Byron Bay. Bay of Byron. Australia’s easternmost town. Clothing optional. Shoes unfashionable, if people here really gave a damn about fashion (which they don’t). The mode du jour: hippy, free-loving, rainbow tie-dye hemp drapings. A tropical town of balconied weatherboards scattered on the shores of Australia’s easternmost point.
I’ve been visiting Byron Bay since I was three, way back when it was a backwater town with a lucky aspect. OK, it was still popular. But back in the early 90s, this place was a peaceful, family haven. It was yet to be discovered by the backpacker hordes.
A bit of Byron Bay history
Ironically, fifty years ago, this town was given up and people left it in droves. It had always been a poor working town, engaging in timber, dairy, abattoirs, whaling and fishing industries.
It was the stench from these trades that caused the workers to scatter, leaving room for the surfers and hippies to move in. It was the 1960s, and they’ve been coming ever since.
Now, it’s the ‘popular’ alternative place to be. In a place named after the grandfather of Lord Byron, and where the streets adopt the names of famous poets and philosophers, growing numbers of artists grace its presence.
The flower-kids have been pushed out of the market, the wealthy moving in. But in some ways, Byron deserves every bit of attention, even now. Yup. Despite the backpacking hooligans, the endless Jonson St traffic jams, and the soaring accommodation prices, Byron Bay is STILL amazing. And here’s why…
Byron Bay effervesces. It bubbles and blooms. Palm trees and painted murals decorate the streets. Shops with names like Bohotopia and Bring-a-Bong cheekily celebrate Byron’s flower-child spirit.
This alternative living permeates the whole of northeastern NSW. But its heart lies in Byron. There are bongo players and weed dealers. There are health food shops, hemp clothing stores, plenty of surf shops and buzzing cafes. It’s thriving, no matter the time of year or day of the week.
Byron Bay is a surfing mecca, thanks to the wealth of beach options. Beneath the famous lighthouse, wannabe surfers tumble about in the frothy waters.
There are a bunch of surf beaches north and south of Cape Byron, with varying degrees of difficulty. You’ve got the ever-popular Main Beach, the often beginner-friendly Clarkes Beach with its sandy bottom, and the gentle Belongil. Watego’s is popular among long boarders while the addicts head to the iconic Pass with its bigger swells. Or you can follow the locals to The Wreck, a powerful surf beach named after a 1922 shipwreck that affects the swells.
3. Lighthouse Trail
Whatever is happening below, Byron’s truly iconic lighthouse surveys it all. You can take the road to the top, sure. But you’re in Byron, a place known for both its natural beauty and its promise of adventure. You haven’t visited the town if you haven’t walked the Lighthouse Trail.
In all, it’s a 3.7-kilometre loop that takes you through rainforests, along beaches, across grassland, and up the cliffs to the lighthouse. It can be challenging, but the awe-inspiring views are guaranteed to distract you.
Pay attention to the trees and you might just be lucky enough to catch a grazing koala. But while you’re tracing the outline of the cliffs, don’t forget to keep an eye on the waters, where you could glimpse some of the bay’s marvellous aquatic creatures…
4. Marine wildlife
… And that brings us to number 4. Marine wildlife. Because Byron Bay has it in spades. In fact, that’s 500 species of fish, sharks, corals, stingrays, marine birds, dolphins, and to complete the picture…
Hunchback whales. Between June and November, pods of whales travel right along Byron’s coastline. And if you’re lucky, you can spot them from the shoreline, these ultimate nomads migrating north, blowing spray into the air and waving to the admiring crowds.
Or you can blow some dosh and take yourself on what I would imagine, poorly backpacker that I am, is one of the town’s best tourist experiences: a whale watching tour.
Other walks in the area, including Mt Warning – though be mindful that the Aborigines request that you don’t climb to the peak as it’s sacrosanct ground. Hike:
5. Amazing restaurants
It’s hard to imagine that such a teeny tiny town (OK … It’s not that small anymore) could produce such a stream of top quality cafes. But somehow, Byron Bay manages it. Seriously, if you’re not surfing, you’ll be restaurant crawling. Because there are too many sumptuous dishes and not nearly enough time.
You can tuck into amazing pizza at Il Buco, awesome pancakes at Dip, sushi at O Sushi, falafel at Orgasmic … and then wash it down with a beer at Railway Friendly Bar, or coffee at Bay Leaf or Fresh Byron.
6. Sunrises and sunsets
Byron Bay has a flipping marvellous location that lets you get the best of both sunrises and sunsets. You can stride along the firm, flat sand of Tallows Beach in the early morning to watch a golden sunrise…
And then in the evening, you can make your way to Main Beach to watch the sun burn the sky and water red as it sets behind the jagged peak of Mt Warning.
I guess it’s these reasons – and plenty more – that explain Byron Bay’s surge in popularity in the last 20 years. And sure, the town has gone up in value. But the bongo drummers remain, the Rastafari still ramble barefoot along its muralled footpaths. The atmosphere is still carefree, happy and accepting. And I’ll keep coming back.
Hippy tie-dye not your thing? Maybe you’d prefer one of these other scintillating Aussie East Coast destinations: