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  1. the banya pool
    Photograph: Supplied | the Banya
  2. Walkway
    Photograph: Destination NSWPath to Wategos Beach
  3. People doing yoga watching the beach
    Photograph: Destination NSWYoga at Elements Byron
  4. Crowd of people at markets in Byron Bay
    Photograph: Destination NSWCrowd of people at Byron Bay Markets
  5. Grassy hinterland
    Photograph: Destination NSWHinterland of the Northern Rivers
  6. Pink sky over beach
    Photograph: Destination NSWPink sky over beach

Your ultimate guide to Byron Bay

The gentrified NSW beach town is popular for a reason – but there's so much more to the Northern Rivers than Byron's sparkling shores

Winnie Stubbs
Written by
Divya Venkataraman
&
Winnie Stubbs
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Call it what you will – the rainbow region, the Northern Rivers, the hinterland – the Bundjalung Nation (the region around Byron Bay) holds a certain ineffable magic. I was once told – en route to a very-Byron tea ceremony on a rainy Wednesday evening – that the magic comes from the earth; that the ground beneath the hills, spiked with crystals from a nearby volcano, generates a uniquely healing energy. And though my limited geological understanding prevents me from verifying that fact, I’m confident that there’s something special about this stretch of sparkling coastline and rolling hills that the Arakwal, Minjungbal and Widjabul Wia-bal people call home.

Byron Bay – undeniably the region’s most well-known town – has traditionally acted as a place for people to come together, known by the Arakwal people as 'Cavanbah' which translates to mean 'meeting place’. And while the gentrified hippie beach town on Australia’s easternmost point does have its perks – a stunning coastal walk that curls up over a beach-studded stretch of sparkling ocean, high-end hotels that blend sophisticated design with beachside nonchalance, and a restaurant scene to rival any Sydney suburb – we’re of the opinion that the true gems of the region lie outside of town.

Whether you’re looking to follow in the footsteps of the the hemp-clad, Byron-dwelling hippie of yesteryear, get lost in the waterfalls that wind through the hinterland, or glide from the blindingly bright shores of Wategos to a marble-trimmed bar and back to a five-star hotel room – this ultimate guide to Byron Bay should help.

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Your ultimate guide to Byron Bay

Getting there
Photograph: David Young

Getting there

If you have time for an east coast road trip, the drive up to Byron Bay will involve eight hours on the road, and will take you past some of New South Wales' most beautiful beach towns. Stop off in Port Macquarie for a good coastal walk and some excellent seafood, or journey slightly inland to the fairytale town of Bellingen where you’ll get a little taste of hinterland at the alfresco Japanese restaurant (Qudo) whose sister restaurant (Federal Doma Cafe) is tucked in the hills beyond Byron.

For those short on time, flying up to Byron is a perfectly easy option – with regular flights from Sydney to Ballina-Byron airport (misleadingly named, as it’s firmly located in Ballina, 25 minutes from Byron). Otherwise, you can fly to the nearby Gold Coast airport, which is a 43 minute drive from Byron Bay (but closer to the other nearby towns including Mullumbimby and Brunswick Heads).

Once you’re there, you’ll want to hire a car to make the most of what the region has to offer – the waterfalls and remote beaches are where the magic lies.  

Eat
Photograph: Parker Blain

Eat

Over the past decade or so, Byron’s dining scene has gone from good to ridiculous, with city hospitality heavyweights joining local stalwarts to create a spectacular line-up of restaurants that span sprawling farm-to-table eateries to award-winning hideaways. 

In our opinion, the best time to be in Byron town is early morning – the walk up to the lighthouse is particularly beautiful at sunrise, and (if you choose your café wisely) you’ll be rewarded with a mind-blowingly good breakfast. Out of Byron’s exhaustive list of options, our picks would be Bay Leaf for its organic, health-giving menu and High Life for creative plates and coffee from another galaxy. On the arc of the hill that leads out of town towards Suffolk Park, you’ll find Top Shop – a 1950s style milk bar serving loaded acai bowls and perfectly stacked breakfast rolls. If you’re out of town, it’s worth heading to Federal Doma Café for a Japanese-inspired breakfast amongst the gum trees (their organic gokokumai is perfect fuel for a day spent chasing waterfalls).

