Situated on Australia’s northern NSW coast, Byron Bay has long lured serenity-seekers with the promise of beautiful beaches and warm seas.
First finding fame with surfers and hippies during the 1960s and 70s, the sleepy town gradually migrated onto the Aussie holiday map, before word got out and it became a stop on the international backpacker trail. Since then, countless visitors have traced the well-worn path to Byron’s shores – and I was one of them.
Fresh from an eight-month stint globetrotting, I landed in Byron Bay sun-scorched and clad in ill-advised Thai fisherman pants, with only a backpack to my name. Left wide-eyed by its beauty, I fell head instantly over heels. This slice of northern NSW coastal paradise has held a special place in my heart ever since.
But in the 13 years since, both I and Byron have changed dramatically. I’ve swapped my fishermen’s pants and backpack for chinos and a mortgage, while Byron has morphed into what can only be described as Australia’s version of Hollywood – Aussiewood, if you like.
These days it’s not only surf hounds and pseudo-hippies who are flocking in their droves; now the holiday hotspot has become a firm fixture on the global tourism radar, and many of the country’s big stars and moneyed elite have followed suit – led by one celebrity in particular: Chris Hemsworth.
Born in Melbourne, the Marvel movie star relocated to Byron Bay from LA in 2014, leading the charge for the likes of little brother Liam and Zac Efron, both of whom have bought big here. It’s no coincidence that Byron has seen the country’s biggest leap in real estate prices over the last few years, and that visitor numbers are going through the roof – according to recent tourism figures, annual visitors to the NSW northern coast stand at around the 8.5 million mark.
But while the A-list have made a home here, Byron is staying true to its barefoot, laid-back credentials. As such, you don’t need to be a superstar to enjoy everything that the region has to offer. No, us mere mortals can indulge in Byron’s sun-kissed days, glorious beaches, crystal clear seas, pristine hinterland, and world-class food scene, too. All you need is a little insider knowledge.
Byron for first-timers
Quiz any local on a ‘must-do’ in Byron, and they’ll tell you to set your alarm early and tick off the Byron Bay Lighthouse Walk – a four-kilometre coastal stroll that leads to the famed Cape Byron Lighthouse. Though spectacular at any time, for bragging rights, time your visit well – between May and November – and you’ll even see humpback whales during their annual migration.
There’s a bounty of pretty, white sand-filled beaches to be lounged upon here, too. Start with Main Beach, which is the closest to town, the most popular, and rumoured to be one of Australia’s finest stretches of sand. The surfing here is good, but if you’re after excellent waves, head to Wategos, home to one of the most iconic surf spots in the world, The Pass. As a bonus, Chris Hemsworth and various other Aussie celebs are regulars here, so you may find yourself sharing the surf with Aussiewood royalty.
Not so much for surfing? Hit The Pass Cafe (thepasscafe.com.au) for their signature breakfast burger and watch the pros tackle the waves.
A gourmet getaway
But there’s far more to Byron’s culinary scene than the humble breakfast burger. Fast-becoming one of the most exciting foodie destinations in Australia, the wealth of amazing local produce here, coupled with a proximity to the ocean, and a burgeoning population of top-tier chefs, means you’re guaranteed to eat well from morning to night.
For breakfast, the unassuming location of Folk (folkbyronbay.com) next to the entrance of a caravan park belies the gourmet delights on its menu. Committed to veggie and plant-based eating, you can expect quirky breakfast combinations such as buckwheat banana hotcakes with rosewater labne.
For a long lunch Italiano-style, opt for Belongil Beach Italian Food (bbif.com.au), a brand new casual trattoria from acclaimed Sydney restaurateur Maurice Terzini (the man behind famed fine-dining venue, Icebergs) which showcases the best of family-owned Northern Rivers producers and growers, including Byron Bay mozzarella and Ballina prawns.
For a unique aperitif or nightcap, nab a table at one of Byron’s newest gems, Lover’s Lane (loverslane.com.au), a “grungy” upscale bar-meets-restaurant which champions natural, bio-dynamic and vegan wines, alongside cocktails inspired by native botanicals.
When it comes to dinner, it’s well worth heading for the new venue from Jessi Singh’s new venue – the chef who wowed the Manhattan elite with his Baba Ji NYC restaurant, and the latest big name to migrate to Byron. Serving up “unauthentic Australian Indian” cuisine in a vibrant neon-lit ambience, Daughter in Law (daughterinlaw.com.au) has made waves in the area since its launch a year ago, not least among its high-profile residents.
Feed the soul
You’ve fed the body, so now it’s time to feed the soul.
Byron Shire’s reputation for wellness has endured for decades, and there’s a trove of options for every taste, from meditation and yoga retreats, to shamanic drumming workshops and ecstatic dance classes. It’s no coincidence that this alternative healing centre was chosen as the filming location for Nicole Kidman’s “‘Nine Perfect Strangers” TV series – with stars Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy oft spotted out and about in town.
