Byron Bay: a free spirit

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  • Byron Bay: a free spirit

    In and around Byron Bay

    In the Seventies you’d have looked out of place in Byron Bay without a tie-dyed T-shirt and dreadlocks. Today it has evolved to become one of Australia’s hottest properties, but, says Lydia Bell, the countercultural roots of this bohemian beach outpost run deep.

    At the top of the lighthouse at Byron Bay, mainland Australia’s easternmost tip, crowds gather to watch humpbacks glide past and dolphins arc through the ocean-fresh air. Below, cerulean waves curl onto vast, empty beaches. To the north, rippling valleys of sugar cane, plantations of macadamia, banana and coffee and ancient rainforests sweep across the floodplain to Mount Warning, the volcanic plug where the dawn sun first touches Australia. Oyster clouds tinged with gold shroud this majestic diadem in the rich bangle of the caldera: Aborigines call it Wollumbin, the Cloud Catcher.

    Byron has only been a town for just over a century. Before that the Bundjalung people came to this secret bay when they were sick, or to give birth, believing it to be a healing place. The first Anglo-Australians here were farmers, followed by surfers in the 1960s, drawn to the perfect breaks on beaches sheltered from southerlies. Hippies started congregating here from the 1970s, and as the counterculture caught on they were attracted to Byron like iron filings to a magnet. By the 1990s, dreadlocked alternative-lifers known locally as the ‘ferals’ were everywhere, until they were ousted by baby boomers in what has become one of Australia’s most exclusive property enclaves.

    Some old timers have retreated to the hills, their driveways decorated with rainbow banners and anti-fracking plaques. Others congregate in the settlements of Bangalow, Brunswick Heads and Mullumbimby. This is the Byron Bay hinterland, or Byron Shire, where hedonism has meshed with spirituality, and the hippies have chutzpah and a splash of cash.

    More moneyed it may be, but this is still a place with an alternative cast, somewhere to shake off the shackles; and in a country that has outlawed the Mexican Wave for health and safety reasons, it is very much loved and appreciated.

    Here’s our guide to the best hotels, restaurants, bars and shops in and around Byron Bay

    Pictured: Tallow Beach, Byron Bay

  • Byron Bay: a free spirit

    Where to stay in Byron Bay

    WHERE TO STAY IN BYRON BAY

    The Byron at Byron Resort & Spa This bells-and-whistles smart hotel, cradled by 45 acres of rainforest, is the only place to stay in the area if you want top Australian service (Germanic levels of efficiency combined with non-corporate good humour). It’s on the pristine Tallow Beach, empty but for dog-walkers and kite-surfers, and edged by Tallow Lake, a lily-pad-topped creek with multiple lotus ponds. The bedrooms are essentially steel-framed boxes with front and back enclosed verandahs; sliding screens divide bedrooms and living spaces, and there are walk-in wardrobes big enough for a cot. Add a kitchen, washer-dryer, high-speed Wi-Fi and a cavernous bath for three and you have the best family rooms in Australia. Scottish chef Gavin Hughes was an early pioneer of local produce (Bangalow pork, Yamba prawns) and he likes to take guests to the Byron Farmers’ Market (he calls it his ‘church’) on Thursday mornings. The Byron at Byron Resort & Spa, 77-97 Broken Head Road, Byron Bay, Australia (+61 2 6639 2000; www.thebyronatbyron.com.au). Doubles from about £230

    Atlantic Byron Bay This is the hot new kid on the Byron block, the project of former banker Stephen Eakin and his partner Kimberley Amos. They moved here for a year’s sabbatical and never left, having spied this spot when it was a tired guesthouse in need of renovation. Smack bang in town, it’s now a constellation of groovy sun-bleached clapboard cottages, shacks and an Airstream caravan in polished aluminium with striped awnings. The interiors are stripped-back and appealingly Scandi, and the garden, home to rare-breed chickens with meticulous mohawks, backs onto a nature reserve. Atlantic Byron Bay, 13 Marvell Street, Byron Bay, Australia (+61 2 6685 5118; www.atlanticbyronbay.com.au). Doubles from about £85

