Byron Bay may be the brightest jewel but beachside gems glimmer all along the state’s Far North Coast. Discover three chilled-out coastal towns – Brunswick Heads, Yamba and Cabarita Beach – for your next escape, including the best accommodation, restaurants and things to do.
Just past the Moby Dick Motel on the way into town, we stop at the Clarence River Fishermen’s Co-operative, “Home of the Yamba Prawn” if you believe the sign. (We do.)
“You choose,” I tell my boyfriend, as he goes inside to order. I take the picnic rug to the reserve next door and settle by the river. I’m rousing on the seagulls when he joins me. “I got four crumbed whiting, one luderick, one sea mullet and chips,” he says. “Oh, and a quarter kilo of prawns.”
You can’t get to Yamba, about 90 minutes south of Ballina Airport, without following the Clarence River and you can’t follow the river without noticing a theme. Before the Moby Dick Motel we see the Blue Dolphin Holiday Resort and after finishing our fish and chips (and prawns) we drive on past boats bobbing at the Yamba Marina, River Street and Adrift Apartments. Water, water everywhere.
At the top of Yamba’s one hill, where a lighthouse sits on a ridge that protects the town from the sea, we check in at Yamba’s one pub, the Pacific Hotel. We reckon the classic rooms here probably offer some of the cheapest oceanfront accommodation in the country but we skip them to reach the North Wing. A big-city renovation means our slick room has the Main Beach view but also a balcony, ensuite, king-sized bed and other pleasures I’ve considered non-negotiable since my 35th birthday.
Two schooners and six oysters at the bistro later, we wander into town. There’s the Mexican place, the Indian place, the pizza place and the golf club. A backpackers, a skatepark and a caravan and camping park by the sheltered harbour. We return every “g’day”, “evening” and “hey” along the way.
At the Yamba Bowling Club, Emmerson signs us in and suggests Sandbar restaurant in Clarence Street when I ask for a dinner recommendation. “They use my pop’s seafood,” she says, smiling shyly. “He goes out on the trawlers for prawns and stuff.” Two schooners later we climb up the hill, stopping halfway to pant. I look over my shoulder and see Norfolk pines silhouetted against a glowing peach horizon.
Emmerson’s directions to Sandbar – “down from the pub, across from the tennis court” – are as spot on as her pop’s seafood. We scarf tapas of mussels, oysters, kingfish crudo and snapper under a heater on the patio, then head back to the hotel under a black sky punctured by stars.
I set an alarm to watch the sunrise but we don’t make it out of bed. Which doesn’t matter, since we can see the horizon without lifting head from pillow. I snooze through some parts of the spectacle and finally open my eyes when coffee calls. The stroll to one café is cut short by the chalkboard menu at Beachwood Cafe, just off the main drag. Breakfast looks great but the homestyle Turkish lunch demands we return.
“I’m fully booked but let me see what I can do,” pocket-rocket owner Sevtap Yüce tells us as she reviews her scrawled list of reservations inside the packed pantry-come- kitchen. “Could you eat early? Come back at 11?”
To kill time, we drive the 10 minutes to Angourie, a sleepy village with a wild surf break at the northern end of Yuraygir National Park. It’s cold and windy and we’re licked by salt as waves thump against the coast. We see oyster-catchers patrolling and kids in wetsuits searching the rocks for treasures. We check out the Blue and Green pools, freshwater swimming holes formed in what was once a quarry, and watch a dad and his young son muster the courage to leap from a jump spot. “Get a run up! Do a horsey!” a sun-scorched boy beside us hollers. They hit the water with a slap and surface laughing.
At 10.59am we’re hovering by the Beachwood’s sidewalk tables, admiring the nature-strip garden of nasturtiums, lavender, bay and passionfruit vine. At 11.05am we’re drinking white wine and mandarin soda in the sun. From the six-item menu we order the grilled sardines from neighbouring Iluka, pasta with Yamba prawns, local octopus and braised broad beans that Yüce says were a childhood favourite: “I used to beg my mother to make them for me.” As we consider dessert, a man at another table announces, “This is sensational. Save space for cake!” We take the hint.
“What would you have done if you couldn’t get in?” Yüce asks with a laugh as she clears away our empty plates and glasses. Stay in Yamba another night. Happily.
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“This is a holiday town,” the bartender at Hotel Brunswick tells me apologetically. “It’s not usually this busy.” Outside in the beer garden families eat hot chips under the poincianas, a couple of barefoot kids ignore play equipment to twirl wildly on the empty stage and mates chat over beers. My kind of busy.
