Sibilla Foxton is not having a bar of it. As she sets down a summery tomato salad in front of me, the co-owner of the pretty little Gather cafe, perched high on the hill near Main Beach, laughs at the idea that Yamba might be the next Byron Bay. "This is still a small town," she protests. "Everyone knows everyone, everyone has time to say hello."
She stops to think for a moment. "Mind you, we do have really good coffee."
Yamba is caught at a crossroads. For years, this laid-back coastal retreat has flown under the radar, overshadowed by its more glamorous sister just an hour up the coast – and that's the way that the locals like it. The way they see it, Yamba is nothing like Byron Bay. There are no traffic jams, the town's five beaches are never too crowded, and you can walk through the whole town without passing a single posse of blow-dried babes in floaty kaftans.
But there is no denying that Yamba is changing. One of the clearest markers of change is the recent opening of the town's first boutique hotel, high on the cliff above Main Beach. The Surf is the sort of stylish bolthole that would be right at home in Byron, with its Scandinavian-inspired furniture, its terrazzo-tiled floors and its luxurious Bemboka bathrobes.
Guests can take the quick stroll down to the beach or, if they prefer, relax on the rooftop terrace on a yellow-striped lounger and gaze out to sea, occasionally refreshing in the heated pool.
Every local I speak to is excited about the opening of The Surf, but they are also aware it is a sign that Yamba is changing. The question is, is that change a gentle river or an uncontrollable flood?
Take a stroll through the streets of downtown Yamba – it won't take you too long, Yamba's not that big - and you will find plenty of signs that Yamba's visitor profile has spread beyond its longtime stalwarts of families and fishing fans. There are chic homewares shops, boutiques where the racks are filled with draped linen separates, and plenty of places brewing up flat whites.
There is a microbrewery, the Wobbly Chook, and a sophisticated restaurant, Karrikin, where the degustation menus include dishes such as raw tuna with macadamia cream and mulberry glaze.
Clare Bourke, who co-owns Karrikin with her partner, chef Zac Roberts, says the menu is built around local produce. "Zac heads down to the farmers' market every week and buys the best of what's in season."
For all the creature comforts it offers, however, Yamba's biggest attraction remains its spectacular surrounds. As well as all those beaches – if you get tired of Yamba's own selection, there are more magnificent choices at nearby Angourie – there is the vast flow of the island-studded Clarence River.
A relaxing kayaking tour offers a different perspective on the destination, along with opportunities for all sorts of wildlife spotting, from pelicans, rays and dolphins to unexpected encounters with kangaroos along the shoreline.
Not all the action is centred on the coast, however. One morning we take the short drive to the off-grid Peach Farm at nearby Mororo, where we get insights into regenerative farming, say hello to a range of farm animals from sheep and goats to alpacas and a turkey with attitude, and pick peaches straight from the tree, before tucking into a tasty bacon-and-egg sandwich.
On my last morning in Yamba, I lounge in my room at The Surf, grazing on a breakfast platter - put together by Gather café and delivered to my room - as I look out towards the coast and think back on my stay. The beach action may be stellar but the leisurely pace and encounters with locals, I decide, are very un-Byron. Yamba is still Yamba, and that is a good thing.
Qantas, Virgin Airlines and Jetstar all fly regularly from Sydney and Melbourne to Ballina Airport, an hour's drive from Yamba. See qantas.com
The new 12-room Surf Yamba has an elegant coastal vibe and a prime perch overlooking Main Beach. Rooms from $295. See thesurf.com.au
Yamba Kayak offers a range of paddling tours, including a combined yoga and kayak session. See yambakayak.com
The writer was a guest of Destination NSW, see visitnsw.com