A local’s guide to Byron Bay

Byron Bay is a special place. I was incredibly lucky to grow up in this beautiful northern NSW town, and after upping sticks 15 years ago to move to Sydney and then work and travel all over the world, I’m stoked to call it my home again now – at least for the time being.

Known to the local Arakwal people as Cavvanbah, which means ‘meeting place’, Byron has long since morphed from a sleepy surf town into one of Australia’s favourite weekend escapes. Yet despite the two million people who come here each year to relax, surf, shop, eat, and Instagram their brekkie at Bayleaf, the oft-bandied about claim that Byron has lost its soul is simply not true. Things have changed, yes, but the magic is still here.

In a nod to the area’s history as a sacred healing ground, many local businesses are grounded in ethical, sustainable practices, which gives me the warm fuzzies for supporting them. From old favourites to new openings, here’s my round-up of all things awesome.

Just another Byron Bay sunset © Sarah Reid
Just another Byron Bay sunset © Sarah Reid

Coffee and brunch

You can get a good coffee and a solid brekkie at a dozen places in Byron, but for me there are three clear standouts: Bayleaf (the coconut quinoa porridge!) Roadhouse (the golden mylk!) and Folk (the abundance bowl!). You’ve probably already heard about these places so I won’t elaborate (if you haven’t, just take my word for it and go – early, unless you want to wait for a table).

With loads of open space, farm animals and a playground, Three Blue Ducks at The Farm is a better option for those with kids in tow, while Beach (formerly the Beach Cafe) gets an honourable mention for its beautiful plating and epic beach views. If you’re after something more casual, try TopShop; I used to come here with my neighbourhood pals to buy as many warheads and sour worms as we could for 50c, but this former milk bar is now a hip little neighbourhood cafe; meals are served in eco-friendly disposable packaging and there’s a great little grassy knoll outside you can kick back on. 100 Mile Table in the Arts & Industry Estate also does great light meals. One of my favourite new additions to the scene is Safya for its delish Egyptian-inspired menu.

It’s worth the trek to Suffolk Park Bakery, 5kms south of town, for the sausage rolls alone, but you can get coffee here too. Now Tully’s has opened in Suffolk, I tend to get my coffee there now. For smoothies, raw foodies rave about Naked Treaties, but I particularly like Bare Blends smoothie bar in the Arts & Industry Estate, just north of town.

The mushrooms on toast at 100 Mile Table... Mmmm.... © Sarah Reid
The mushrooms on toast at 100 Mile Table… Mmmm… © Sarah Reid

Lunch

If you’ve got wheels, consider hitting the hinterland for lunch. The two standouts are Harvest at Newybar for farm-to-table fine dining (Harvest Cafe next door does great coffee and takeaway snacks) and Doma at Federal for wonderfully relaxed Japanese-Australian fusion. It’s all happening in Federal at the moment, which now also has a cute new coffee shop, Moonshine RoastersWoods, by the guys behind Byron’s Folk, is a great new addition to nearby Bangalow’s food scene.

If you’d prefer to stay in Byron, new Mediterranean eatery, The Mez Club, is the best thing to happen to the ever-evolving premises on the corner of Marvel and Jonson streets since Dish closed its doors. From the same people behind Miss Margarita (more on that below), this Mykonos-meets-Byron-styled spot specialises in small plates and craft cocktails, and has good lunch specials. Be prepared to elbow a few hipsters out of the way to nab one of the sweet terrace tables.

Roadhouse, Three Blue Ducks and Beach also have great (if a little pricey – but hey, it’s Byron) lunch menus.

The tempura prawn salad at Doma is well worth the drive to Federal © Sarah Reid
The tempura prawn salad at Doma is well worth the drive to Federal © Sarah Reid

Dinner

With its tapas-style plates perfect for sharing with friends, St Elmo Dining Room & Bar is a solid option for a smart dinner in town. Italian at the Pacific comes a close second, while Fishheads is also a good spot for posh seafood.

For families, I always suggest Earth ‘n’ Sea, which has been pumping out the best wholemeal pizzas you’ve ever tasted for 40 years (I’ve celebrated birthday dinners here since I was in pre-school), or fish ‘n’ chips on the beachfront from Fishheads’ takeaway bar or Fishmongers in Bay Lane behind the Beach Hotel.