For a Mediterranean-inspired lunch, head to Barrio’s sun-soaked courtyard in the Byron Byron industrial estate, or disappear into the hills to The Hut – a gorgeous award-winning restaurant housed in a 110 year old schoolhouse. That Byron’s industrial estate is the chicest in the world is a hill I’m willing to die on, but if you’re looking for old-school elegance, you can’t look past Raes Dining Room – a perfectly executed high-end restaurant housed in the iconic beachfront hotel. If you’re keeping things low-key, Old Maids in Brunswick Heads (16 minutes north of Byron) makes the best burgers on the block, best enjoyed on the banks of the Brunswick River. Otherwise, head into the hills for Japanese from Federal Doma Cafe, or The Farm, the 34-hectare outpost of Sydney-born Three Blue Ducks, home to a providore, a florist and a restaurant serving an excellent Sunday lunch.

For dinner, I’d recommend heading to one of the nearby towns – where the streets are less likely to be thronged with teenagers, and forward-thinking hospitality guns have opened up the kinds of establishments that hinterland dreams are made of. Saint Marie’s in Brunswick Heads serves truly exceptional wood-fired pizza and truffle-laced arancini, and the daily happy hour will score you $7 wines and beers and $14 Negronis and Margs (soundtracked by live jazz on Sunday afternoons). Other out-of-town options include Ciao Mate! in Bangalow – a delightfully nostalgic Italo-American joint, all gingham tablecloths and busy, happy people – and Frida's Field; a farm-to-table resturant set on a 120-acre regenerative farm. For Israeli food that will blow your mind, look no further than Mullumbimby’s Yaman (then head to the Middle Pub for sunset and a retro desert).

If you’re staying in Byron, head to Light Years for modern pan-Asian fare and excellent cocktails in a carefully curated, award-winning setting.

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Drink
Photograph: Jess Kearney

Drink

Once characterised by hostel bars, Byron’s drinking landscape has blossomed into a coastal mecca of natural wine bars, with Bar Heather and Pixie Food & Wine leading the charge after the sad departure of Supernatural (a divinely intimate bar that closed its doors in mid-2023).

For a holiday schooner and an exceptional pub feed, the levelled-up country pub game in the region is strong – with particular thanks to the group of creatives behind The Eltham Hotel and You Beauty in Bangalow. For a quintessentially Byron brew, head to Stone and Wood brewery in Byron industrial estate, or catch sunset from the balcony of Mullumbimby’s Middle Pub (a personal favourite loved by locals and visitors alike).

If you're after a good cocktail, head to The Smoking Camel (from the people behind Light Years) or venture into the hills to the Cape Byron Distillery for a Martini with a rainforest view.

Do
Photograph: Destination NSW

Do

It would be remiss to not begin with Byron's beaches. That's why you're here, after all. Hit up the classics like Main Beach and have a go at the Pass if you're in Byron for the surf. Sandy shores line this seaside town and its surrounding villages and many, unlike Sydney's, are long and vast stretches of sand and sun. Close to town, Wategos Beach is popular and dotted with pockets of shade for you to loll about with a picnic basket in tow. White's Beach is a tucked-away beauty, and the journey there is half the fun. A rugged, winding road leads through bright green forest to drop you at the mouth of a glittering cove – in season, it's a great vantage point to watch whales from. Best to get there early, as there are about eight parking spots in all. If you’re keen to escape the crowds, head twenty minutes north to New Brighton where you’ll find an endless, almost deserted stretch of sand.

Not a fan of the beach, but want to cool off? Lennox Head's Lake Ainsworth is a freshwater body stained all kinds of beautiful colours by tea-tree oil. You can still hear the nearby ocean waves crashing as you swim, stand up paddleboard, or canoe around in the placid lake.

