After ten years living in the Byron Bay region of the Northern Rivers, Candida Baker has her own list of ‘favourite’ places. She shares some of her top spots for those contemplating a trip down the highway from Brisbane…
There’s a particular spot on the drive back down from Brisbane to Byron Bay where ‘home’ suddenly beckons. I can tell you exactly where it is – it’s a long flat stretch of road, with an old corrugated tin shed on the left, a view of Mt. Warning on the right and a hill that, to my mind, at least tells me I’m almost back in ‘The Shire’ – a good name for a region which shares many characteristics with Bilbo Baggins’s landscape.
When I moved to the Byron region from the Central Coast of New South Wales ten years ago, I’d visited as a tourist, but I didn’t have much idea of the scenic diversity and beauty of the region, and it would be true to say that even after ten years I’m still finding new places to visit. What I’ve discovered for myself is that it’s absolutely impossible to get bored with the diverse landscape of Byron Bay and the surrounding Northern Rivers area.
If you’re staying in Byron Bay itself then the attractions are obvious – a walk to or from the Lighthouse is a must, particularly if you can manage to be there at dawn when the sun’s rays touch this most Eastern point of Australia. I’ve discovered that it’s also beautiful at dusk – because from its vantage point you can see way out to the Nightcap Ranges and Mt. Warning, and another time-honoured favourite has become watching the full-moon rise out of the water.
Of all the numerous cafes in Byron one of my favourites is The Pass Café – perched high over The Pass beach, not far from the Lighthouse, it has a far from the madding crowd feel to it even though you are only a short walk from town. For the same reason I’m also fond of the Treehouse on Belongil which is about the same distance away from Byron on the other side. It’s funky feel, classic food and live music makes it a favourite with everybody from backpackers to local families, and it’s just across the road from Belongil Beach.
If you’re wanting to venture out of Byron into the hinterland (as it’s quaintly called) then a little loop taking in the hill town of Bangalow, the tiny village of Newrybar, and back via Broken Head Beach and the bakery at Suffolk Park is a great way to spend a few hours.
Of the Sunday markets, which alternate between Byron Bay, Bangalow, and the Channon, Bangalow is definitely my favourite, taking place as it does in the Bangalow Showgrounds with its beautiful figtrees shading the oval. The shops in Bangalow are not for the faint of pocket, it has to be said, but at the same time window-shopping there is also a pleasurable experience. My two favourite Bangalow shops are at two opposing ends of the spectrum – the Country Women’s Association shop which sells handmade tea-cosies, egg warmers, and even gollywogs; and the brilliantly light-filled space of Zakav’s incredible glass creations – as beautiful as any art gallery.
From Bangalow head south on the highway a few kilometres and take the right-hand turn for Newrybar – and try to be there on a Saturday or Sunday morning because that’s when Harvest, the local restaurant and café, has its bakery open. Harvest, originally just a café, has spread its wings over the past few years – it now owns the Harvest deli next door complete with meat and cheese rooms, and it’s renovated the original old bakery. To be honest the word bakery doesn’t really cover the astounding range of delicacies they produce every weekend including their sublime salted caramel doughnuts, and for the gluten-free amongst us, a chocolate covered doughnut that my daughter says is delicious. They also have a range of breads, so grab some sour-dough, and cheese from the deli, and as you cross back over the highway down towards Broken Head, pick up some local tomatoes, avocadoes and bananas from one of the roadside stalls on Broken Head Road, and you have the makings for a delicious beach picnic.
Broken Head beach is on the way back into Byron from the coast road on the southern side, and is generally much less crowded than the Byron beaches. From the sheltered southern end, with its rockpools and safe swimming area, to the massive waves of Tallows beach underneath the lighthouse at the other end, the beach stretches behind the coastal road into Byron, running parallel to Suffolk Park and up to the lighthouse. (It’s also, if you happen to have brought a dog with you, a dog-friendly beach in the middle, as is Belongil.)
On the odd occasion it’s been known to rain in the Northern Rivers. Bemoaning this fact to a friend shortly after we moved to the Byron region, he pointed this out to me. “You know that bit on the weather where it says ‘showers contracting to the north east of the state?’ Well, that’s where you live.”
Oh. That would account for the occasional weeks of rain and the twice-annual floods then.
If you happen to hit rain on your Byron visit, and beach and bush is not an option, one of my favourite outings (although I love it in fine weather also), is to take the scenic route of Brunswick Valley Road up to the Tweed River art gallery, the regional gallery for the area. Gaining the Margaret Olley bequest has allowed this gallery, which was already a wonderful example of a local gallery, to blossom into a state of the art showcase for the area, and the reconstruction of Margaret Olley’s home at one end of the gallery is nothing short of brilliant.
There’s also a couple of Castles that are on my list of must visits – if you’ve got children the Macadamia Castle is obligatory, and not just because it’s a great way to entertain kids with its small wildlife collection (snakes included) and aviary, but also because here is the place to buy your macadamia nuts – roasted anyway you like: plain, chilli, garlic, honey or pesto.
The other Castle, the Crystal Castle and Shambhala Gardens, is one of my favourite places of all time. This unique property has been gradually enhanced over the past ten years and now includes the magnificent stupa for world peace, blessed by the Gyoto monks, who are often in residence at the Castle, the rainforest walk, and the extraordinary array of statues and crystals gradually collected from around the world, including the largest Buddha in the southern hemisphere. It’s impossible to describe the sense of well-being and peace that arrives after a few hours at the Castle, which now grows all its own organic herbs and vegetables for the café, and if a bit of mind, body, spirit growth is your thing there is something on there almost every day of the week.
Another peaceful spot is Brunswick Heads. I’ve always had a fondness for places where the river meets the sea, and in Bruns (as it’s called), the merging of sea and river has created a wonderful landscape of beach and bush running side by side. A swim at the river beach, a walk to the point, and along the main beach – for the kids the wonderfully old-fashioned experience of jumping off the bridge if the tide is in, followed by calamari and chips from the Starfish café, and a wander around the shops is an ideal way to relax – and if you’re fond of live music the Brunswick Hotel has some great bands at the weekends.
Then of course, there’s the boardwalk at Ballina, and a drink at The Point while the sun sinks in the west and colours the river with a painter’s palette of varying orange and red hues; or the inland trek of Minyon Falls which you can combine with a visit to The Channon, and Terania Creek where the first logging protests in Australia took place, and Nimbin, with its painted shop fronts. Come back from Nimbin through Lismore, which has a massive car-boot sale once a month, and is also home of NORPA, the Northern Rivers Performing Arts, and is also full of interesting vintage shops – there’s even the odd antique bargain still to be found.
When you’re done with sight-seeing and Byron beckons once more, buy oysters from the fish shop (down near the library and the new Lone Goat art gallery) and then head to Bella Rosa, the small gelateria in Jonson Street, near the Beach Hotel, and try their lime sorbet. Quite possibly the most divine sorbet in the world. No joke.
And on the way back to Brisbane, if you’ve got time, take a quick detour to my new favourite place – the Madura Tea Estate, where the public are welcome – on Clothier’s Creek Road, near Murwillumbah, a perfect spot to stock up with a genuine Northern Rivers produce, and have a nice cup of tea. Madura has just won the Canstar Blue Taste Awards for its teabags for the third year in a row.
So there you have it – some tips for immersing yourself in the landscape – and produce – of the Byron region and beyond. Enjoy!
To learn more about the delights of the Northern Rivers region just across the border, look at verandahmagazine.com.au