    Pictured: Atlantic Byron Bay

  • Byron Bay: a free spirit

    Villas to rent in Byron Bay

    VILLAS TO RENT IN BYRON BAY

    A stone’s throw from The Byron at Byron (to which it belongs), the four-bedroom Domain 7, within the private Cypress estate, combines hotel service with the privacy of a walled domain. Vast is the word: there are two storeys of slick contemporary style, with original art and glass doors opening onto a garden with a barbecue, plunge pool, sun deck and one-bedroom nanny annexe.

    For a slouchier beach vibe, the sun-drenched, five-bedroom White House is on exclusive Watego’s Beach (considered by many to be the best on the eastern seaboard). It has white-on-white interiors and plenty of sunlit terraces, and was the first choice for Kate Moss.

    On the same beach is the The Watermark at Watego’s, a selection of compact, upmarket apartments with steel kitchens and Bose sounds, including the Private Residence with its retractable glass doors and wooden shutters. All bookable through www.byronbayluxuryhomes.com

    Pictured: The Byron at Byron hotel

  • Byron Bay: a free spirit

    Where to stay in the suburbs of Byron Bay

    WHERE TO STAY NEAR BYRON BAY

    Byron View Farm This weatherboard cottage has a wraparound veranda to take in the views from its position at the highest point of a small working cattle farm. It is owned by former boutique hotelier Robert Schwamberg and his partner, the interior designer and fashion stylist Andrea Duff. Their previous project was Strangetrader, a homeware store touting the fruits of their global travels. Elements of this international magpie look have been extended to the cottage, with an Indian pearl-inlay cabinet for the TV, Tunisian hand-woven bath towels, Turkish basins and global cookbooks. The couple spend Australian winters bobbing around the Mediterranean on their yacht or in other warmer climes, and the interiors constantly evolve to reflect their recent acquisitions. +61 414 677778; www.byronviewfarm.com. About £700 for a three-night minimum stay

    Pictured: an Airstream caravan at Atlantic Byron Bay

  • Byron Bay: a free spirit

    Where to eat & drink in Byron Bay

    WHERE TO EAT & DRINK IN BYRON BAY

    The Top Shop The picnic lawn of this repurposed 1950s milk bar with surfboards tacked to the wall is besieged with Byronites drinking coco-pine smoothies. Coffee is treated as a religion here, and the food is ‘hand-held’, from burgers (the American is renowned: beef from local, grass-fed cattle, double cheddar, dill pickles, a blast of condiments and a baby-soft organic sesame bun) to fresh pastries. The owners, brothers Andy and Charlie Gordon, are chuffed with the diversity of their clients: ‘It’s great to see Elle Macpherson just off the beach having a juice next to a third-generation plumber.’ +61 2 6685 6495

    The Roadhouse It may be on a busy main road heading out of town, but this place is fantastic. It styles itself as an organic wholefoods café by day and a whisky den by night. Interiors are raw and robust, with exposed brick, moody lighting and an open fireplace. Classic lunches include spicy tacos with snapper, spring lamb cutlets, and sharing platters of fermented cheese and sauerkraut. Co-owner Dan Woolley is a whisky specialist, but there are all kinds of cocktails to suit the dilettante. Try the Tusk: organic coconut water frozen into a sphere and drowned in Kraken spiced rum. +61 413 966618; www.byronbaycafebar.com.au

    Byron Beach Café A classic on Clarkes Beach, this is the inside-out, retractable-roof joint from which to contemplate the daily parade of runners, yogis, paddle-boarders, kayakers and surfers. Within its wood-panelled walls, crafted from Sydney Harbour piers, sun-kissed beachgoers tuck into spanner-crab tortellini and abundant salads (the salt-and-pepper tofu with crispy won tons, sprouts, peanuts, baked carrot and pumpkin is the best of all). You can also queue at the kiosk for fish and chips, ice cream or coffee. +61 2 6685 8400; www.byronbeachcafe.com.au

