Craig Tansley discovers a few of the state's most historic watering holes in his old backyard.
In Billinudgel, a banana growers' hamlet 20 minutes' drive north of Byron Bay, the pub is so important to local folk that in times of flood, when Marshalls Creek breaks its banks and fills the main street with dirty brown water, patrons paddle old dinghies through it just for a schooner, or three.
When there are no dinghies around, old banana farmers have been spotted paddling past on boogie boards, or floating on planks of timber and outdoor furniture.
But then pubs are much more than drinking holes in tiny communities such as Billinudgel. They're the nerve centre of the district; the place where stories are passed around and advice is given with every drink, often by the publican.
My family moved here years ago to run a banana farm. It took only a few visits by my father before we had the whole bar back at our place pitching in for aworking bee, the patrons happy to show greenhorns how things were done.
That's the beauty of the often-forgotten historic pubs of the Tweed Valley - they're nothing like the fancy bars in nearby Byron Bay and the Gold Coast. These pubs are as much about community as about drinking (though the odd heavy session is not unknown). These pubs, from Brunswick Heads to Murwillumbah, in little towns called Uki, Tumbulgum and Tyalgum, were built in another age when people stayed in touch over a drink at their local. Though everyone has a mobile phone in their pocket these days, the pubs have remained at the centre of life.
The historic pubs in these NSW North Coast towns are unknown to most travellers. They're pubs where mountains loom 1000 metres high beside beer gardens in and around the Mount Warning volcanic caldera. Rivers flow beside the Hotel Brunswick and the Tumbulgum Tavern - buy a beer and watch the tide change.
Fly into Coolangatta, hire a car and take the Tweed Valley Way, the old highway, and motor back a few decades in time. There's not a pub in this part of the world that's younger than 80. Turn off first at Tumbulgum, pull up a pew on the front veranda of the Tumbulgum Tavern and watch the sun set over the Tweed River.
Head south to Murwillumbah and swing west to Tyalgum, one of the prettiest drives in the state. There are roadside fruit and vegie stalls, lush green paddocks and some of the state's biggest mountains. And there are pubs. Linger at the Tyalgum Hotel, with views of the back wall of the Mount Warning caldera. Some patrons congregate on the front veranda overlooking the historic streetscape but most sit in the beer garden under huge trees that make the table umbrellas obsolete.
From Tyalgum it's a short drive south-east to the North Coast's prettiest boho town. Uki is Byron Bay 25 years ago, before the hippies sold their pieces of utopia. This town of 300 resonates with earthy goodness, from the alternative art galleries that line the main street to the organic chicken pies in the Uki Cafe. The 90-year-old Mount Warning Hotel is the perfect vantage point to watch the area's characters: fifth-generation farmers in singlets mix with barefoot hippies carrying guitars. It could be a carbon copy of the Tyalgum Hotel; drinkers gather on the front veranda with its stunning views over Mount Warning, the rest sit beneath the 60-yearold trees in the beer garden.
Head east, past the turn-off to MountWarning, and have lunch or dinner gazing at the 1157-metre high extinct volcano. Mavis's Kitchen is on MountWarning Road, halfway between Uki and Murwillumbah. The food on your plate has travelled no further than Mavis's backyard. Try the organic semolina gnocchi or the honey-glazed Bangalow ham off the bone.
Motor south to the Victory Hotel at Mooball, where residents have painted black-and-white cow patches on everything that won't move, to match the town's name. Then it's my favourite: the Billinudgel Hotel. The price of T-bones has inched up ($22.95) and there are fancy things on the menu such as tempura calamari but, really, it's the same pub where I gathered with friends during my formative boozing years. This 102-year-old pub has aged better than any of us. The historic pub tour ends at the Hotel Brunswick, five minutes south of Billinudgel in the sleepy fishing village of Brunswick Heads. Owned by John "Strop" Cornell, who built Byron Bay's popular Beach Hotel, the Hotel Brunswick is its antithesis, although its views over the Brunswick River ensure its place as one of the state's finest watering holes. Its dated art-deco interior makes it as comfortable as an old pair of slippers but the best spot to be is in the beer garden, beneath one of the biggest poinciana trees in the shire.
The freeway built a few years ago to shepherd people from the Gold Coast to the Tweed and Byron shires might have been the best thing that ever happened to the region - it's just a 45-minute drive from the Gold Coast Airport to Byron Bay.
But in between, on old highways that twist and turn through volcanic landscapes, are pubs and communities lost in time, relaxing in afternoon sunshine, where the beer is always cold.
Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW.
Getting there Jetstar and Virgin Blue fly from Sydney to the Gold Coast; oneway fares from $49 on both carriers. Avis, Hertz and Budget have offices at the airport. Or gather a group of 10 or more aboard Tweed Coast Tours and Charter; see tweedcoasttours.com. To follow the author's trail, take the Pacific Motorway south and turn off at the Tweed ValleyWay to Murwillumbah, stopping at Tumbulgum, then Murwillumbah and take the turn-off to either Tyalgum or Uki. Drive through Stokers Siding to Mooball and continue south to Billinudgel and Brunswick Heads. See tweedtourism.com.au.
Drinking there - Billinudgel Hotel, 6680 1148. - Tyalgum Hotel, 6679 3229, tyalgumhotel.com. - Victory Hotel, Mooball, 6677 1202. - Hotel Brunswick, Brunswick Heads, 6685 1236, www.hotelbrunswick.com.au. - MountWarning Hotel, 6679 5111. - Tumbulgum Tavern, 6676 6202, tumbulgumtavern.com.au. - Imperial Hotel, Murwillumbah, 6672 1036. Staying there Between Uki and Murwillumbah is Mavis's Cabins with the Log Cabin, Old Dairy and Old Farm House. The Old Farm House sleeps up to eight ; the Log Cabin and the Old Dairy are perfect for couples. Prices from $180 a night. Phone 6679 5664 or see maviseskitchen.com.au.