Tweed, New South Wales: Byron Bay's cute, less-explored neighbour

"If Chris Hemsworth finds this place, we're screwed," the old farmer spruiking his bio-dynamic avocados chuckles as he tells me this, but maybe he's not really joking. A few decades back, no-one thought the hills behind Hemsworth's home (Byron Bay) would be frequented by movie stars. Now houses in its hinterland go for $10 million-plus.

I look around and try to picture Thor here. It's market day on the outskirts of Murwillumbah and a bloke in jeans that have known much happier days is warbling his way through a Neil Young classic. Tumeric lattes bubble and boil as customers lay on cushions on the grass. When I look beyond the fruit and vegie stands, it's Mount Warning (the local Bundjalung people call it Wollumbin – Cloud Catcher) that draws my eye – but then, it is the tallest mountain on the Australian east coast.

You won't see any of this in your race to Byron Bay from the airport at Coolangatta. I'm barely 20 minutes away here - but travellers tend to speed straight on by the Tweed Shire, south on the M1.

Much of the Tweed Shire is referred to as The Rainforest Way. Gorgeous it is; all cradled within the caldera of the southern hemisphere's largest shield volcano - set around five World-Heritage-listed national parks. You can take a series of drives up, down, and around the caldera, stopping in tiny towns along the way.

The Rainforest Way was a marketing term invented to sell the Tweed to the country. In truth, it hasn't done a lot - the roads here remain free of traffic, except for farmers in slow-moving utes – and, unlike Byron's more heralded hinterland 30 minutes south, I can book a cabin in the rainforest just a few days before I arrive (you try doing that at Bangalow).

It beats me why no-one's discovered this region en masse. It's got all the same attributes as the Byron Shire – but with a much more impressive river, far taller mountains and beaches that aren't over-run by backpackers – it's just that Paul Hogan and Chris Hemsworth never did find the road in to this place.

That's not to say the region isn't moving with the times. I see it gentrifying like Byron did three decades back when I was growing up there. Even the most mundane town in the region – Murwillumbah - is transforming fast. This was a real working man's town – the art deco origins of its streetscape were hidden behind blue-collar stores for blue-collar blokes. Now stores like Work'n'Country Gear are out-numbered by artisan patisseries, hipster barista/barber cafes and a new arts precinct.

The turn-off to Mount Warning is barely 15 minutes drive from town. There's no place on Earth home to as many plants and animals that remain exactly as they were millions of years ago. This region's where you'll find the largest tract of sub-tropical rainforest left on earth. But best you don't go climb the mountain – there's few sites in Australia with more significance to the Aboriginal people; in fact, there's few more totemic mountains in the world.

Just a few years back, this sort of epic mountain scenery was the only thing you'd come to the Tweed for. But these days there's all sorts of new restaurants and cafes in the villages round here which looked destitute a decade ago.

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I don't climb Wollumbin, but I have a direct eye line to the top of it over lunch at Mavis's Kitchen. It's an old Federation-era weatherboard Queenslander just off the winding road in to Wollumbin. Spend the time you might've logged climbing the mountain on lunch out on its verandah instead.

The roadway weaves between towns even Gold Coasters and Byron locals have never heard of… like Tyalgum: where bougainvillea, lavender and jacaranda shed flowers onto century-old heritage homes and cute cafes. There's a fancy collective of artisan bakeries, silversmiths, baristas, clothes designers and B&Bs; and it's where some of the best regional NSW jazz and classical festivals are held, though who knew it?

Just north of Murwillumbah, at Tumbulgum, Australia's hottest new gin label opened a distillery and restaurant in June. Check their Instagram feed (@huskdistillers), Margot Robbie loves their ink-gin (petals of butterfly pea flowers give it its distinct purple colour, making it the world's first colour-changing gin); but for all the fanfare, its a family of cattle and cane farmers who own the business. You can meet them if you stop in, but I didn't see Robbie.

It's barely 10 minutes from the mountains of the Tweed to its beaches; a strip of 37 kilometres of deserted bays no-one seems to know much about either. I take a boat ride from the northern-most of these, Fingal, out through the entrance of the Tweed River to one of the largest green turtle colonies in Australia. Though I don't need a boat to observe sea life round here; from the headland at Fingal I watch over 50 bottlenose dolphins fish the point.

There's coastal hamlets up and down this 37-kilometre strip, like Wooyung and Hastings Point that are hardly household names. You might've heard of Cabarita thanks to the retro-glam surf motel Halcyon House, which made Conde Nast Traveller's global Gold List (of hotels) in its first year of business. There's an all-too-obvious beaten path to it from Byron these days, and while its hipness lends the Tweed a dose of sophistication, I think there's more fun to be had in finding your own hot-spot that's barely luke-warm yet.

It's easy to do too; drive another 10 minutes south and discover that Halcyon House's Noma-trained, Byron-raised chef Ben Devlin just opened his own restaurant (Pipit) in a pretty little village few tourists ever find, called Pottsville. There locally-sourced seafood and produce is cooked on a wood fire in an open kitchen 200 metres from a beach with not a soul on it. Or stumble on regional NSW's best Greek restaurant, Taverna, in the main street of old fishing hamlet, Kingscliff, where I look out past a gigantic Moreton Bay fig tree to the beach. Or have a gourmet picnic on any of the beaches that take your fancy along the Tweed Coast (with Blue Ginger Picnics).

Last week I noticed an advertisement in the local paper for the first million-dollar-plus home in Murwillumbah I've seen. And when I drove through the tiny hinterland village of Burringbar for the first time in years yesterday, I couldn't help but notice more European 4WDs than clapped-out Kombis. And the Byron News says Matt Damon's sold his Byron home and he's looking for some place new that's not so busy. It's just a question of time before the Tweed catches some of that Byron fire. It's a big flame, and the Tweed's got a lot of trees.

THE DETAILS

FLY

Qantas, Virgin Australia, Jetstar and Tiger fly to Gold Coast Airport. Then rent a car, all major hire car companies operate out of the airport.

STAY

Crystal Creek Rainforest Retreat offers five styles of retreat rooms deep in Gondwanaland rainforest behind Murwillumbah from $420 per night, see ccrr.com.au

EAT

Eat in the shade of Wollumbin at Mavis's Kitchen (maviseskitchen.com.au), try a grazing board and a distillery tour at Husk Distillers (huskdistillers.com), sample lauded chef Ben Devlin's local treats at Pipit (pipitrestaurant.com), eat Greek treats within a converted '30s fishing shack at Taverna (taverna.net.au) and choose your own Tweed hot-spot with Blue Ginger Picnics (bluegingerpicnics.com).

MORE

traveller.com.au/north-coast

visitthetweed.com.au

Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Visit The Tweed.

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