Crystal Castle (crystalcastle.com.au) is the embodiment of this Age of Aquarius sentiment. The result of one man's lifetime passion for crystals, the attraction is a huge expanse of breathtaking gardens filled with towering Balinese statues and a collection of the biggest crystals in the entire world.
Head to the nearby small hinterland town Mullumbimby to see where Byron’s hippies of old decamped in search of a quieter pace and cheaper rents. The main draw here is a soak at Kiva Spa (thekivaspa.com), a literal oasis of outdoor bubbling hot tubs, cold plunge pools, a Hammam-style steam room, and a wood-fired sauna.
Slumber in style
A quick drive from Mullumbimby will take you to Blackbird Byron (blackbirdbyron.com.au), a modernist vision of polished concrete, glass and reclaimed wood (a design-lover's dream) created by Yorkshireman James Hudson.
From here, guests can take in spectacular views across Cape Byron from the private decks of one of the trio of self-contained pavilions. Then there’s the jewel in Blackbird’s crown – a magnesium-filtered infinity pool with expansive views over Cape Byron and the glimmering Pacific Ocean in the distance.
Closer to town lies Crystalbrook Byron (crystalbrookcollection.com) which, despite being a mere 15-minute cycle from the bustling centre, seems a world away thanks to its idyllic, subtropical rainforest setting. Here, you’ll wake in a forest canopy to the sound of native birdsong and the crashing of waves of the nearby ocean.
An infinity pool is flanked by plush loungers and a sauna, and guests can partake in daily complimentary poolside yoga classes. If that’s not enough to instil some Zen, an indulgent treatment at its spa will.
In-house eatery, Forest, celebrates the best of Byron’s local farmers, growers and artisans (more than 80 per cent of Forest’s ingredients come from within a three-hour drive of the resort) and resident chef Jason Staniford has created a menu with minimal fuss where produce is the star.
Spots the A-list haven’t yet discovered
While Byron has lost some of its hippy heyday charm, it’s still possible to leave the crowds and find back-to-basics serenity if you venture a little further off the beaten path.
Cabarita Beach, NSW
In the beautiful seaside village of Cabarita Beach (halfway between Byron Bay and the Gold Coast) sits one of NSW’s most picturesque stretches of sand. And enjoying prime position on this enviable real estate is one of Australia’s most hyped boutique hotels – Halcyon House.
A former 1960s motel turned hot property, a glittering outdoor pool overlooks the Pacific Ocean, while inside it’s apparent that the hotel doesn’t just rest on its ‘location location location’ laurels.
An artfully designed interior has been applied to both public areas and each of the 21 rooms, while the indulgent Halcyon Spa, and in-house hatted (the Aussie equivalent of a Michelin) restaurant, Paper Daisy, are repeatedly lauded across the country.
Hip hotels aside, this under-the-radar destination also offers nearby stretches of some of the oldest sub-tropical rainforest, alongside amazing wildlife encounters. Watersports Guru (watersportsguru.com) takes visitors for an eye-to-eye encounter with a cornucopia of marine life, including grey nurse sharks and a resident population of large turtles in the protected reefs and coral gardens.
The details: Halcyon House (00 61 2 6676 1444; halcyonhouse.com.au) has double rooms from £615 per night, including breakfast.
Spectacular beaches, funky cafes, fabulous seafood and perfect waves – and just under an hour and a half’s drive from Byron – Yamba has long been a favourite with surfers, but this seaside town is now truly coming into its own.
Though still populated by surfboard-carrying, wetsuit-clad beach bums, amidst the salty surfers, the number of visitors (and relocating city slickers) is increasing and with this rise, a cool food scene is slowly burgeoning.
Boutique property, Surf Yamba, overlooks Yamba’s Main Beach and has a stunning rooftop terrace with heated plunge pool.
The details: Surf Yamba (00 61 2 5626 2021; thesurfyamba.com.au) has double rooms from £215 per night.
Laid-back, bohemian and creative, Bellingen is a magical combination of stunning, natural beauty, alternative festivals and buzzing markets. Situated halfway between Brisbane and Sydney, this town has been transformed from an agricultural village into a river-side version of Byron Bay.
The Promised Land Retreat is the perfect spot to explore the lush green valleys, bushland and the network of secret swimming spots that pepper the aptly-named Never Never River.
The details: The Promised Land Retreat (00 61 2 6655 9578; promisedlandretreat.com.au) has fully equipped chalets from £255 per night.
Known for its charming scenery and health-giving mineral springs, the small Victorian town of Daylesford has been a wellness centre for well over a century. Today, this legacy remains, albeit paired with a glut of New Age shops, art stores and organic eateries.
Though liberal year-round, the free-spirited nature of the town is felt even more keenly during the annual ChillOut (chilloutfestival.com.au) – Australia’s largest rural gay and lesbian festival.
The Barn – a 100-year-old converted country barn – pairs modern-day amenities with rustic charm. It’s also adjacent to Cliffy’s Emporium (a former 1950s general store turned cafe) that might just make the best coffee this side of Melbourne.
The details: The Barn (00 61 3 5348 2008; thehousesdaylesford.com) offers rentals from £225 per night.