Il Buco, a great little pizza joint run by a lovely bunch of Italian blokes, is best for couples given its teeny premises. There’s more space at Miss Margarita, which does a roaring trade in Mexican-style street food, but it still gets pretty busy here so try to get in early. Same goes for The Mez Club.

If you don’t mind your conversation being drowned out by the buskers that typically camp on the footpath out front, Fresh is a great option for smart casual dining and people-watching. Next door, Bella Rosa is the spot for gelato, though I also love In The Pink (also on Jonson St) – even after working there during my school holidays for years (and eating more ice cream than a teenager should), I still can’t resist its soy hazelnut and mango-macadamia.

If you’re happy to drive to dinner, put Fleet on your list. Located in Brunswick Heads, 18kms north of Byron, this small restaurant has made a big name for itself for its far-out creations inspired by local produce. If you’re stopping in at Bruns during the daytime, the family-friendly Hotel Brunswick is a great spot for a feed, while Table View fits the bill for coffee or a light meal. Just inland, Mullumbimby’s Milk & Honey does a mean artisan pizza.

Anyone for $10 margaritas? Image by noeltock / flickr
Anyone for $10 margaritas? Image by noeltock / flickr

Drinks and a boogie

Alas, Byron lacks a good small bar scene. Bolt Hole is a bit meh, and while Balcony is still a great spot for a drink, its food menu lets it down. The fact that Byron now has a sports bar (Sticky Wicket) just makes me sad.

Lucky, then, that Byron has a pub like The Rails. With live music every night, this shabby watering hole next to the tracks has a great local atmosphere, and Balter Pale Ale on tap, which keeps me happy. There’s always something going on at the Byron Bay Brewery at the weekend, too, though it has a more backpackery vibe. For lazy weekend afternoons, it doesn’t get better than sipping a Stone & Wood Garden Ale at an outdoor table at the Beach Hotel when the sun’s shining. Speaking of Stone & Wood, there are brewery tours and tasting paddles at its Arts & Industry Estate premises.

If you’d rather cocktails, Byron’s restaurants are currently serving the best ones. Roadhouse is the place to go for whisky-based concoctions. I also love swinging by Miss Margarita between 5pm and 6pm for $10 margaritas, or poshing up a little for an afternoon tipple at Rae’s at Wategos. The Mez Club is now also firmly entrenched on the local cocktail scene, with $10 concoctions during its 4-6pm happy hour.

When the pubs close, you can party on at Lawson St club LaLa Land (warning: young crowd) or Woody’s Surf Shack. The Northern Hotel is open until 3am, but it has always been a bit seedy– I usually only come here for gigs in its Backroom. If you’re optioning a stop-in at Cheeky Monkeys, it’s time to go home.

Accommodation

How it took this long for someone to open a guesthouse like The Atlantic in Byron, I don’t know. Four years on, this beautifully styled coastal retreat set in a lush garden just a couple of blocks back from Main Beach is still the hottest place to bed down in town. Bask & Stow is also a lovely addition to Byron’s B&B scene. As for hotels, newcomer Elements is finally giving The Byron at Byron Resort a little competition. Though its difficult to go past Rae’s.

Self-caterers who are all about location (and history), will love the six cottages dating from the 1920s to 1950s managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service that occupy the best seaside posis in town. Choose one of two assistant Lighthouse Keeper’s cottages up on the cape, or roll out of bed for a morning swim at one of four properties nestled by the beach between Captain Cook’s beach and The Pass. You can book up to a year ahead, and you’ll need to.

There are a few Airbnb’ers in Byron, but surprisingly few hosts offer the kind of coastal hip digs you might be hoping for. Whole properties can be also rented through the likes of byronbaybeachhouses.com.au and  byronbayholidayrentals.com. As for campers, Clarke’s Beach Caravan Park with its leafy seaside setting is the pick of Byron campgrounds. Street camping/vanpacking is not legally permissible in Byron, though plenty of travellers still do it. Please camp respectfully if that’s what you’re planning to do; your empty beer bottles don’t pick up themselves.

I love pottering around shops like Ghostwood in the Arts & Industry Estate © Sarah Reid
I love pottering around shops like Ghostwood in the Arts & Industry Estate © Sarah Reid

Shopping

Despite most of Byron’s homegrown surf shops having long-been pushed out of Jonson St by chain stores that can afford the ever-increasing rents, Byron’s fashion and design scene is flourishing. On Lawson St, I love womenswear label Auguste for floaty summer dresses, Florent & Co for womenswear and intimates, and Afends for youthful men’s and women’s casualwear. Local organic women’s clothing line, Annukka, also has a showroom on Lawson St.

Around the corner on Fletcher St, you’ll find my favourite new shop in Byron, the very cool lady slider-focused Seabones. Next door, I am lusting over a few prints at local photographer Craig Parry’s gallery. Further down on Fletcher, there are amazing Moroccan rugs at Marr-Kett, and more womenswear at Hope & May and 11:11 (which also does menswear). Relatively new on the block are Citizen Nomade (for minimalist, tropical inspired clothing and homewares), and beautiful indoor plant and ceramics boutique, Nikau.  Liberty Trading Co, and Ahoy Trader around the corner on Marvel St, are great for picking up gifts. A few doors down you’ll hit Island Luxe for high-end men’s and womenswear in monochrome hues. Also on Marvel St is bright Bali-based womenswear label Mister Zimi, which recently opened up shop next door to Bayleaf. Crazy-popular whimsical womenswear label Spell & The Gypsy Collective can be found at 15 Browning St, next to the roundabout at the south end of town.

Head to the Arts & Industry Estate to pick up some womenswear staples at The Bare Road. Home decorators would be wise to make a stop at Raw Vintage for industrial furniture and artefacts, and Hendrix and Harlow for breezy, coastal-inspired furniture and accessories. There are also some good vintage shops out here including Mr Vintage and Ghostwood.

As for markets, there’s the monthly Byron Market (held on the first Sunday of the month – look out for Byron Steve who makes the wonderful chutneys and sauces made form foraged produce) and the weekly Farmer’s Market (every Thursday until about 11am), both held at the Butler St Reserve near the police station. During daylight savings, there’s also an Artisan Market (with several food stalls) held in the Railway Park on Saturday evenings.

If you’re hinterland-bound, don’t miss Newybar Merchants, and the brilliant little handful of stores clustered together off the Showground end of Station Street. Bring some small change to pick up organic fruit, veg, honey and coffee at the many roadside food stalls (most operate via an honesty system) dotting the hills.

If you’re keen to pick up some locally-made pantry items, keep any eye out for stores that stock products by Byron Bay Chilli Company, Byron Bay Coffee, Byron Bay Chocolate Co, Bare Blends, and Brookfarm, to name a  few. Byron has quite a few wholefoods stores; I like The Source‘s plastic-free vibe.

And how cool is this? You can follow some of the brands mentioned above (and others, including my new favourite bikini label, San Taylor) on their environmentally- and socially-conscious journeys via a cool new Byron-based initiative; BrandsForGood.com.

Local shaper Ed Sinnot (left) is worth seeking out if you're after a new board © Sarah Reid
Talking boards with local shaper Ed Sinnot (left) © Sarah Reid

Wellness and watersports

There are literally hundreds of masseuses – and even more healers – in the Byron region, so look around; the notice board at Naked Treaties is a good place to start.

My other half goes to Jeanne at Bodyworks (8 Marvel Street; 02 6685 7550) to have his back pummelled, and when I can carve out the time to go to yoga, I go to Creature Yoga at the Arts & Industry Estate (the Byron Yoga Centre in town above Centrelink is also a good option). The Byron Medicine Wheel and Byron Health Lodge are convenient one-stop-shops for a variety of healers from reiki to medium readings.

If you’re looking for a day spa, try Buddha Gardens on Skinners Shoot Road, Kiva Spa in Mullumbimby, or for a real treat, Gaia Retreat and Spa up in the hinterland.

For surfboards, I can personally recommend shaper Ed Sinnot from ESP Surfboards, a local legend who shapes epic boards at really reasonable prices – look out for me at The Pass trying not to fall off the beautiful turquoise 8’6” longboard he recently made for me. If you need repairs, there are several joints in the Arts & Industry Estate that can sort you out including Dr Ding.

There are a handful of dive centres in Byron (most run snorkelling tours, too) that all go to the same spots. I did my Open Water Dive course with Byron Bay Dive Centre, but I hear good things about Sundive too. It’s pretty chilly in winter, but this is generally the best time to spot grey nurse sharks. You might see whales on the boat ride out to the Julian Rocks dive site, too.

If you prefer to stay on top of the water, Cape Byron Kayaks and Go Sea Kayak operate mobile offices in front of Clarkes Beach. If you don’t see dolphins on their tours, you can go again for free. As you can see in this video made by some local mates, whale season can be a special time to be in a kayak. You can also go whale watching with Byron Bay Whale Watching, but if you’re lucky you can spot whales up close from the cape.

Glorious morning at Wategos © Timmy Page
Glorious morning at Wategos © Timmy Page

Beaches

Byron’s main sweep of beach starts at Belongil (the only beach in town where you can take dogs) to the north, which becomes The Wreck, a popular surf spot just north of Byron’s public pool. Moving east you hit Main Beach, which merges into Clarkes, Captain Cooks, and then The Pass with its lovely headland lookout and famously long right-handers that peel across the bay. The next cove along is Wategos (another great longboard wave and Byron’s best beachside BBQ spot), with Little Wategos (accessible by walking track) at the tip of the cape. Around the other side, more wild Tallow Beach curves south past Suffolk Park, all the way to Broken Head.

Wategos and Captain Cooks are my favourite beaches for swimming. For surfing, it’s all about The Pass or Wategos for me as a longboard rider. On a flat day, I’ll grab my snorkel and head out from Main Beach to look for turtles and wobeygongs around the little-known wreck known as the Tassie II (historians proved in 2008 that is it actually the Tassie III) about 100m offshore, and when a northerly is blowing I’ll make for the sheltered nook of Tallows known as Cosy Corner. For a change, I like to head down to Broken Head for a swim, or to the lesser-known coves beyond Broken Head for a bit of solitude (prepare to see plenty of flesh if you make it as far as King’s Beach).

Walks

Most days I run the 3.7km Cape Byron walking track that loops from Captain Cooks up bay lane, through a serene patch of rainforest (with lots of stairs!) that pops you out at the base of the iconic Cape Byron Lighthouse. The track then weaves back down the cape to Wategos, over a hill to The Pass, and back around to Captain Cooks on the beach (or via a lovely wooden boardwalk hugging the road above). The views are all-time, and rarely a day goes by that I don’t see wallabies and dolphins. When the ocean is clear I often see turtles, and on most days between from June to November – a humpback whale or ten.

There’s also a lovely walk around the Broken Head Nature Reserve headland called the Three Sisters walking track (2.6m loop). If you’re a keen bushwalker, there are some gorgeous walks in Nightcap National Park, around 30km west of Byron, including the epic Minyon loop (7.5km) which passes the scenic Minyon Falls.

These monks seems to be having a good time at Splendour this year © Sarah Reid
These monks seemed to be having a pretty rad time at Splendour © Sarah Reid

Other fab stuff to do

Byron plays host to a huge calendar of festivals spanning music (Bluesfest, Splendour in the Grass, Falls Festival) to cultural (Byron Bay Readers & Writers Festival, Byron Bay International Film Festival), to holistic (Byron Spirit Festival, Evolve Yoga Festival) to food (Sample Festival), and lots of smaller events in between. On sunny weekend days you can always find a garage sale somewhere, especially along Bangalow Road.

From June to November, Byron hosts its own natural spectacular when migrating humpback whales swim so close to the cape you can sometimes make out the barnacles on their tails. I’ve seen several hundred whales this season and it just never gets old.

With Byron’s main cinema currently being redeveloped, Pighouse Flicks is the only place in town you can catch a film; this little cinema mostly screens indie flicks.

If you’ve just arrived, the Byron Bay Visitor’s Centre is a good place to grab some maps and find out what’s on. The Byron Shire Echo newspaper also has a good gig guide, as does Byron Bazaar, which is also great for garage sales and community goings-on (at least it should be, since I write the ‘what’s on’ section!). Both weeklies are free and easily found around town in local cafes and whatnot.

Whatever you get up to in Byron, it would be great if you could support the rad people who are working hard to see Byron become #plasticfree by limiting your use of single-use plastics.

And, well, that’s about it for now! Please drop me a line if I didn’t mention a great Byron spot you think visitors might want to know about.

This article was originally published in September 2016, and updated in March 2017.