Sarah Whyte is no longer in the dark about the Byron hinterland's charms.
IT'S pitch black and I'm standing in the middle of a rainforest at 11pm wearing infrared night-vision goggles. There are four of us and it's freezing. We are wearing at least 25 layers of clothing between us. We could have stepped out of the front line in Afghanistan.
In fact, we're in the World Heritage-listed Nightcap National Park, 30 kilometres from Lismore, on a three-day NSW arts and food trail. This is a night vision walk and our guide, Wendy Bithell, is telling us to stop giggling and concentrate. As the goggles are fastened to our heads, chinstraps included, what was pitch black turns bright green. The goggles, worth more than $1000 each, use infrared lights to pick up the shapes of animals and humans so we can observe the native animals without disturbing them.
During our walk we spot a bush rat, frog and a possum. We have been instructed to click our tongues when we see an animal for the benefit of our companions who may have missed the sighting. Suddenly, my comrade and I see a dome-shamed UFO 10 metres away. We click our tongues incessantly in excitement, only to be told it's a tent with people sleeping inside.
It's past midnight when we head to Minyon Falls. Millions of bright stars flood the sky as we all "ooh" and "ahh" in genuine amazement. Never have I seen so many stars. I'm lucky to see a dozen of them in Sydney on a clear night.
This is our second day in the Byron hinterland and I am realising there is a lot more to this often unfairly stereotyped region (but why would you go to Lismore, my friends ask before I leave).
Lismore, with a population of just over 43,300, has an eclectic cross-section of people living harmoniously in the one space - artists, students, farmers and hippies.
The town's arts community is thriving. An example of this is Silvercloud Studios whre a soft breeze blows through the freshly painted white rooms as we meet one of the residing artists, sculptor Damien Lucas, who shows off his bronze works. He explains he moved from Sydney two years ago to join what he describes as "grassroots arts".
Silvercloud Studios is a haven for artists such as Lucas. We meet two other artists, Marina Cavalieri, a German textiles designer, and glass-blower Alan Ussher. All three agree it's the supportive arts community in Lismore that keeps them there.
Simone Dixon and Elizabeth McPherson, the owners of one of the best bed and breakfasts in town, Elindale House, arrived in Lismore only two years ago.
"I think Lismore is the best-kept secret," Dixon says. "At first, I had misconceptions but I just love the culture." She then asks what my favourite colour is. Without thinking this question through, I say purple. Suddenly I am whisked into the "purple room" - a room that is themed purple from the walls to the bedspread to the shampoo bottles.
The next morning, after breakfast at Lismore's most famous cafe, La Baracca (the coffee is beautiful, as are the eggs, poached perfectly with tomato and spinach), we head to Nimbin, the tiny town famous for its marijuana culture.
The main street is so bright you could have stepped into an Austin Powers movie and we are offered weed within 15 minutes of arriving.
We decline and instead visit the Blue Knob Hall Gallery and Cafe, where five locals, headed by Heather Kimber and Polly Stirling, say they are at the forefront of felting in Australia; the collection of intricate felting in front of us appears to bear that out.
We sit down for lunch, a vegetarian meal of hummus, lasagne and soup. For only $10, it's a favourite among locals.
On our second night, we stay at the Peppers Coorabell Retreat. Our host, Sean, is as passionate about this region as every other local we meet. "I love my job; I love this region so much," he says. Looking around the retreat, you can understand why. Mist blankets the 27-hectare property as the smell of wood fire fills the air and the sun sets, leaving pink, red and yellow streaks across the sky.
The retreat has been recently refurbished. The restaurant, Wilson's by the Creek, has only been open a week when we arrive, headed by chef Adam Hall. Set in the Byron hinterland, there are glimpses of the sea and the Byron lighthouse as we wind down the lush forest drive.
There are 18 suites, which have a cabin feel and balconies that overlook the bush or rainforest. Their seclusion means the only noise you hear through the night is the trickle of the nearby stream. The tech-obsessed should be warned - there is no mobile phone reception.
Following a buffet breakfast and a stroll through platypus-occupied creek beds, we head to Eltham Valley Pantry, on the outskirts of Lismore. The sun is streaming through the windows, and families and groups of friends congregate in the courtyard.
The owner, James, is also a champion of Lismore. "You can't say you get better coffee than this in Sydney," he says. But it's the pecan pie that wins me over. With the warm sun on my back, I wish I could stay here all day.
With only a few hours left of our tour, we rush to the Con Artists markets in the heart of Lismore and enjoy live music. The atmosphere is relaxed and vibrant. The glass-blower Alan is there. Uni students laze in the sun while artists sell their wares. I am hesitant to leave. As I board the plane home, I think of my friends in Sydney; I know now why anyone would visit Lismore.
The writer was a guest of Tourism NSW.
Regional Express flies between Sydney and Lismore, rex.com.au.
Peppers Coorabell Retreat has 18 hinterland and rainforest view suites. Suites cost from $200-$250 a night in the low season. (02) 6684 7348, peppers.com.au/coorabell.
Elindale House Bed and Breakfast has five rooms, all colour-coded. Rooms cost $145 a night a single, $165 a night a double. (02) 6622 2533, elindale.com.au.
See + do
The nightcap night vision walk and Minyon Falls visit costs $99 for adults, $75 for children. visionwalks.com.
Eltham Valley Pantry, 713 Boatharbour Road, Eltham, (02) 6629 1418, elthamvalley.com.au.
Silvercloud Studios, 14 Foleys Road, South Lismore. Phone ahead on 0449 105 678. silvercloudstudios.com.au.