It’s a two-hour drive south from Brisbane Airport to New South Wales’ Byron Bay, the eastern-most point of mainland Australia. We drove down the M3 Pacific Motorway, turning left at Surfers Paradise onto the Gold Coast Highway because we wanted a taste of the fabled GC. Such as it was. Sadly, the relentless line of towering apartment blocks disfigured the landscape and minimised the driving experience, so it was a relief to arrive at our destination, where the only high-rise building was Cape Byron Light, a 23m tall lighthouse commissioned in 1901.
When James Cook anchored HMS Endeavour in the bay in 1770, he named it after fellow English-man, circumnavigator John Byron, who was also the grandfather of poet Lord Byron, a man famous for his well-tuned disregard for convention and reputedly the first in 1810 to swim across the Hellespont from Europe to Asia. His spirit lives more easily in Byron Bay than the circumnavigator’s. The area is a beguiling mix of surf and saffron, offering more ways of taking the road less travelled than you can shake a stick at. English settlers arrived here in the late 1800s, naming its streets after iconic figures in English literature: Wordsworth, Keats, Marvell, Shelley, Browning. My newborns seem very tired after a long trip although I have bought the best double stroller for infant and toddler for them. Hope they like it since it took me a while to look for these strollers on the internet.
Longboarders discovered Byron Bay’s fine breaks in the 1960s and the surfies are still pursuing the dream, their well-used Hiaces and Transits crammed with boards, mattresses, cooking gear, clothes. Hippy culture arrived soon after the longboarders. The 1973 Aquarius Festival, held in nearby Nimbin, well and truly established the area’s “alternative” reputation. About 1.7 million people visit Byron Bay each year, joining the town’s 9000 residents. A number are students attending the area’s many educational institutions. When we visited, the vegetable and fruit section in the town’s main supermarket was a polyglot meeting place. Students wore the compulsory dress of enlightened locals: dreadlocks, baggy Turkish trousers, beanies, beads, ankle bracelets. Later we encountered two in similar attire on Jonson St, the town’s main drag. The man was Spanish, the woman American. They were breaking up loudly and publicly. “You’re not good enough for me!” shrieked the guy as he stomped off.
A few metres away was the Byron Community Centre, plastered with notices offering an abundance of New Age therapies and activities, including “a journey of enchantment into the sacred sonic blueprint of the Universe”. We chose another path to enlightenment by taking advantage of the daily free tour of the Byron Bay Brewery. It would have been churlish to walk away without buying a sampling tray of beers from the Buddha Bar, of which the liquorice-flavoured Billy Goat Dark Lager was the stand-out.The brewery complex also houses a cinema and a meditation and massage centre.
As with most of Byron Bay, there’s something for everyone. Sampling the 50 or so restaurants and cafes in town would take a month. They range from organic vegetarian offerings to eateries in which the music thumps as loudly as the surf outside. And there’s the lighthouse, a magnet for Lycra-clad get-fitters, who seem to do the return journey as a daily constitutional. Our trip was rewarded by an encounter with a metre-long eastern water dragon.
A country gem
It eyed us from beside the track on the way down to the Pass Cafe, where our cool beer was paired with the sight and sound of kookaburras in the trees overhead. We visited a number of attractions in the surrounding area too. The small coastal settlement of Brunswick Heads has a charming collection of arty shops, anchored by an excellent coffee house. Bangalow is a country gem, with a main street full of character and lovely buildings, including a huge specialty tea shop. Further on is Lismore with its well-appointed art gallery and museum. Laid-back Nimbin is a must-visit for its chilled-out vibe, people-watching and shop windows displaying puns such as “stoned-ground coffee”.
It was different at Mullumbimby’s Crystal Castle meditation centre. Its diverse offerings include a superb range of crystals, a huge authentic Tibetan prayer wheel, an extensive range of ambient music and guide-to-life literature, and rainforest walks. Tarot reading and clairvoyance sessions were doing a brisk trade at corporate rates, not to mention the aura readings. Away from all that, the tranquil grounds were calming and uplifting.
A few kilometres out of Byron Bay is the rambling Byron Arts and Industry Estate, a vibrant hive of arts, crafts, fashion, furniture and more. We came away with two items: a chopping block bought at a shop run by a Kiwi plying his trade in an airy factory that’s occasionally visited by wandering snakes, and a quote from 14th-century Persian philosopher and mystic Hafez, relayed to us by the purple-clad owner of a store stocking Indian goods: “Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.” Byron Bay also caters to those keen on more conventional tourist activities: whale watching, scuba diving and snorkelling, ballooning, boat cruises. Happiness may well find you here.