Byron Bay sits on the easternmost point of Australia about 165km south of Brisbane. It has a permanent population of around 5,000 people but during the peak season, it can triple as tourists and holiday makers flood in to enjoy the laid back atmosphere, great surfing and various alternative gatherings, music festivals and beautiful hinterland amongst sub-tropical rainforest, which are part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. Byron Bay gets around 1.7 million visitors a year, with many of those people returning to make their experience more permanent.
The streets of Byron were a little more commercial than what we were expecting. There were trendy clothing shops on most streets, and a great selection of cafes and burger joints. This meant that amongst the hippies, surfers and backpackers, which are part of the scenery, you also had a population of trendies – beautiful people in their expensive clothes who come to Byron because it’s cool. For us, it was this element of Byron that destroyed our romantic idea of the place.
While in Byron, we stayed with some friends we made in Cairns. Jill & Phillip were a wealth of knowledge about the unspoken rules of the town. Pedestrians and cyclists reign, and any hint of arrogant driving or road rage was expected to be countered with a tirade of slurs, so we were always careful when driving through town to avoid disturbing the peace. We also made a trip out into the Hinterland to stay with Dave’s cousin Melinda and her housemate. They lived on a farm with an incredible view of the valley. Their little portion of the property included a wonderful edible garden and chickens, which we got to meet in the morning.
Lieutenant James Cook named Byron Bay in 1770 after John Byron, a Royal Navy officer that was also known as Foul-weather Jack due to his frequent run-ins with bad weather. The first industry of the area was cedar logging, with gold mining on the beach to follow in the 1870s. By 1876, cattle grazing was also established, contributing to dairy products and abattoirs, and they even hunted whales until 1963.
With the arrival of longboard surfers in the 1960s, Byron Bay’s tourism industry took off. In 1973, the nearby town of Nimbin held the Aquarius Festival and that’s when hippies and alternative people came to the area and decided to stay.
Things to Do and See
Cape Byron Headland Reserve
This is a must do for anyone visiting Byron Bay. Apart from being the easternmost point of Australia, the reserve is reputed to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. It features rainforest, rugged cliffs, beautiful beaches and lookouts that are perfect for whale watching. Atop the headland is Cape Byron Lighthouse, a frensel lens lighthouse that was erected in 1901 and is the first of its kind in Australia.
Because Jill and Philip were staying close to the Cape, we frequently rose to catch sunrise from one of the lookouts. Fisherman’s lookout was a great spot that overlooks Watego Beach, so it’s great for watching surfers as well. The Eastern Lookout at the easternmost point of Australia is the real treat though.
The Wreck & Main Beach
The Wreck is a surf spot on Belongil Beach of Byron Bay, named after the Wollongbar wreck that sank during a cyclone in 1922. It’s best to see the wreck at low tide as it’s 30 metres from the shore, but if you’re surfing, wait for high tide.
Main Beach is a great swimming beach that is patrolled during the summer. When we visited, a crowd had gathered to watch an artist rake pretty patterns in the sand.
Food & Drink
We’d heard about this place online but weren’t expecting much until we were starving one night. The place isn’t flash – it’s just a vendor out of a window in an arcade, but they sure know how to make a chicken burger at the right price.
Stone & Wood Brewery
This place brews some of the yummiest beer we’ve tasted on our travels. We were stoked to get a tasting paddle of five beers for $10 – what a bargain. Juz’s favourites were the Lager, with its bready flavours and fruity hops, and the Hefeweizen, a delicious yeasty beer with great fruit flavours. Dave was keen on the Garden Ale, a darker beer with coffee and toffee flavours, a subtle hint of stone fruit and a rich malt aftertaste.
While we visited the original brewery in Byron Bay, a place saved for small batch brews and limited releases, most of the beers are produced in their new brewery in Murwillumbah.
Byron Bay Brewery
The Byron Bay Brewery is located in a building that used to be a piggery back in 1898. During the 1970s, the place was purchased by a musician and renovated to be a cool venue for live music called the Piggery, hosting the first three East Coast Blues festivals. The Brewery is also home to the Pighouse Flicks, a lounge cinema that shows classic and art house films.
We paid a visit just in time for lunch and ordered a tasting paddle with the Tuesday meal special – chicken schnitzel with chips and salad for $9.50. Juz splashed out and got the parma toppings for an additional $3. The value was pretty good, with a decent sized schnitzel and beautiful chips, but the parma was stacked poorly and the tomato sauce wasn’t great. On the other hand, the tasting paddle was great, but because they were out of one of the brews, we got two Pale Ales to make up the six. This worked out well because the Pale Ale was Dave’s favourite while Juz preferred the Pale Lager.
After our lunch, we got to meet the new brewer, Alistair, who was ploughing through his second day at the brewery. We had a chat about the operations at the brewery – the hot side is where the brewing starts, and the goods usually stay there for around a day before it’s moved to the fermentation centre, where the beer brews for between 10 days to three weeks. The brewery has a capacity of about 8000L and a variety of hops are used for different beers to provide a broad range of flavours. Alistair had come from a brewery in South Africa, and had exciting plans for the Byron Bay Brewery – we look forward to see how he makes his mark at the brewery.
We unexpectedly got a visit from Lucy in Ipswich as she was road tripping with her army friends down the coast. We stopped in at Bayleaf Café for a coffee and found their jar glassware adorable.
Byron Bay Hinterland
We felt a little bit uncomfortable in Nimbin. We knew it was the alternative living, pot-smoking hippie capital of Australia, but we never imagined it would be so in your face! Yes, it was colourful – every shop was painted with a mural and sold rainbow coloured clothing – but the sweet smell of incense hid nothing.
The drug dealing was blatant, as if they were trying to sell oranges at the fresh food market – “Marijjuanaaa! Are you right for marijuanaaa?!” Even if we were going to buy weed, it wouldn’t be from the deros calling out to us from across the street.
We did one quick lap of town, ducked into the Hemp Embassy and browsed through the scratchy clothing and colourful paraphernalia, then left. The coolest thing we saw was a python slithering across the road – completely unfazed by a big Troopy roaring up the road towards it.
Lismore’s history dates as far back as 1843, and it’s the regional centre of the Northern Rivers region. There is a lot of heritage in the town, like the Queen Victoria Fountain of 1898. It originally stood outside the Gollan Hotel but was moved after WW1 and fully restored as a drinking fountain in 2004. The Post Office across the road is also from 1898, and was a functioning post office until 1992.
While we were in town, we also visited the Rainforest Gardens near the town’s poop factory. While it didn’t smell great and seemed like a work in progress, we were fascinated with the “useful plants” section, which featured various native medicinal plants and foods.
Information & Accommodation
The Byron Bay Information Centre is located on Jonson Street in front of the Railway Friendly Bar.
A great accommodation choice is the Byron Bay YHA on Carlisle Street. It’s centrally located and conveniently close to the supermarket, beach and various eateries and pubs. For more information, visit their website. There is also the Nimbin Rox YHA in the Byron Hinterland. It is located in the bush near Nimbin – for more information, visit the website.