Ask anyone who went to Byron Bay 15 to 20 years ago, and they’ll all tell you how much Byron has changed in the intervening years. Byron Bay is the original Australian bohemian, spiritual beachside siren town that draws hippies, creative types and free-thinkers to its palm-tree lined streets, lush hinterland and white sandy beaches.
With that has come the backpackers and the tourists. But the authentic free spirit of Byron remains, and can still be tapped into and enjoyed today.
On my recent trip back to Byron Bay, I set out to re-discover exactly what made me fall in love with this sun-soaked haven all those years ago when I first visited. What I found was a down-to-earth and forward thinking community of people who are passionate about food, fashion and a lifestyle that is unique to this part of the world. Here’s my diary of places I ate, drank, slept, lazed, unwound, shopped and discovered…
On my last couple of visits to Byron Bay, I have stayed at the Atlantic, a very chilled, luxe, boutique hotel formed of a series of houses and lodges, set amongst a lush garden of tropical plants and palm trees. It’s divine. My review will be up on the blog soon.
On every trip to Byron, the first place I head to is Belongil Beach and the Treehouse. Byron’s most famous beaches are Wategos, Main Beach and the Pass. All are beautiful in their own ways, but for me, Belongil is my go-to beach because it is never as busy as the better-known beaches, but just as magical as the others (especially at sunset). It’s about a 15 minute walk north of main beach or a short drive from Byron town.
The other advantage of Belongil is that the Treehouse is just across the road from the beach. If ever you want to experience the essence of Byron hospitality and laid back life style, then have a long lazy lunch and a cocktail at the Treehouse restaurant. I recommend the wood fired pizzas – delish. Also, keep an eye on their Instagram (@treehouseonbelongil_byronbay) for details of live music which tends to happen Thursdays to Sundays.
My first night in Byron Bay always leads me back to the Balcony Bar & Oyster Co. for dinner in the centre of town. A few years ago, it was here that I had one of the best seafood paella’s I’ve ever had (and yes, I have had some pretty mind-blowing paella’s in Valencia, but this one was up there with them). Sadly the paella wasn’t on the menu this time, but we had an equally tasty dinner of oysters and fish that resulted in a couple of happy-food-dances from me (where I sway side to side in my chair, eyes closed, with happiness radiating from the top of my head and out into the universe).
Always ask for a seat on the balcony at the Balcony Bar & Oyster Co, so that you can watch the colourful people of Byron go by. And always start with the oysters.
On our second day, there was a bit of debate over the brunch venue. Byron’s most well-known (i.e. busy) breakfast spots are Bayleaf and the Roadhouse. But if, like us, you don’t fancy waiting for a table, there’s Targa, just across the street from the Atlantic. The breakfasts are just as good, and you’ll always get a table straight away. This is always advisable for someone like me, as I tend to lose friends and annoy family members when I’m hangry and have to wait for breakfast and a coffee.
If shopping is your thing, then look no further than the charming boutiques dotted all around Byron Bay town itself. There are so many fashion, jewellery and interiors stores of local designers that it can take up most of a morning and part of the afternoon. My top 5 picks for the best of Byron are:
- Spell & the Gypsy Collective: this Australian label was born in Byron and embodies the very spirit of the bohemian, Byron beach girl. Its floaty, dreamy designs have developed a cult following and sell out within minutes. From the cutest swimwear, flirtiest sun dresses to divine beach gowns, you can’t help but get caught up in the Spell vibe. The boutique on Browning Street is also a Byron experience in itself, with its light, airy tropical feel and a very zen garden.
- Hope & May: if you ever wanted to transform yourself and your home with the ultimate beach dweller style, head to Hope & May for everything from floaty dresses, straw hats, woven baskets and sandals, candles that smell like the sea, shell jewellery and natural homewares of all kinds.
- Citizen Nomade: in a similar vein to Hope & May, Citizen Nomade has the most beautifully curated selection of interiors and fashion, all with that eclectic, beachy Byron aesthetic.
- Rowie the Label: Rowie is a fashion label, inspired and designed in Byron Bay, but with a slightly elevated and minimal feel to it. Love it, and love the sleek boutique on Marvell Street.