    Rae’s Fish Café Go here for a beachside brunch on crisp white linen. It’s part of Rae’s on Watego’s, a celebrity-swamped beach hideaway with seven Indonesian- and Moroccan-inspired suites. Zingy-fresh seafood is given an Asian twist in dishes such as spice-crusted fish fillet with Thai herb salad. (Take note: owner Vincent Rae sold half of the hotel to newspaper king Antony Catalano last summer, and it’s due a facelift.) +61 2 6685 5366; www.raesonwategos.com

    Bayleaf This tiny café deals in brunches and long, lingering coffees (or short, punchy piccolos on the run). Food is prepared in an open kitchen and served by inked hipsters. Pulled-pork panini, fresh home-made pasta, serious cakes, iced teas, single-origin juices and the proprietors’ own Marvell Street coffee are the draw. +61 2 6685 8900

    St Elmo Dining Superb tapas and sharing platters infused with the flavours of Spain are the draw at this urbane, Melbourne-style bar-restaurant, as well as wines by the glass from a global list of more than 100 labels. A relaxed winter evening might involve ordering the slow-cooked lamb shoulder served with black beans and home-made yoghurt. +61 2 6680 7426; www.stelmodining.com

    Pictured: St Elmo Dining, Byron Bay

  • Byron Bay: a free spirit

    Where to eat near Byron Bay

    WHERE TO EAT & DRINK NEAR BYRON BAY

    Town Café and Restaurant, Bangalow Town has pinned Bangalow on the map, scooping up a calvalcade of awards for Katrina and Karl Kanetani, Sydneysider chefs who ditched the metropolis for life in the slow lane. Now they can hardly move for locals crowding into their tiny restaurant. At street level is Downtown, a breakfast-brunch-lunch hub with specials of the day scrawled on mirrored walls and a countertop piled high with cakes by Katrina (a pastry chef). Upstairs is Uptown, a six-course degustation (or ‘dego’ as the Aussies like to call it) serving local classics such as scallops, kingfish and macadamia for about £48. +61 26687 1010; www.townbangalow.com.au

    Harvest, Newrybar This restaurant in an old cottage exists to make real the fantasy of Australia’s well-fed outdoor lifestyle. The place positively spills over with happy, sea-change baby boomers, and the fresh, modern Australian food, much of it from the owners’ organic farm, is the best around. Sourdough bread is pumped out of a century-old wood-fired oven at the back; meat is dry-aged in the next-door deli. +61 2 6687 2644; www.harvestcafe.com.au

    Mavis’s Kitchen and Cabins, Mount Warning The charming owner of this lovely place, Charlie Ebell, once ran a smart restaurant on the Gold Coast out of his Auntie Glad’s stunning Queenslander house. After nine years he bought a plot of land overlooked by Mount Warning, and cut the house in three before driving it here in a lorry. Charlie and partner Peter Clarke planted the vegetable farm which now supplies half of the kitchen’s produce, including bananas, pecans, pawpaw and macadamia. Sharing platters (courgette fritters, home-made pâtés, calamari) are popular, and Friday and Saturday nights at this remote outpost are always buzzing. +61 2 6679 5664; www.maviseskitchen.com.au

    Footbridge, Brunswick Heads Even the children’s toys are vintage-style at this pretty beach-meets-river café, where the furniture is reclaimed and the walls are covered with pencil illustrations. More importantly, the pulled-pork burger and the tea-smoked salmon with hashed potatoes and tomato relish are the best brunch in town by a mile. +61 2 6685 1991

    Doma Café, Federal Federal is a clapboard village reminiscent of the faded hinterland of yesteryear. But it has had the best sushi in Byron Shire ever since a crew of all-Japanese culinary wizards took over a tiny wooden cottage next to the general store (itself a little film-set gem). The prawn tempura, basil yogurt, organic lentil and green-bean roll is a crunchy hit. +61 2 6688 4711