Outdoors really is where you want to be when you're in a place as naturally blessed as northern New South Wales, but a rainy day in Bundjalung country is not an uncommon occurrence. If you’re not a fan of a beach day wash-out, we’d recommend heading to Mullumbimby’s shiny new Russian bathhouse the Banya, or down the road to its sister spa – a gloriously unpretentious Bali-esque haven which has been operating for more than two decades. For a stretch, head to nearby HOV Yoga for a perfectly challenging class in a stunningly minimalist studio, or Creature Yoga in Byron for a similar set-up.

If a little rain does put a dampener on your holiday, rest assured that at least the hinterland waterfalls will be flowing more abundantly than ever. Strap on your hiking boots and take the three-hour loop walk to Minyon Falls, a gushing marvel situated in Nightcap National Park. There's also the option to just take in the serenity from a lookout point, if the whole hike isn't your jam. Otherwise, Killen Falls near Tintenbar has become a popular swimming spot for locals – and it's a stunner once the rain clouds clear.

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Shop
Photograph: Destination NSW

Shop

Once only known for servicing the bohemian, crochet-draped festival-nymph types, Byron’s fashion scene has stepped it up a notch in recent years. The Habitat estate in the town’s outskirts has a lot to do with that. It’s got a huge, airy Zulu and Zephyr boutique stocking swimwear and sunny weather separates, a One Teaspoon store for grungy and affordable denim, and an outpost of For Artists Only doing a good line in aspirational everything.

If you’re looking to blend into the Main Beach crowd and don the archetypal hippie-lite look for your getaway, head over to Arnhem, Spell or Kivari Designs– three stalwarts in the boho-chic, flowing floral dress game. 

Nailing the nonchalantly graceful Byron look is one thing when it comes to fashion, but why not go the whole hog and and inject your home with a little surf-rumpled glamour, too? Try Tigmi Trading for statement decor, Mar-kett on Fletcher Street for bundles of neatly rolled rugs in grown-up, earthy pastels and Little Wing Antiques in Murwillumbah for something a little more off-beat. 

Stay
Photograph: Supplied/Raes

Stay

For the beach resort-style experience, check out Elements of Byron – it’s a hop and a skip to Belongil Beach and it’s got all the amenities you could wish for (and some you didn’t even know you wanted). Sun loungers are dotted around the main pool, a cocktail bar is ready to accede to your every spirit-based whim, and golf buggies will carry you from tennis court to nature trail to jumbo-sized fire pit. In the centre of town, you’ll find the Swell; an adults only hotel whose ethos is about ‘a blend of wellness and relaxation’, the Bower – an 18 room boutique hotel home to an award-winning architecturally designed magnesium pool and onsite spa – and 28 Degrees Byron Bay – the town's only luxury five star guest house.

Head to Soma Byron if you’re more serious about your self actualisation. It’s a retreat set on 22 acres of land, with a yoga dome, meditation and Vedic practice teachers. Otherwise, a fixture of the sparkling, celeb-dotted Wategos Beach is the white washed stone façade of hotel Raes on Wategos. You can’t beat that location, or the freshly-caught seafood in the restaurant downstairs – plus, Raes’ two penthouses are as good as luxury gets this far north of the state, with sunken baths, plump daybeds, and multiple expansive balconies. To indulge your fantasy of being a lighthouse keeper on the most easterly point of the country, doing honest toil and living a simple salt-of-the-earth life by the sea (just me?), stay for the weekend at one of the lighthouse keeper’s cottages just steps away from the most sought-after sunset-watching spot in town.

A little further out of town, you’ll find the addition to the mix we didn’t know we needed: a Californian-inspired ranch set on a 55-acre property, complete with a 25-metre pool overlooking the rolling hills, an Argentinian-inspired outdoor dining space serving farm-to-table fireside feasts, and a floating sauna.

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