The road from Coolangatta airport is smooth and grey and always faster than I remember. I navigate the Kia hire car, cruising along the easy commute to sub-tropical Byron Bay in northern New South Wales in Australia. It is 2022, I’m 43, pregnant and on a 4-day mini trip for some sunshine.
I’ve taken this road at least 20 times, the very first as a 16-year-old. First time on a plane, first time to Byron Bay. I have no memory of that first drive from the airport with my family, but what comes to mind is a collage from subsequent trips- many times in an airport transfer bus, once with family to the Bluesfest music festival, once leaving Byron in tears in a taxi, during a distinctly difficult year, overflowing with sadness.
Now as a happy 43-year-old, there is a clear sense of calm as memories flow by, compared to past stays in this unforgettable, most easterly point of Australia.
When I first visited here in the 90s there was the consensus from locals that the town had changed, particularly from the hippy, chill days of the 60s and 70s.
By the 90s, Byron was well established as a tourist town, surfers, schoolies, rednecks, families, and artists were all drawn to this spiritual beach haven.
As I near the town centre, I’m hopeful that there is still a sense of the original Byron Bay. Has the town changed too much, or is Byron still one of the most unique places to visit in Australia?
I take the familiar left turn towards Belongil Beach, 1km north of the centre of town. I have stayed in this area a handful of times before, and I pull into the Wake-Up Hostel to check into a private room.
Wake Up Hostel was previously known as the Belongil Beach House. On my third visit to Byron Bay in 1997, I arrived alone, in despair and needing an escape from Melbourne. There were backpackers, a floatation tank, and a comfortable communal area for quiet reflection.
Now the Wake Up Hostel is bookended by cool cafes and restaurants. Surfboard and bike hire are free and readily available, and the common visitor here is clean, good looking and living their best life as a digital nomad or casual world traveller.
The rooms are modest with floorboards and fresh colourful paint on the doors. They are tidied daily, and the atmosphere breathes calm, affordable and wellness conscious. I sign up to the morning yoga class and drive into town to grab some dinner.
Trip to Town
As I drive through the familiar streets, slowly taking each roundabout, it becomes clear that in 2022 the town is busting at the seams. Mixed in with hints of the early hippy lifestyle and laidback surfers, are the food chains, modern bars, fancy supermarkets, and common clothing outlets.
I see the usual barefooted 20 somethings cross the road, and I’m comforted to hear the familiar acoustic sound of talented buskers, playing to fund their travels.
To the left I notice my favourite first-night-in-Byron tradition: Bay Kebabs. I decide to order my usual felafel kebab with chilli sauce and extras and head to the foreshore at the top of the main street.
The Byron Bay foreshore is a must visit. The popular gathering place is busy at all times of the day. Watching the sunset is the best time to view the diverse range of travellers and locals, as the mild breeze floats past and waves roll in.
In between some errands and a couple of catch ups, I make the most of beach time. The beaches in Byron really are the drawcard here, shimmering, and clean and warm.
Yes, there are busy parts of the beach in peak times. When visiting for Bluesfest in 2013, I was aware of how much more crowded Main Beach, Clarkes and The Pass were, than in the late 90’s. Rows and rows of sunbakers, families and young 20 somethings gathered along the sand, all the way along Main Beach to The Pass (a 2km stretch of sand). To be fair it was Easter, school holidays and there was a major festival on slightly out of town!
On my last day I decide to visit Broken Head, located a 2km drive at the south end of Tallows Beach heading away from Cape Byron Lighthouse. Tallows is a wild and super long stretch of uncrowded bliss, perfect for secluded swims and beach hikes.
The small carpark at Broken Head is full when I arrive, and it takes a couple of circles to score a parking spot. The beach, nonetheless, is spacious and uncrowded with young families, surfers and laidback locals on their morning stroll. The sheltered cove has views which are next to none on a sunny, slightly hazy morning.
Gazing along the vast stretch of beach, I’m reassured that there is plenty of space in this town yet, even if it’s on the outskirts, which are only a short walk or commute from the centre of Byron Bay.
On the drive back to Coolangatta Airport, I’m satisfied with another visit to Byron Bay and comforted that the area is still a remarkable place to visit in Australia. Even if it means that in 2022 it’s more rewarding to visit the less popular beaches, and choose to travel out of peak holiday seasons, Byron Bay is still a unique and charming beach town, with plenty to do and see for both seasoned visitors and first-time travellers.
Kate Rae is a travel blogger at Not A Tourist, providing alternative and unique travel tips for Australia. Not A Tourist is a go-to place for Australian travel secrets, written by a local.
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