    Milk & Honey, Mullumbimby This is a pizzeria with an eclectic, fiercely loyal clientele: hippies, foodies, young families with rowdy kids in tow. The interiors are rustic-simple, with bare wooden tables and a chalked-up menu, and the no-corkage BYO policy keeps the prices down. An ever-changing menu of creations bursts with classic Italian ingredients. The thin-crust pizza with roasted pumpkin, goat’s cheese and rosemary was a recent favourite. +61 2 6684 1422; www.milkandhoneymullumbimby.com.au

    Pictured: bread at Harvest, Newrybar

  • Byron Bay: a free spirit

    Markets and shops in Byron Bay

    MARKETS & SHOPS IN BYRON BAY

    Ahoy Trader Jai Vasicek’s popular interiors outlet is awash with hand-painted tiles, elaborate crosses, dainty cushions and other beauteous paraphernalia. www.ahoytrader.com

    Byron Farmers’ Market On Thursday mornings, this is where mothers in Thai fisherman’s pants and their barefoot toddlers come and queue for organic greens to the tunes of busking folk musicians www.byronfarmersmarket.com.au

    In This Street A venture by David Bromley, one of Australia’s most famous artists, and his fashion-designer partner Yuge Yu. It is stuffed with paintings and sculptures, jewellery and chic trinkets. +61 2 6685 8528

    Spell and the Gypsy Collective This boho fashion and accessories store, run by two sisters, is a riot of feathers, leathers and turquoise. +61 2 6685 6116; www.spelldesigns.com

    Pictured: Ahoy Trader, Byron Bay

  • Byron Bay: a free spirit

    Where to shop near Byron Bay

    MARKETS & SHOPS NEAR BYRON BAY

    Island Luxe, Bangalow Sells clothes, ornaments and homeware from around the world, including Conservatoire International de Lunettes sunglasses from Italy, hand-dyed scarves from Algeria and rings made by someone living in a tent in Argentina. The look is monochrome, pared-down and weathered. +61 2 6687 1605

    Lazybones, Bangalow A gold-papered lifestyle store that sells to Anthropologie and Sundance and has its own brand of women’s clothing, sleepwear and bedding. Its vintage range includes mad 1950s hats, glamorous nightgowns from the 1920s, embroidered sheets and hand-crocheted bed covers. +61 2 6687 0767; www.lazybones.com.au

    Peace by Piece, Brunswick Heads Cobbler Amanda Coutts uses everything from leather to lace in her creations. The soles of the shoes (which can be made to order) are inscribed with a Sanskrit prayer which begins: ‘Tread lightly on this earth’. +61 423 423339

    Fabulous Mrs Fox, Brunswick Heads Here you’ll find a variety of cross-eyed dolls and toys, fantastical fabrics and pretty vintage clothing. +61 2 6685 0020

    Santos Organics, Mullumbimby A community-owned organic-food store, with biodynamic products, a juice bar and herbal remedies on tap. +61 2 6684 3773; www.santostrading.com.au

    Art Piece Gallery, Mullumbimby Run by Gallic émigré Nadine Abensur, this gallery showcases artists such as Robyn Sweaney, who chronicles the old houses of Mullumbimby. +61 2 6684 3446; www.artpiecegallery.com.au

    Driftlab, Newrybar A treasure trove of accessories, local art, books, clothing and music, mixing Byron beach culture with the street influence of Sydney. +61 2 6680 9869; www.driftlab.com.au

    Pictured: the Fabulous Mrs Fox store in Brunswick Heads

  • Byron Bay: a free spirit

    Great days out in Byron Bay

    GREAT DAYS OUT IN AND AROUND BYRON BAY

    Whites Beach The next headland south of Cape Byron, Broken Head, is reached via Seven Mile Beach Road, a dirt track that requires a four-wheel-drive, followed by a 10-minute trek through rainforest. Once you’re there, trails over the headland reach further strings of isolated beaches.

