Byron Bay’s days as a secret alternative getaway destination are definitely a thing of the past now, as the hippie-infused town has become one of the most touristy holiday towns on Australia’s east coast. However, while locals and regular visitors alike will hark on about the good old days, Byron Bay is still a beautiful place offering excellent surf beaches, good scuba diving, an alternative lifestyle, a great climate and a pumping nightlife.
Hugely popular with everyone from budget backpackers to luxury spa tourists and even romantic holiday weddings, Byron Bay has still managed to cling on to the relaxed, counter-culture atmosphere that first made it an essential Australian travel destination. Take a quick walk around the streets and you will pass shops offering new age books, alternative therapies, falafels and plenty of local art, although some chain stores are nowadays starting to creep in. The range of accommodation on offer is comprehensive, but book ahead if visiting in the summer months, when Byron Bay gets extremely busy. Hotels tend to also get completely booked out way in advance of Easter, when the excellent five-day East Coast Blues and Roots Festival (Bluesfest), one of Australia’s best music festivals, is held nearby.
Things to do in Byron Bay
Many travellers start their Byron holiday with a windswept walk out to the lighthouse at Cape Byron, Australia’s most easterly point. The views are great and you might even see humpback whales in June and July.
A big part of any Byron Bay vacation is enjoying the area’s fantastic beaches. Main Beach is literally right next to town and is great for swimming, but there’s a seemingly endless list of other beautiful beaches stretching as far as the eye can see, such as Belongil Beach, Clarkes Beach and Tallow Beach, many of which are highly-rated for surfing. Indeed, Byron is one of the most popular places in Australia to learn to how to surf, and booking surf lessons is very easy. Many tourists actually opt to travel up to Byron from Sydney on a multi-day surf tour.
The positioning of the Julian Rocks Marine Reserve just 3km off shore also makes Byron Bay a good scuba diving destination. It marks the point off eastern Australia where cooler temperate waters meet the warmer tropical waters, meaning the marine life, and so the dives, tend to be varied and interesting. Grey nurse sharks and leopard sharks are regularly spotted.
There’s also a whole host of other holiday activities to keep you busy, from skydiving and hang gliding to taking a kayak tour amongst dolphins.
If you’re in Byron Bay on the first Sunday of the month, definitely check out the massive market.
Byron Bay excursions
If you’ve got a few days or more holiday time in Byron Bay, it’s worth taking at least a daytrip into the gorgeous hinterland, which contains lush valleys, rolling farmland and the World Heritage-listed Central Eastern Rainforest Reserves, which includes the Border Ranges, Mt Warning and Nightcap national parks. There are plenty of tours on offer from Byron Bay, or you can easily travel around by yourself in a hire car. The main gateway town is Art Deco Lismore, which has a thriving art scene, but there are several others, like Uki and Murwillumbah, which are charming and craft-filled alternatives. Keen hikers might want to climb 1,156m Mount Warning in time for sunrise, to be the first people in Australia to see the sun that day.
One of the most popular daytrips from Byron Bay, especially with backpackers keen to stock up on supplies, is Nimbin. It’s a tiny, one-street town known primarily for its very relaxed approach to marijuana. The laws in Nimbin are no different to the rest of New South Wales, but marijuana is bought and sold fairly openly on the street or in the Hemp Embassy. Smoking weed is also acceptable in several of the town’s coffee shops (although check before lighting up), while various types of hash cakes and cookies are often available over the counter. If that sounds like seventh heaven to you, plan your holiday so that you’re in Nimbin for the first weekend in May, when the area hosts its annual Mardi Grass Festival, which has everything from parades to spliff-rolling contests. Several companies offer daytrip tours to Nimbin from Byron Bay. Most only spend an hour or two in Nimbin, concentrating more on the surrounding countryside, but that’s generally as long as you need.
Getting to Byron Bay
Byron Bay is located on the New South Wales north coast, just south of Queensland’s Gold Coast. Byron Bay doesn’t have its own airport, but there are two quite close by – the Gold Coast’s Coolangatta Airport 109km to the north, and Ballina Airport 39km to the south. Generally speaking, it will be easier to book a cheap flight to Coolangatta, but your saving might be wiped out by the longer airport transfer. Byron is also well connected by train and especially buses. If you’ve got a hire car, driving from Sydney to Byron Bay will take you about 12 hours.