With our holiday horizons still severely limited, and so many travel-starved Aussies looking for a getaway, it's likely that Byron Bay is a top-of-mind destination.
On the northern NSW coast an hour's drive south of the Queensland border, Byron's status as a holiday haven has its roots in the pioneering surfers and hippies of the 1960s and '70s who turned this previously unknown town, with its promises of serenity and some serious swell, into a mini Eden.
But it's not only surf hounds and counterculture types who flock here. Thanks to its international fame, visitors today can also expect crowded beaches and bumper-to-bumper traffic – even during a pandemic.
However, if you're looking to get a glimpse of the chilled-out Byron vibe of yesteryear, all you need to do is get off the tourist trail and see where the next generation of hippies, creatives and organic food producers settled. The surrounding hinterland hosts the real action.
I had my first experience of the region's magic as a fresh-off-the-boat Pom some 11 years ago, before I'd even glimpsed the main streets of Byron town. That's when I spent a month living in the cute town of Bangalow, a mere 15 minutes from Byron Bay.
Boasting bucolic charm in spades, Bangalow is a mishmash of palm trees and heritage shopfronts housing a handful of culinary gems – it turns out that the Northern Rivers area of NSW is one of those Australian regions where even small towns often boast high-quality places to eat. The region is blessed with some amazing produce which, combined with its natural beauty, has made it a magnet over the last decade for pioneering restaurateurs and hatted chefs.
You can see this culinary chutzpah first hand in nearby Newrybar, on the Old Pacific Highway north of Ballina, where Harvest Newrybar has become a destination in itself. Spread across a restaurant, historic bakery and deli, its airy, verandah-wrapped weatherboard structure is the perfect venue for a laid-back lunch or dinner.
Another foodie superstar can be found in nearby Mullumbimby – and what this town lacks in sand, it more than makes up for in hippie-meets-hip credentials. Head to its Punch and Daisy cafe for a brunch guaranteed to satisfy even the pickiest big-city foodie – think superfoods, locally produced kombucha and roasted coffee.
While in Mullum (as locals call Mullumbimby), no visitor should miss out on an hour or two at Kiva Spa. Reminiscent of a day spa in Bali or Thailand, this oasis is hidden down a suburban laneway with bubbling outdoor hot tubs, cold plunge pools, a hammam-style steam room and a gorgeous wood-fired sauna. Combined, they guarantee a blissful few hours.
A quick drive from Mullumbimby will take you to the coolest new Byron Shire check-in, Blackbird boutique bed and breakfast. Created by a former Sydney nightclub owner – Yorkshire-born James Hudson – this modernist vision of polished concrete, glass, and reclaimed wood and steel is easily worthy of a Wallpaper photo shoot.
But the real wow factor is in its location. High in the hinterland, guests can take in spectacular views to Cape Byron and the gleaming Pacific Ocean from the private decks of one of a trio of self-contained villas, or from the communal infinity pool. While there's no restaurant, guests can order a private feast and cocktails rustled up by the 2018 winners of My Kitchen Rules, Alex and Emily.
Further north, and even deeper into the hinterland, lies La Rochér Eco Retreat. Situated in the shadow of Mount Warning and next to UNESCO World Heritage-listed rainforest, this newly opened accommodation is the perfect jumping-off point for the towns of Burringbar, Uki and Murwillumbah, as well as the famed national parks that surround them. Not that you need to go far to take in the stunning local flora and fauna – La Rocher has several hikes on its property where you can feel the serenity.
Before that you can wake to the sound of birdsong and finish the day stargazing into a roaring wood fire before soaking in a deep bath and falling onto a sumptuous bed. For anyone looking to counteract lockdown fatigue with an immersion in nature, this is the place.
For more information on Byron Shire and the Northern Rivers region, go to visitnsw.com.
See also: The nine things you must do in Byron Bay