    Nightcap National Park The Byron hinterland is packed with protected rainforest, the best of which is at Nightcap. Brilliant walking tracks lead to dramatic escarpments, swimming pools and cascades such as Minyon Falls.

    Mount Warning Scaling this peak, the remnant of a volcano within the rainforest, is tough, but you will take memories of the view to the end of your days.

    Learning to surf Rusty Miller offers personalised sessions and is a dab hand at illuminating the cultural identity of Byron through the prism of wave-riding. www.rustymillersurf.com

    Pictured: a family gathering at Watego’s Beach

  • Byron Bay: a free spirit

    Spas and new age therapies in Byron Bay

    WELLBEING IN BYRON BAY

    The Byron at Byron spa This is the place for pampering based on the Pevonia Botanical and iKOU eco ranges. Treatments involve up to three hours of brushing, rubbing, stroking, oiling, scrubbing, muscle easing and emotional cleansing. With spa food served on the deck, there’s no reason to get out of your kimono all day. +61 2 6639 2110; www.thebyronatbyron.com.au/spa

    New age therapies with Ruth Smith A look at the Byron Shire Echo will leave you wondering if every other person here is a reiki master, yogi or rebirther. But the more you ask around, the more paths lead to Ruth Smith, who specialises in one-on-one healing. She calls it ‘frequency healing with your deep subconscious’. However you describe it, after an hour with Smith you emerge feeling as perky as a kookaburra at dawn. www.abundantia.com.au

    Pictured: a surfer in Byron Bay

  • Byron Bay: a free spirit

    Byron Bay: insider tips

    BYRON BAY’S LOCAL HEROES

    Naren King, owner of Crystal Castle Naren King left school in 1976 and went hitchhiking. ‘One ride dropped me off miles from the coast and I walked through a magical landscape towards Byron Bay. I had a wish to return one day and live here.’ In the 1980s King did just that and created Crystal Castle, a temple to crystals. Over 27 years he has also developed the Shambhala Gardens, with towering poles of amethyst, vast Ganesh and Lakshmi statues and a stupa filled with sacred objects. Naren has made the classic shift from hippy to businessman, and is now one of the biggest employers in the shire. Why does he still love Byron? ‘The shops have become more upmarket, there are developers trying to battle the locals, and yet the essence is still very much here. The local community is a colourful mix of farmers, surfers, hippies, artists and fun-seekers. We are still a region trying to make peace in a mad world.’ +61 2 6684 3111; www.crystalcastle.com.au

    Beau Young, folk singer and surfing champion Folk-rock star Beau Young often sings of his love of the sea. It’s unsurprising: his father is Nat Young, 1966 surfing world champion and star of cult surf films. Beau, for his part, has been world longboard champion twice. But dog-eared photographs of his childhood, depicting a simpler life, called him home: ‘Chopping pumpkins on the veranda; my father riding his horse to the beach with a surfboard under his arm; perfect, sand-bottomed point-break waves; and the family and dogs relaxing under a backyard citrus tree.’ Life in Byron is all about embracing simplicity, says Young. ‘I like a quiet surf on a secluded back beach: just me, my thoughts, and some mangoes waiting to be picked when I come out.’ There is a third string to Young’s bow: he makes surfboards, and says they reflect the Byron mentality. ‘I have always viewed surfing as an art rather than a sport, much as my father did.’ www.beauyoungsurfboards.com

  • Byron Bay: a free spirit

    Getting to Byron Bay

    GETTING THERE

    Scott Dunn (020 8682 5060; scottdunn.com) offers tailor-made holidays to Australia. A seven-night stay in a Deluxe Spa Suite at the Byron at Byron on a B&B basis costs from £2,680pp based on two people sharing, includes car hire and economy class flights from London.

    Published in Condé Nast Traveller February 2014.

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