WHILE it’s the surfing, bohemian and alternate lifestyle that attracts most visitors, food has always been important for many visitors to Byron Bay in the far north of New South Wales near the Queensland border.
I can now appreciate that Byron Bay is like a city in that it has much of what large places have to offer and yet it has many qualities that make it a big country town but with a long, near-deserted beach right at its doorstep.
My font of knowledge in Byron Bay is Terase Davidson, the founder of Taste Byron Bay, who guides and steers me from stall to stall at the enthralling Thursday morning Byron Farmers’ Market.
I quickly learn that this is a market for real local producers and not traders and that the produce offered is distinctly clean, green, healthy, organic, fresh and innovative.
Terase confirms this: “Byron Bay has always been a destination that not only attracts surfers and holidaymakers but also alternative life-stylers and those who respect the environment in which they live.”
The markets are to set the scene for an inspirational few days in what is the easternmost point of the Australian continent.
It’s a destination with world-class beaches, a spectacular natural setting, a forested and mountainous hinterland and a vibrant cafe, bar and restaurant scene catering to mostly young global travellers.
Terase advocates local “real” food, produce and products grown in and around Byron Bay (her caramel sauce crafted from local cream, cultured butter, Olsson salt, water and lots of love, for example, is legendary).
She also likes the idea of hosting events like pop-up events, long lunches and degustation dinners with many staged in secret locations that showcase the region’s varied ecosystems.
Byron Bay champions fresh and organic produce, hand-cultivated harvesters and a vibrant community food culture.
Terms such as sustainable, eco-consciousness, green technology, macrobiotic, organic and biodynamic flow freely from the lips of the market traders.
Byron Farmers’ Market is staged every Thursday from 8am to 11am and there are regular markets in Byron Bay’s hinterland too (New Brighton on Tuesdays, Mullumbimby on Fridays and Bangalow on Saturdays).
Locavores, Carbivores and Herbivores
Naturally, Byron Bay is a place where visitors can expect the unexpected on menus with items such as vegan ice cream, ingredients foraged from the surrounding rainforests and along beaches, ethically-raised animal products and biodynamic crops.
Two places remind me of just how good local produce can be when used by creative chefs.
The Farm is a 32-hectare farm on the outskirts of Byron Bay where the vegetables are so fresh they are harvested daily.
Nourish, stay and learn are central to everything on the property that operates sustainably with the farm, restaurant and produce shop having been established to grow, feed and educate all visitors. Plants grow in rich clay-based soils and those who farm the land abide by strict organic standards.
The famous Three Blue Ducks Restaurant here adopts a “real food” philosophy with food sourced from The Farm and the Northern Rivers food bowl. Seasonal produce is sold in the Produce Store and Flowers at The Farm while The Bread Social produces artisan-baked breads.
The Farm is open daily (7am to 4pm), Three Blue Ducks (Monday to Thursday, 8am to 4pm and Friday to Sunday, 7.30am to 11.45 pm).
I also head into the Byron Bay hinterland for my next exciting meal.
Harvest Cafe in Newrybar village sprawls over several lots of the compact main street of the rural village. Wooden homes with expansive verandahs typify the architecture of the 1900s and now diners can enjoy a meal at Harvest Cafe in front of the indoor fireplace in winter or along the semi-open verandah that morphs into the surrounding tropical vegetation.
An open plan kitchen buzzes with activity and bar staff busy themselves preparing finger lime margaritas or pouring wines from a cutting edge wine list. A delicatessen in the neighbouring converted residence has an ancient wood-fired bread oven in the back of the building.
Dolphins, Rays, Turtles and Whales
After so much delicious food, it is time to burn off some calories from the multitude of sports and eco-friendly activities offered in and around Byron Bay.
The main beach is the most popular while Wategos Beach (where Richard Branson once holidayed) is quieter but a popular recreational and surfing beach.
Offshore encounters with marine wildlife are also possible with operators like Cape Byron Kayaks and where dolphin-sighting tours of three-hour duration have a 90 per cent guarantee (no dolphins, return for free).
The company has been successfully leading kayak tours since 1995 and they appeal to a cross-section of travellers as kayaking skills can be easily acquired. Wetsuits are provided if required and there is one guide for every eight kayakers.
Our mission is to sight Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins and it isn’t long before we are among a pod of playful dolphins.
Our guide skillfully manoeuvres us and later tells us that turtles (green, loggerhead and hawksbill), rays and whales are also common in the bay (humpback, southern right and the occasional killer whale but only from May to August).
As a region known for alternate lifestyle, it’s not surprising that it hosts festivals for writers, yoga, kites, blues, films and dance. One of the festivals is the highly-respected Bluesfest Byron Bay staged in late March into early April which is an essential global music festival.
How to get there
Byron Bay is just 45 minutes south of Gold Coast International Airport and 30 minutes north of Ballina Airport. Scoot (www.flyscoot.com) has several flights per week to the Gold Coast with convenient connections from Kuala Lumpur to its Singapore hub. The best way to explore Byron Bay and its hinterland is in a rental car provided by Hertz (www.hertz.com) fitted with a GPS.
Where to Stay
Elements of Byron, an MGallery property (www.elementsofbyron.com.au) is a beachside property of 193 private villas scattered over rolling dunes and littoral rainforest. It combines elements of design, eco and luxury with each luxurious villa having crispy sheets, blonde timber features and natural elements to reflect its beachside setting.
The lagoon pool is a feature with shaded poolside pavilions and hanging lounges. Barefoot luxury continues with landscaping of 65,000 planted trees with yoga classes conducted here or on the beach.
Dine in Graze and reconnect with Mother Earth at Osprey Spa where heartfelt therapies use pure natural ingredients.
Guests can also travel on the world’s first solar-powered train that departs from near the front entrance into town. At the other end of the spectrum; stay at YHA and enjoy its central downtown location.
What to do
Seek out Rusty’s Byron Guide, not your typical “what’s on in Byron” giveaway magazine, but one of substance, written by locals and with in-depth articles about real issues that concern the community such as the homeless, the contributions migrants have made to multicultural Australia and environmental issues such as coal seam gas.
Byron Railway Company (www.byronbaytrain.com), Byron Farmers’ Market (www.byronfarmersmarket.com.au), Cape Byron Kayaks (www.capebyronkayaks.com), Destination NSW (www.destinationnsw.com.au), Farm & Co (www.farmandco.com.au), Harvest Café (www.harvestcafe.com.au), Taste Byron Bay (www.tastebyronbay.com) and The Farm Byron Bay (www.thefarmbyronbay.com.au)