Jo Kennett finds rural peace and sensational surf near the border.
The waves, framed by the needles of she-oak trees, are green and glassy in the dawn light. There's a soft thud beside me as a surfer jogs past and down the wooden steps to the beach. He pauses at the water's edge to attach a leg-rope, then runs through the breakers.
The sun is struggling to break through a bank of clouds and Norries Head looms dark above the cove. I climb the long wooden walkway to the top of the headland. To my right the hilltop is grassy and a beach, devoid of people and backed by a nature strip, runs away to the south. To the left are rocks and pandanus and below are more surfers paddling into the metre-high waves of the right-hand point break. There's a small crowd and it's only 7 o'clock.
By 7.30 the car park above the sheltered cove is almost full and surfers line the hilltop scanning the ocean. Longboards carve slow, graceful lines across the face of the waves. More wetsuit-clad figures are running across the sand, some stopping to stretch before paddling out.
It's Sunday morning at Cabarita Beach. Peak hour. The previous days have been warm and sunny but the morning promises rain that, along with the rich volcanic soil from nearby Mount Warning, has made this north-east corner of NSW one of the most verdant and beautiful in the country.
A fisherman in a fluorescent-orange raincoat casts his line out from a rocky outcrop above the gently surging sea. He is one of the competitors hoping to take a prize in the $25,000 Greenback Tailor Fishing Competition.
Later, on the lawn in front of The Beach Resort, an explosion and a puff of smoke mark the end of competition. Under a big yellow marquee, officials lift bags of fish from giant trays and record the weight on the bag. May McFie, a triple Australian masters champion angler, explains what's going on. Other anglers stop to chat to McFie, who's highly regarded in the game.
It would be hard to find a more charming place to hang your hat than The Hideaway, an environmentally friendly four-star hotel about 100 metres up the beach. Nestled on the beachfront amid a pandanus and palm-filled tropical garden, this resort has 15 suites with balconies overlooking the pool and gardens, many with glimpses of the ocean through the trees.
The suites are self-contained, with warm, stylish interiors. It is only a minute's walk from the surf club, the bar, bistro and entertainment at the Beach Hotel and the handful of shops, cafes and restaurants.
Cabarita is also known as Bogangar, which means "place of many pippies" in the local Bundjalung dialect. This peaceful seaside village is just 20 minutes' drive from Gold Coast Airport and 35minutes from Byron Bay, in the centre of the Tweed Coast and surrounded by nature reserves of coastal rainforest and heath.
The pristine expanse of Cudgen Lake bounds the north of the village and feeds Cudgen Creek, which flows into the ocean at Kingscliff, emerald green and backed by the majestic spire of Mount Warning. Named by Captain Cook as a landmark for offshore shoals, the mountain is known to the Bundjalung nation as Wollumbin, which means "cloud maker". Wollumbin is a sleeping warrior from the Dreamtime and his profile is easy to spot on the sacred mountain.
The shire has 37 kilometres of coastline, much of it unspoilt, and picturesque villages including Tumbulgum, 20 minutes' west of Cabarita, where the broad expanse of the Tweed River meets the Rous River. The river bank is lined with big shady trees and picnic tables. Overlooking it are several cafes and galleries and the historic Tumbulgum Hotel.
A drive through the nearby town of Murwillumbah and the historic village of Uki leads to Mount Warning, the first place to see the sun in Australia. Climbers often leave in the dark to arrive for sunrise, a nine-kilometre return trip with a hard haul up a steep, rocky slope at the end. There are picnic areas and easier rainforest walks from the car park at the base.
A 10-minute drive north of Cabarita is the cosmopolitan beachside town of Kingscliff, with its stylish boutiques and alfresco cafes and restaurants. The clear-green Cudgen Creek opens out to the ocean at the southern end of town with a shady park on the bank that is perfect for picnics.
There are several art galleries along the Tweed River at Chinderah and Fingal, the most northern village in NSW. At Fingal Head, a walking track leads through the littoral rainforest to the lighthouse on the headland overlooking Cook Island Marine Reserve. Sometimes there are hundreds of dolphins between the shore and Cook Island.
From May to October, humpback whales can be seen on the headlands at Fingal, Cabarita and Hastings Point. It's said the Tweed has greater biodiversity than Kakadu and is home to five World Heritage-listed rainforests. Several endangered species are found in the area and it is increasingly a sanctuary for wildlife pushed out by urban development to the north. It is one of the few places left where you can startle a swamp wallaby as you walk along a bush track onto the beach, just in time to see a whale breech.
Cabarita is 20kilometres south of Gold Coast Airport at Coolangatta. Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Blue have daily flights from Sydney to the Gold Coast.
The Greenback Tailor Fishing Competition is held each June long weekend; phone Cabarita Bait and Tackle on 66763111. For more information phone Tweed Tourism on 1800674414 or see tweedtourism.com.au.
Staying there The Hideaway, 21 Cypress Crescent, Cabarita Beach, has rooms from $130 a night. Phone 66761444 or see cababeach.com.au.