavvanbah, or “meeting place”. Then James Cook sailed in in the eighteenth century, naming the headland – the most easterly point of mainland Australia – Cape Byron after a naval officer on board who also became, incidentally, the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron.
A chequered history of logging, sand mining, whaling and meat and dairy production ensued, until everything began to decline in the 1960s and the surfers hit town, keen to hang ten on longboards at natural surf breaks at The Pass (glorious on a summer’s evening), Watego’s (great luxe beachside restaurant) and Cosy Corner. And once counter-culture music and arts festival Aquarius had rolled into nearby Nimbin in 1973, the area had firmly established itself as a happy, hippy, surfie scene. What’s nice about Byron is that even in this high-tech day and age, it still hasn’t lost its charm. We encountered many an oblivious backpacker, guitar under one arm, surfboard under the other, meandering along the lanes.
Our own stay mostly revolved around hanging out in the garden, with the kids enjoying hosepipe fights on the trampoline and playing “classic catches” with an old tennis ball in the pool, and for us, reading, slapping top quality local meat onto the BBQ and taking in the crystal clear views over a bottle of something cold and crisp.
Nearby Bangalow and Mullumbimby offered great shopping, coffee stops and a plethora of lunch venues – we can highly recommend The Bangalow Hotel where we enjoyed grilled fish, salads and burgers on its frangipani-bedecked verandah one afternoon. There are also heaps of boutiques for a post-lunch digestive wander, with loads of locally sourced clothing, shoes, homewares and other bits and bobs.
Of course on a proper Aussie seaside holiday you can’t walk past the surfing. Byron Bay itself is just beautiful, especially if you make it down there early in the morning before the crowds hit. The bay itself fills with bobbing swimming caps as locals and holidaymakers front crawl their way from The Pass to the town. The Pass was particularly conducive to beginner surfers and young children – we spent many happy evenings in the shallow, crystal waters as pint-sized wave after pint-sized wave rolled in the and the children worked their way up from a body surf to standing on a board.
A short stroll from the beach is The Pass Cafe which serves up a good line in breakfasts and lunchtime burgers, chips and salads, surrounded by the local wildlife (we said g’day to a blue tongue lizard outside in the rockery and a cheeky kookaburra swooped for a chip while we ducked in for a snack).
Other great beaches include Brunswick Heads, which is also on the Brunswick river – perfect for swimming or hiring kayaks if you want a break from the surf, and Broken Head at Suffolk Park, or “Suffo” as it is affectionately known locally. Suffo is also home to possibly the best pies ever – a hot steak and pepper pastry-encased treat at the Suffolk Park Bakery after a tough morning on a boogie board was like manna from heaven.
One morning we booked a dolphin-viewing kayak tour in the bay – there are a number of companies down on the beach front, we used Cape Byron Kayaks. We met at 8am, and following a quick class in paddling technique, hit the water. We paddled around The Pass towards Watego’s beach, spotting not only pods of dolphins, but also turtles. This is how dolphins should be seen – in the wild. Regulations stipulate that kayakers must keep a healthy 50m distance, but they’re an inquisitive lot and were soon up close and personal. We finished with morning tea, Tim Tams and an inevitable surf on Watego’s beach, and then a paddle back round to the bay.
Away from the beaches, we checked out a couple of the local water holes, which in the guide books were described rather more impressively as “wild water swimming spots” – that’s what went up on Facebook, anyway. One hot and sticky afternoon we ventured as far as The Channon, the original hippy-home of Byron Shire, following a dirt track that meandered for miles through the hills, past a mob of ‘roos, until we were eventually rewarded with a swim under a waterfall in a cool pool at the bottom of a trail. We climbed the waterfall, leapt from rocks, spotted eel and swam until summer storm clouds rolled in and we decamped back down the track to the shelter of The Channon Tavern (they were having a pasta special night).
The Channon is also the venue for the area’s oldest craft market. The Channon Craft Market was first held in 1976, based on the ethics of “make it, grow it, bake it”. These days it’s held throughout the year on the second Sunday of every month, which happily coincided with our break. We had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon wandering around the bustling stalls, bumping into old school friends (those Taunton schoolboys get everywhere), and coming away with jewellery, pottery, sundresses, various wood-hued musical instruments and a tray of mangoes.
And that was our holiday – good, clean, old-fashioned fun. We arrived home refreshed, revived and ready to take on a Hong Kong winter.
We flew Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong to Sydney (8.5 hours), and Jetstar from Sydney to Ballina Gateway (50 minutes).
We booked our Federal property through stayz.com.au.
Cape Byron Kayaks can be contacted at capebyronkayaks.com.
The Bangalow Hotel Restaurant opens 10-12am, 1 Byron Street, Bangalow, bangalowhotel.com.au.
The Channon Butterfactory Tavern opens 11am-9pm, 51 Terania Street, The Channon, +61 2 6688 6522.
The Channon Craft Market runs every second Sunday of the month, 10am-3pm, The Channon Road, The Channon, thechannonmarket.org.au.
Rae’s On Wategos, 6-8 Marine Parade, Byron Bay, +61 2 6685 5366.
The Pass Cafe, 1 Brooke Drive, Byron Bay, +61 2 6680 8028.