Byron Bay, it's not a coastal Australian paradise anymore

You shouldn't have to queue for half an hour to get into paradise. You shouldn't have to sit there in your car with the airconditioning cranked, stuck behind a million Wicked Camper vans, trying to figure out where you're going to park: take a punt on the beach, or walk in from outside town?

But that's paradise these days. Somehow everyone else found out about it. 

Welcome to Byron Bay, NSW – a place I used to think of as paradise, although now I'm not so sure. You never used to have to queue to get in there. Before the highway from Brisbane was fixed up you could cruise into Byron at any time of the year, grab a park, get your shirt off and relax. But the hippies were never going to have this place to themselves for long. 

Once the road got better and the word got out, people started arriving: day-trippers from Queensland; family holiday-makers from Melbourne; cashed-up visitors with a nose for real estate development opportunities. 

These days Byron Bay – laid-back, alternative Byron Bay – is all of those people and more. It's backpackers, flashpackers, celebrities, hippies, surfers, drinkers, bogans, weirdos and everyone in between. It's a chilled out place where locals tailgate you if you're doing anything less than the speed limit, where drunk kids yell at you from across the street. It's a morally courageous town where McDonald's was famously rejected but Subway was curiously allowed in. 

I still love Byron Bay, but it's not paradise any more. Not to me, anyway. It's not a utopia where I love everything and everyone. It's just really nice. 

So what's changed? Maybe it's Byron. Maybe it's me.  

After all, when I first started going there, back when it took three or four hours to drive from Brisbane, when you'd have to commit at least a long weekend and the skipping of a few uni lectures to get there, I was a different person. I was one of those part-time hippies sitting in the drum circle in the park, smoking pot and drinking beer and loving the fun of it all. 

Now I'm one of those guys trying to pick my way through the human debris on the grass so I can get to the Beach Hotel for a schnitty​. Maybe in another 15 years I'll be the guy walking his kids down to the beach from his luxury apartment. 

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Byron was always going to lose a bit of its charm, but that's the risk you take when you keep going back to the same destination. Sometimes, it doesn't grow up with you. Sometimes it grows up faster than you. Sometimes it morphs into something completely different. 

And Byron is different. It's crowded. It's popular. It's gone all gourmet. It's turned expensive and exclusive. It's embraced a new alternative culture, one that includes goji berries and health gurus and daily yoga in Lululemon. 

The real hippies are still there, but somehow they all seem a bit too contrived now. There are still plenty of shoeless backpackers with their dream-catchers and their Tibetan prayer flags and hammocks strung onto the top of their clapped-out vans, but they almost seem out of place in Byron these days. They're there because of the reputation, not the reality.

The centre of Byron today doesn't feel like a counter-cultural meeting point, it feels like Koh Samui. It's all crowded streets and boozy holiday-makers. It's more full moon party than communist party.

None of this is Byron's fault. It's a natural progression – the town is a victim of its own success, its own beauty and goodwill.

I had someone, a reader, email me a few weeks ago and ask about a story I'd written about the "new Byron Bay". Where is it, she asked? What is this town?

I wish I knew. Unfortunately I didn't write that story, because I have no idea where the new Byron Bay is – and even if I did, I wouldn't write about it.

Is there a town out there that has everything Byron used to have? Is there a quiet beachside hippy paradise, a welcoming, alternative community of like-minded souls that is also home to one of the best pubs in Australia? Are there backpackers and artists and musicians and societal drop-outs gathering there as we speak? I hope there is.

Because for me, Byron Bay isn't that place anymore. It's a great place; it's a beautiful place. It's a lovely place for a holiday.

But it's not the place it was when I first started visiting. It's not paradise. Because surely the traffic doesn't back up that far in paradise.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

​See also: Byron Bay's turning Japanese (and it's delicious)

See also: Inside Byron Bay's new $100 million resort

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