School’s out in NSW and Brunswick Heads, “Bruns” to those who know, looks to this Sydneysider like the sleepy beach towns of my childhood holidays. We’re only 20 minutes drive north of Byron Bay but I’m transported 30 years back in time.
We drop our bags at The Brunswick, where the cool retro bones of an old motel are now layered with chic linen, rattan and breeze blocks. “Did they have any focaccia left?” Alice at reception asks when we tell her that we stopped in at Ethel Food Store, a café and deli sandwiched between Brunz Indian Curries & Kebabs and Bruns Pizza & Thai.
On bikes borrowed from the hotel we cruise wide, flat roads, tracing lazy loops in the long gaps between passing cars. Pastel-hued fibro houses, weatherboard Queenslanders and contemporary holiday homes line the streets. In three left turns we cycle past beloved Bruns Bakery, two-hat restaurant Fleet and one of many good coffee spots, Footbridge. A tote bag in the health-food shop window offers sage advice: “Open your soul and live your stories.”
Simpsons Creek separates the shops from sheltered Torakina Beach and the surf break at Main Beach, the creek’s banks connected by an old wooden bridge that’s being carefully replaced with an identical new wooden bridge. Under the neat row of Norfolk pines by the water, seagulls harass picnickers, kids lay on their tummies looking for fish and we race through a plate of the cult-favourite calamari from Starfish Take-Away across the road (20 Mullumbimbi Street; 02 6685 1388). “Another?” my boyfriend suggests, already getting to his feet. “Live your stories,” I remind myself.
We contemplate taking out a kayak from Brunswick Buccaneers boat hire or throwing a line in where the creek meets the Brunswick River but even with nothing much else to do, time slips away. The pub may be at the heart of town but Bruns locals have a better idea for sundowners. As the afternoon glows gold we join the pack headed for the break wall to watch the sky turn pink over the ocean. Meditating, fishing off the rocks, playing guitar, walking the dog, riding scooter, skateboard and bicycle, everyone is living the Brunswick Heads motto: simple pleasures.
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Close enough to the border that the highway signs heading north list mostly Queensland stops, we turn right and follow a winding melaleuca tree-lined road to the coast. But before the ocean we see the bright white walls of our luxury stay, Halcyon House. At check-in, Alicia is giving us the rundown – “We were voted Australia’s best beach in 2019” – when she’s cut off by a guest who drawls, “It’s fantastic here,” as she drifts towards the spa.
Soon we’re sipping purple Husk gin welcome cocktails at the terrace bar and struggling to resist a pre-dinner bowl of mussel and clam linguini. Our waiter wonders if we’ve spotted any whales yet, which in mid-July seems an innocent enough question.
We scuff through white sand on empty Cabarita Beach, about 100 steps from the pillow-fortified king-sized bed in our garden room. The sea is calm beside us and I search for seashells as we ramble towards Norries Head.
At the base of the steep wooden stairs to the top, brightly coloured bikes are abandoned against the fence – no locks, no worries. Barely two hours after check-in and less than two minutes since settling on the rocks with only blue in front of us, my boyfriend grabs my arm. “Look, a stingray!” I’m rapidly blinking my contact lenses into focus when a new thrill appears – “Dolphins!”
Then, as if a “bring in the whales” call has gone out from back at the bar, a jet of salty spray is followed by the curves of a surfacing cetacean.
The show continues until we wander back to the hotel in last light. We soak in the huge tub before dinner, open a mini-bottle of organic wine and a packet of chips from the complimentary mini-bar. A second packet of chips is torn into but I’m smug knowing the stash will be refilled the next day and because “we did just go for a walk”.
Our four-course dinner at the hotel’s one-hat diner, Paper Daisy, is a tactical affair: we quickly calculate that over two nights we can try each of the 16 dishes on the menu – if we share. The wheels come off at mains. Neither of us can resist the kingfish, line caught off Brunswick Heads and wrapped in kelp foraged locally by the restaurant’s seaweed guy – “He’s a character,” our waiter tells us with a laugh – and plated with new potatoes and coastal succulents picked at Byron Bay. On cue, a guest stops at the kitchen door to bellow, “That kingfish is the best fish I’ve ever eaten!,” at chef Jason Barratt.
Sleep comes easily with satisfaction and the anticipation of sunrise, mooching by the pool and a second crack at that menu. As for Cabarita’s charms beyond the beach and the hotel… don’t ask me.