Exploring Byron Bay's Bohemian Spirit
Local Nina Karnikowski shares her favourite places to escape the madding crowd
When I first moved to Byron Bay from Sydney two years ago, it was with a head filled with memories of my holidays there as a kid in the 1980s. The empty beaches, the smattering of casual restaurants and surf shops, the daggy brown-brick townhouses my family would rent opposite the beach, the dreadlocked hippies dancing the night away at the Rails Hotel. I knew from subsequent journeys north that Byron had comealong way since those snoozy surf town days, but still . . . I wondered whether the Byron shire, with its “slow down and chill out” vibes (the words actually written on the sign on the way into town) had enough going on to sate my urbanite needs.
In the 700-odd days spent exploring the area since then, I’ve found that although it does represent the ultimate slow-living dream, it’s now also creative and entrepreneurial, and tinged with its own (earthy) shade of gentle ambition. An epicentre for independent, sustainable brands, chic bolthole eateries and bars, plush stays and conscious wellness businesses, it also has enough surf beaches, forest hikes, waterfalls and dreamy hinterland towns to bring even the most burnt-out corporate back to life.
Basically, if Goop styled a region, modern-day Byron would be it. Which means that most businesses you encounter in Byron these days — hotels or restaurants, boutiques or wellness experiences — have a “conscious” offering. Designer Laura May Gibbs, founder of skyrocketing sustainable activewear label Nagnata, is one of hundreds of creative entrepreneurs who have moved to Byron in recent years. She left Sydney in early 2019 to set up shop in the Arts and Industrial estate on the outskirts of town.
“Basing the Australian arm of the business in Byron was ultimatelyalifestyle choice,” she says. “Having the beach and the bush just down the road helps me find a better work/life balance, which is important when you work as much as I do.”
“There are so many successful entrepreneurs here now, and Byron itself has become a really powerful brand globally,” adds Gibbs. “From a visitor’s perspective, it’s pretty cool to be able to shop in stores where you can also meet the designers and talk to them about what they’re making, as you can at Nagnata and lots of other stores around here.”
Nagnata is just one of many ethical, sustainable brands housed in the industrial estate. Others worth checking out include homewares brand Pampa, which works with artisans in remote and rural Argentina to create handwoven rugs, cushions, throws and ponchos, and Ghostwood Vintage for handpicked vintage European workwear. As of January this year, the industrial estate also has its own chic stay, a two-bedroom loft-style apartment called Apartamento, just minutes from the beach. Created by Lara and Matt Fells of Byron fashion label St. Agni (a short walk from Apartmento), the light-filled space captures the brand’s clean, minimalist aesthetic and muted colour palette.
Staying in an industrial estate may not seem like the most obvious choice when you have the heavenly likes of Raes on Wategos and Caribbean plantationinspired The Atlantic to choose from. But it will mean you’re just a few minutes’ walk from the best wellness experiences in town: natural facials at Little Company, holistic massage at Comma, infrared saunas at Nimbus & Co, and vinyasa and yin yoga at Creature Yoga. All are perfect additions to a dreamy Byron day, kicked off with a walk to the iconic Cape Byron lighthouse (keep your eye out for cavorting dolphins and whales) and bookended by a sunset surf at Wategos or the Pass. Afterwards, stroll into town for dinner and drinks at local favourites like Light Years or Bang Bang for modern Asian and cocktails, or Di Vino for delicious handmade pastas and natural wines.
If there’s one thing that defines the Byron dining scene these days, it’s provenance. Farmers’ markets run almost every day (the markets in Bangalow on Saturdays, and New Brighton on Tuesdays, are two favourites), and organic, sustainable and local are the words you’ll most often see on the menus of the hottest eateries in town.
At Raes on Wategos, Byron’s most exclusive beachfront hotel and restaurant, if head chef Jason Saxby (ex-Pilu at Freshwater in Sydney) can’t source seafood for his breezy Italian menu from the northern rivers region, he won’t serve it. Dinners at Harvest, meanwhile, set in a restored Queenslander in the quaint hinterland town of Newrybar, come with their own glossary of foraged foods. Chef Alastair Waddell and forager Peter Hardwick shift their menu fortnightly, around curiosities either grown in Harvest’s spray-free gardens, gathered from nearby farms, foraged or fermented.
Things are taken one step further at Pipit in sleepy Pottsville, 30 minutes from Byron. The menu of chef-owner Ben Devlin, a Noma alumni who headed up Paper Daisy in Cabarita (more on that later) before opening this passion-project in mid-2019, is a love letter to local suppliers. Fish are sustainable, hoofed animals never feature, wines are minimal intervention, and the menu changes multiple times each season. If you see the sweet potato noodles with spiced tuna salami, miso and crispy duck skin on there, order it.
While bookings at 20-seater Fleet in Brunswick Heads need to made a couple of months prior, it’s worth the wait for another exceptional, hyper-local dining experience. Chef Josh Lewis, one of Australia’s brightest young culinary stars, creates “kitchen pick” dinners, complimented by minimal intervention wines. If you like what happens here (and you will), check out their sister cafe Ethel Food Store just around the corner for a Reuben Hills coffee and pastry the next morning, or book in at their Mexican offshoot La Casita for lunch.
Another destination restaurant to visit 40 minutes’ drive north of Byron is Paper Daisy at Halcyon House, the luxurious blue-and-white bungalow set just behind the pandanus from Cabarita Beach. Executive chef Jason Barratt (most recently at Raes) creates meticulous, location-sensitive magic in the kitchen, like house-made macaroni with chunks of king prawn, and a bush tomato and crab butter bisque. Book a long lunch or early dinner and stay overnight, so you can laze by the spectacular pool you overlook as you dine.
With the rapid growth of Byron, residents and travellers alike are increasingly following the twisty, potholed roads past macadamia farms and banana plantations to the smaller satellite towns in the hills, to experience the true essence of the northern rivers.
“Up here is a huge step away from town energetically, even though it’s just 30 minutes’ drive,” says Talulah Gough, owner of the architecturally designed, off-grid Heartwood Cabin, set on more than 40ha of revegetated bushland in the tiny town of Burringbar. “Byron is very busy now, so to experience the peaceful energy of these little hill towns is very special.”
Gough and her husband returned to the northern rivers three years ago, after building and selling their successful organic wholesale business and having four children in Sydney, when they found the piece of land where they built Heartwood. “The building itself is really special,” says Gough of the minimalist, charcoal-toned cabin. It opens up to a huge deck with an inset bath, and is run on solar power and tank water.
“But the real beauty here is that there are no distractions from the immersion in nature. “You definitely get dreaming when you come to the hinterland for a holiday. You wonder, what would it be like to live here?”
It’s a question you’ll likely contemplate no matter which hinterland town you’re exploring. In the one-street town of Federal, say, where you’ll eat the best Japanese this side of Tokyo under palm trees at Doma, before taking a bushwalk in Goonengerry National Park or Minyon Falls. Or in Clunes, home to the only local winery (organic, of course), Jilly Wines, and the Clunes Store, stocked with artisan products like Bread Social sourdough and cheese from Byron Bay Cheese Co.
I considered the question in the Federation hamlet of Bangalow two years ago, while drinking chai sprinkled with flowers at Woods Cafe, shopping at designer boutiques like Bisque Traders and Island Luxe, and taking the 10-minute drive to Killen Falls to cool off beneath a waterfall. I moved there a month later.
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