- Arnhem: this label has a similar take on bohemian design to Spell. Feminine, floral and floaty dresses are their speciality.
After an afternoon of shopping, aperitifs are in order. We made repeat afternoon visits to the Mez Club on Jonson Street for a rosé or two. Its Mediterranean design fits well with the Byron location. And a word of warning from the voice of experience: the sweet potato fries are delicious, but don’t eat too many if you want to leave room for dinner.
Speaking of which, the hands-down best dinner, with multiple happy-food-dances was at Bang Bang. The menu consists of mind blowing Asian dishes and compelling cocktails (the beef massaman curry was epic as were the Moreton Bay bug buns). The interior has an elevated design compared to the more casual restaurants in Byron, but it still captures a casual, faded elegance that makes it unique and decidedly comfortable.
The next day took us outside of town by way of a twenty minute drive up into the Byron Bay hinterland. Newrybar is a very charming little town in the hills surrounding Byron Bay. The main draw card for Newrybar is Harvest, a fabulous place consisting of a restaurant, casual cafe, delicatessen and bakery. At the back of the charming houses of the restaurant and cafe is a delightful flower-filled garden which is worth a wander.
We booked the restaurant at Harvest for breakfast but found the staff to be rather unhelpful and the breakfasts spectacularly average. What we should have done was skip the formal restaurant and just go straight to the Harvest cafe next door for a coffee and a pastry, both of which were absolutely delicious and served by far more friendly staff.
A little wander around Newrybar will take you into some of its beautiful local shops. A must-visit is the Newrybar Merchants. It’s a collective of creative local artisans and curators of beautiful interiors and fine crafts. I was most tempted by some beautiful bed linen by Shannon Fricke. Be sure and leave room in your suitcase.
Across the street in Newrybar is Driftlab, which hosts a collection of all my favourite Australian casual wear labels, from Rue Stiic dresses and skirts to Oneteaspoon denim shorts.
Byron Bay is all about wellbeing and spirituality, and there is no shortage of yoga studios, rebirthing centres and crystal shops in Byron Bay town. For me, a massage was needed as I’d only just flown in from London and needed to unravel the knots from the twenty-four hour ordeal of that long haul flight. Be Salon & Spa on Middleton Street was amazing. My massage therapist was sent from heaven and gave me a deep tissue massage with advice on letting go of back pain that left me feeling light as a feather, totally zen and so relaxed I couldn’t really speak coherently for at least an hour afterwards.
The next day, we stumbled upon an industrial estate just outside of town, completely by accident. It sounds weird, but hear me out. We went out there to go to a yoga class. On finding the yoga studio closed, we noticed the Rue Stiic sign next door and wandered in. It was here that we found fashion nirvana. Byron Bay fashion brand Rue Stiic has long been on my radar since I bought a long sleeved tshirt form their online store a few years ago.
Rue Stiic make the most divine women’s fashion that makes you want to move to Byron and live in their elevated linen and cotton dresses and separates all year round. And at its outlet shop on Centennial Circuit in this little industrial estate are all of its sample pieces from $20 to about $60. Needless to say, we went a bit nuts and ended up buying a whole new summer wardrobe for a fraction of what it would otherwise have cost.
We came out of the Rue Stiic outlet, with a whole new respect for the industrial estate where it is located. On further exploration, we found the most surprising little hidden gems, from the Stone & Wood brewery, to the McTavish surfboard shop and cafe, St Agni women’s fashion, Ghostwood vintage and a whole collection of art makers. It was a revelation, but really shouldn’t have been all that surprising. Byron is home to creatives and visionaries. With real estate prices so high, its obvious that they would locate themselves slightly outside town in this delightful industrial estate. Check it out!!!
Finally, no visit to Byron is complete until you’ve gone to the Farm for lunch. It’s a working farm, and also houses the Three Blue Ducks restaurant. Al fresco dining in a farm setting – with the farm animals just across the lawn. Check out its website (thefarm.com.au) because it is so much more than just a farm, restaurant and bakery. It is perfect, however, for your last meal in Byron Bay.