Organic veggie burgers, boutique breweries, hippies and incense is only one side of Byron Bay. Bruce McMahon discovers the other.
Byron Bay is an electric and eclectic mix of energies, an Australian frappe of counter-culture and beach delights. Packed with soul, surfers and shops, this is a warm and engaging place alongside some of northern New South Wales' most beautiful beaches, set amongst some of that state’s most beautiful scenery.
And it has long-standing appeal with a diverse range of locals and visitors, whether crowded with summer holidaymakers, bustling with music lovers or quiet and cosy on a winter’s day. Wander the streets and listen to a babble of backpacker tongues and accents. Wander and choose from the most basic of foods or the fanciest cuisine. Buy a tie-dyed sarong or a ball gown, fine leather goods or a home-made amulet. Sit and take in the colour and characters of the pubs or sit and watch the surf. Swim, surf or sunbathe. This is a place of rainbows and many adventures, a most inclusive seaside town.
Part of the attraction here is a wide range of accommodation choices – from basic camping to high-end resorts. There are hotels and motels and some of the country's best van parks. There's the sumptuous elegance of Raes at Wategos, a seven-room boutique hotel and restaurant right on the beach. There's the Beach Hotel with 40 rooms plus its famed beer garden. Cape Byron Lodge is just one of a number of backpacker hostels in town. The town offers it all from high-end luxury to self-contained cottages to budget-priced dorms, around 300 choices of accommodation. Here also, there's some 10 camping and van parks in and around the bay.
So a motorhome here is one of many alternatives. This allows the obvious freedom to camp in comfort while offering the option of exploring the green and gold hinterland, mixing it with VW Kombis and old Land Rovers covered in flower stickers. An Apollo Euro Slider, (built as a Talvor Hayman) isn't a bad way to set up a Byron holiday base. The latest of these, built on a Fiat chassis, offers decent accommodation for up to four adults. Driving ergonomics are good, the diesel and auto transmission are good mates and visibility forward is fine. But both driver and passenger could do with some more cup holders plus grab handles to clamber up into the driver and front passenger compartment.
Behind, in this longish machine, there's a separate shower, separate toilet, double bed down back and another double in the compartment above the driving cabin. There's a stove, fridge, microwave, television, iPod docks plus plenty of lighting and storage. And, of course, there's the slide-out living area, which shifts the dining table and benches out on the driver's side, allowing a deal more room in the kitchen and living area. While sliding in to sit up at the table is a bit tight for larger adults the front bucket seats swivel around for a comfortable relax. But hey, this is Byron and there's more to be done than sit around in a motorhome.
This time we've set up at Clarkes Beach Holiday Park, a little out of the main part of town and just off the road to the Cape Byron Lighthouse. We're about as far east on the continent as you can camp, not far from the headland named Cape Byron (after navigator John Byron) by James Cook when he sailed up this coastline in 1770.
This is a very tidy van, tent and cabins park, consistently rated by travellers as one of the best in the country. It is clean, very green and even in busy holiday seasons Clarkes Beach Holiday Park remains a civilised spot to camp alongside the beach.
At night the lighthouse beams sweep across the park, at daybreak there's dads with mugs of coffee and blonde-haired sons with a bowl of cereal sitting out front watching the sun rise and the surf break. Surfers and brush turkeys wander through the holiday park. Just like the township of some 5000, there's plenty of variety in these grounds, all manner of travellers from across the continent with all manner of beach-side accommodation from camper trailers with rusted patina to the flashest of new Winnebagos.
Down town for coffee and, as with many of Byron's eateries, Twisted Sista offers a decent brew of local, organic coffee for a kickstart to the day. Organic foods - from vegetarian burgers to fruit-laced ice blocks - are de rigeur, but not compulsory in this laidback town. The hills and forests to the west supply a deal of fresh produce.
But it's not all mung beans and chick peas. There's Pot Belly Pies, the original Earth 'n' Sea pizza joint, OzyMex delights of the Byron Bay Chilli Company (all food groups ideally washed down with the very tasty local brew Stone and Wood). Maybe try the Balcony restaurant where today's lunchtime special is spicy Atlantic Salmon with quinoa tabouli and cucumber yoghurt dressing for $19.
Most of the eateries - catering to all tastes and all purses - can be found on Lawson or Jonson streets but don't forget to explore the little streets such as Bay Lane. Jonson Street (the one that runs parallel to the rail line and railway station) is today a busy, bustling array of shops and cafes, punctuated by the occasional dreadlocked busker hunched over a guitar, singing I Will Survive or playing a set of tom-toms outside the Baskins and Robbins icecream shop.
Barefoot counter-culturalists remain part of the Byron scene, although there's more gloss in the streets these days. Old-style, long-established surf shops share the village with flash Billabong and Quicksilver outlets, there's sushi bars, Supre and Sportsgirl shops in among heavily-scented shops trading in incense sticks and bronzed Bhuddas and AC/DC t-shirts.
Looking for a bit of rest and recreation by now? Your Dreams Are Within Your Grasp. For there's the bar room delights of the Beach Hotel, the old-time elegance of the Great Northern or the rustic Railway Hotel, best known as The Rails. Or maybe drop into one of the many yoga or massage centres scattered through Byron. Or Collins the bookseller. Or the Happy High Herbs shop. Then maybe head back to the motorhome for time out to regroup before an afternoon outing to the famed lighthouse sitting some 100 metres above the Pacific. From here, as from all the bay's high-spots, there's the chance to watch marine life, dolphins, whales, sharks and others, frolic below.
And, with a swim or surf thrown in, there's a whole day done in Byron Bay just wandering the streets, taking in the weird and wonderful and collecting a bunch of ideas from the Information Centre outside the railway station.
Best rest up and plan tonight, because there are 1001 more things to be done around this part of the world, from sky-diving to bushwalking, horse-riding to sea kayaking with the local dolphins. You could head to the Byron Bay Arts estate and learn how to paint or how to work a trapeze. You could go hot air ballooning over the bay, learn how to surf, head out fishing, go diving or wander off to the golf course. Learn about fire twirling, juggling or African drumming at Three Worlds Fun for Life where Music is Love in Search of a Word. (Maybe now's the time to sneak off and catch the courtesy bus to the Byron Bay Premium Brewery.)
Or just sit back on the beach and watch long boarders and paddle-boarders, body surfers and all enjoy the waters off Main Beach. For Byron Bay, maybe nine hours drive north of Sydney or two hours drive south of Brisbane, offers many different worlds away from the everyday world. All Australians, all ages, owe themselves at least one outing in this laid-back and happy holiday township by the sea.Clarkes Beach Holiday Park motorhome berths start from (off-peak) $45 per night for two people
Article published in Australian Caravan+RV magazine, issue 29 June/July 2012.
Words Bruce McMahon, images Nathan Duff.