Driving into Bryon Bay, you’re greeted with the instruction to “Cheer up, slow down, chill out”. The iconic wooden sign welcoming the throngs of visitors descending on Byron says it all. This is not a place to rush, or be rushed. And that’s just fine by me.
Byron Bay is a small coastal town in the north of New South Wales in Australia. It’s popular with backpackers, surfers and celebrities alike, renowned for its picturesque beaches, epic surf and vegan cafes.
While its reputation as a laid-back hippie town is certainly warranted – bare feet and “herbal aromas” are commonplace – you can’t help but notice that it’s undergoing a transformation of sorts. Because for a hippie town, Byron Bay ain’t cheap! It’s full of deluxe accommodation, outstanding restaurants and artisan products sold at premium prices. The small Bay Grocer is stocked with luxury ingredients that I normally would have to traverse London to source (and also sells one of the best flat whites I’ve had in years).
There’s been much debate as to whether this transformation is a good thing or not. I can’t really say, as I have no point of comparison. This was my first experience of Byron Bay, making the trip to stalk Chris Hemsworth for a family holiday. But regardless, I fell in love with the Byron that exists today. It’s laid back, beachy vibe sat comfortably alongside amazing food, thriving bars and trendy boutiques.
And from what I observed, the backpackers and surfers were enjoying it no less. I left with the distinct sense that Byron coaxes everyone into believing it was made just for them.
Experience Byron’s iconic surf
Byron Bay is first and foremost a surfer’s paradise. Expect brilliant golden beaches, battered by aggressive surf. With nine surf beaches in the immediate vicinity, you’re near-guaranteed to catch a wave at all times, if that’s your thing.
For me, it is not. I was more than content just to bake on the sand (slip slop slap everyone!), and occasionally paddle in the bath-like seawater. Growing up in Australia’s south, I had always equated the country’s seas with an ice bath. It was a welcome surprise to discover the gentle warmth of Byron’s water.
Byron’s main beach – aptly titled ‘Main Beach’ – is the most accessible, hugging the town centre. From here, it’s an easy stroll to the bars and restaurants on the main strip. As you’d expect, it’s therefore also the most crowded beach. But don’t let that put you off. As beaches go, you could do far worse. For a quieter vibe, try beaches like Watergoe Beach, or the striking and near deserted Tallows beach.
Visit the lighthouse, stay for the view
It’s tempting to not do much while in Byron Bay. However, one bit of sightseeing that’s well worth the effort is a visit to its lighthouse, which obediently keeps watch over the town below.
To maximise the experience, take the scenic walk to the lighthouse from town, which takes around an hour each way. Or, if you’re feeling a bit lethargic from all the R&R, you can drive right up to the lighthouse ($8 AUD entrance fee with a car).
The lighthouse itself is fairly nondescript, but it’s the commanding views that makes this spot so special. Perched high above Byron, you’re able to take in the dramatic coastline for miles. (I hear it’s also the perfect spot to observe some awesome sunrises – but I was never going to be up early enough to confirm that.)
From here, you can also walk to Cape Byron, the Australian mainland’s eastern-most point. While there’s technically not a whole lot to see from the point – Chile is some 11,500km away — we were more than entertained by schools of frolicking dolphins and surges of ginormous waves thrashing the rocky shoreline. (Note, the walk does have some fairly steep sections.)
Dining out in Byron Bay
Byron Bay has a thriving food scene that’s almost counter-intuitive, given the relaxed nature of the town. Well-established chefs and talented new comers alike have set-up here, offering high-quality, innovative cuisine that takes advantage of the excellent local produce.
For a place that has a permanent population of barely 9,000, you’re absolutely spoilt for choice in Byron Bay. Here’s my pick of where we ate, and drank, during our time in Byron:
Within Byron Bay
Start the day at Bayleaf, a buzzing café serving up excellent coffee and wholesome brunch options.
Alongside breakfast classics, expect dishes like Breaky Greens – a super healthy combo of fresh veggies served with poached eggs; dukkha poached eggs with heirloom tomatoes; or charred sweet potato flatbread with cauliflower puree, kale, beetroot and carrots.
After a heavy couple of days, I decided to be healthy with housemade granola and fresh seasonal fruit. It was good – but I confess I had food envy from my sister’s beef brisket burger, draped in melted cheese. Who was I trying to kid?
Bayleaf is super popular and they don’t take bookings, so get there early or be prepared to wait for a table. Although this is Byron – the wait won’t be too long.
