If it's been a while since you stayed at a "youth hostel" you're in for a few surprises.
Byron's backpacker scene has ramped up recently. Byron Bay Beach Hostel opened last year in the heritage-listed former Council Chambers on Lawson Street. There's a new backpacker "resort" at Belongil, on Byron's northern outskirts, with the shouty name of Wake Up! Then there's the newest, and flashest, of them all: Byron Bay YHA, which reopened in May after a $7 million makeover.
If it's been a while since you stayed at a "youth hostel" you're in for a few surprises. YHA Australia even calls its properties "YHAs" to sidestep outdated connotations of chores and curfews and only being for young people.
At Byron Bay YHA, for instance, the high-ceilinged pagoda-style reception area, backed by a massive painting by Northern Rivers ex-Mambo artist Robert Moore, is more five-star hotel than hostel. Only the guests arriving with backpacks and the young staff members behind the counter remind you where you are.
Inside, the YHA is all open-plan and architect-designed for Byron's endless summers (sunny winter days can get up to 25 degrees). There's an open-air deck with hanging cane chairs and bright yellow stools, lush tropical gardens, a solar-heated swimming pool with beanbag sun-loungers – and a playful new mural of cockatoos, palm trees and pink dolphins, all wearing sunglasses, by Sydney street-artist Mulga.
"We were definitely going for a resort feel but with a sense of fun," says Di Caught of YHA Australia, who oversaw the 23-year-old hostel's new look. "We wanted lots of talking points and social spaces that are put together to create new friendships."
The whole place is planet-friendly, with rooftop solar panels, rainwater tanks and reusable water bottles for sale at reception.
As you'd expect in a surf town like Byron, there are surfing references galore, from a wave-height sign at the entrance and the world map showing famous surf spots, painted by German animator Lars Seiffert, to retro surfing magazine covers papering one wall of the hip new TV lounge and, also in the TV lounge, a black-and-white photo of 1960s surfer Horrie Budd used as a wall skin.
The property's three pavilions are connected by walkways open to the weather, so BYO umbrella if it's raining (as it is the night I arrive). On clear nights, however, you'll see flying foxes, the moon and the sweeping flashes of Cape Byron lighthouse (as I do, on my second night).
My room is one of 20 new doubles with ensuites; there are also twin rooms and four-bed dorms with en suites. The decor is minimalist with a natural twist, the white walls offset by a recycled timber bedhead and wood-lined open cupboard, and hotel touches such as fluffy white towels, Natural Earth toiletries, aircon and a flat-screen TV.
There's no mini-bar, for social as well as environmental reasons, but there is a huge new communal kitchen on level two of the three-storey complex with gleaming stainless steel benchtops and a neon sign of Byron's mantra, "Cheer up, slow down, chill out". Besides, self-catering is a great way to keep costs down in increasingly pricey Byron. Another is to use the hostel's new underground car park; at $5 a day, it's a steal compared to Byron's $4/hour parking meters.
Rates include Wi-Fi in the common areas, but Wi-Fi access in your room costs extra, to discourage guests from holing up in their curtained bunks or private rooms binge-watching The Handmaid's Tale.
In keeping with YHA Australia's strong sustainability ethos, the whole place is planet-friendly with, for instance, rooftop solar panels, rainwater tanks and reusable water bottles for sale at reception.
There's plenty to do in and around "the Bay", as locals call Byron, and winter is arguably the best time to go. Main Beach is just three blocks from the YHA and the water is still warm enough for swimming and as clear as it gets (perfect for snorkelling Julian Rocks, just offshore). The cafes, the farmers markets, the surf and the scenic walking track to Cape Byron are less crowded than in summer. And there's a good chance you'll see dolphins and migrating whales.
For all its resort-ness Byron Bay YHA is relaxed enough that you can wander in with sand on your feet after a day at the beach. And it still has an all-welcome vibe, with plenty of free and low-cost activities: $4 pizza nights, barbecues by the pool, breakfasts on the beach, free guided walks to the lighthouse, free pancakes.
"Well, the first one's free," says the staff member pouring batter onto a portable hotplate near the pool the morning I check out. "After that they're 50 cents." Maple syrup included. It's good to see some aspects of "hostel" life haven't changed.
Virgin and Jetstar fly daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Ballina, 20 minutes south of Byron Bay, and to the Gold Coast, 40 minutes north.
Byron Bay YHA, 7 Carlyle Street, Byron Bay, has beds from $26 a night in shared dorms and double rooms with en suites from $80 a night, including YHA membership. YHA is a not-for-profit organisation and part of the world's largest budget accommodation network, Hostelling International. See yha.com.au
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of YHA Australia.