Bayleaf, 87/8 Jonson Street, Byron Bay
Put simply, St Elmo is a Spanish tapas restaurant, done exceptionally well.
The dining room is casually stylish, with the dark palette of it’s decor brought to life though bold mosaic designs. On a warm evening, its glass walls are flung open, ushering in a welcome breeze that transports you to the Med and coerces you into one more glass of sangria.
I particularly loved the soft shell crab sliders with chilli mayo; the pan-seared scallop with fennel cream and salmon roe; and the braised beef cheek with cauliflower puree. But honestly, it was all delicious. They also boast an excellent wine list with plenty of wines by the glass, selected to complement the food on offer.
Reservations are recommended and can be made on their website.
St Elmo, 22 Fletcher St, Byron Bay
Balcony Bar & Oyster Company
Perched above Byron’s bustling main strip, the Balcony Bar is every bit as laid back as Byron itself. The vibe is very much beach house, with neutral colours and white wooden-shutter window frames contrasting against vibrant furnishings and art.
In the afternoons, grab a spot on the wooden wrap-around balcony, and pass the time taking in the sunshine while sipping cocktails and sampling their oysters.
The Balcony Bar & Oyster Company, 7/3 Lawson St, Byron Bay
The Bolt Hole
This late-night whiskey and gin bar is a welcome change of pace from Byron’s other crowded watering holes. Not only does it have over 300 whiskeys and gins, it’s positioned atop a two-story building, providing privileged panoramic views that capture Byron’s famous sunset, or later at night, the star-filled sky.
The Bolt Hole, 9 Fletcher Street, Byron Bay
Near Byron Bay
Three Blue Ducks
Celebrity chefs Mark LaBrooy and Darren Robertson first established Three Blue Ducks in Sydney to much acclaim. It was so successful they’ve opened three more, one of which is just outside Byron Bay.
Here, Three Blue Ducks is set on an 80-acre working farm; the perfect locale given The Ducks’ focus on fresh produce and sustainability. Much of the food in the restaurant is sourced from the farm itself, and there’s even an on-site bakery.
The restaurant may be set in a rustic barn, but you can still expect top-notch food. We went for breakfast and were impressed by The Ducks unorthodox take on this everyday meal, with dishes like spanner crab scrambled eggs, covered with a messy yet delicious concoction of beansprouts, peanuts, chilli, lime and sriracha. Or the Farmer’s bruschetta, topped with summer vegetables, cashew cream and herbs. By all reports the lunch and dinner fare is even more impressive.
If you can, grab a table on the patio, which looks over the farm and beyond to the Australian hinterland. Access to the farm itself is open, so feel free to wander through the fields and visit the farm animals – it’s a great spot for kids!
Three Blue Ducks, 11 Ewingsdale Rd, Ewingsdale
For something special, make the trek out to Newrybar, a quaint historic village that’s little more than one street. Newrybar is the charming backdrop to Harvest, an outstanding restaurant that’s arguably more well-known than the town itself.
Harvest specialises in seasonal food, sourced from local suppliers and using foraged and wild native Australian ingredients, such as coastal succulents, lemon myrtle and pandanus. Head Chef Alastair Waddell uses these ingredients to deliver a creative menu, so good it’s been recognised with a Chef’s Hat (Australia’s version of a Michelin star).
We were there on Valentine’s Day – which in truth made for a slightly odd family dinner, particularly when blindfolds became involved in one of the courses. But nonetheless, we enjoyed the reasonably-priced set menu (four courses for $69 AUD). Stand-outs included the brilliantly red tomato with woodfired mullet roe, so fresh its flavour literally burst; and the Australian Bay Lobster (also known as Moreton Bay Bugs), delicate and delicious.
The food is elevated by Harvest’s beautiful setting. The relaxed dining room sits on the protected deck of a timber cottage surrounded by hinterland. The warm breeze drifts across the decking, carrying the gentle scent of Australian flora and a chorus of cicadas providing the night’s backing track. It really doesn’t get much more Australian than this.
Newrybar is 20 minutes drive from Byron Bay, and local taxis are available to take you to and from the restaurant.
Harvest, 18-22 Old Pacific Highway, Newrybar Village
Where we stayed
I have to give a call out to the fantastic Airbnb house we stayed in while in Byron Bay – Bodh Gaya. It was the perfect spot for a big group of us (including two young kids); large enough to be able to escape the inevitable family quarrels, and tranquil while still being within walking distance to Byron’s main action.
It’s given me a whole new set of life goals. If you’re travelling as a group, I highly recommend!
Quick tips when visiting Byron Bay