There’s a reason the eyes of the world are on NSW’s Northern Rivers region – and it isn’t only to do with the Hollywood glitterati who now call Byron Bay home.
This 230-kilometre stretch of coastline boasts some of the world’s most stunning beaches (and the surf breaks to go with them), lush tropical rainforests, fertile river valleys and artistically minded communities.
And as these locals show, there’s certainly no shortage of creature comforts when you hit the road less travelled, starting off in Byron Bay but discovering the region’s hidden secrets beyond the capital of cool.
Start here: Grab coffee at Wide Open Road
Wide Open Road is a living example of the Northern Rivers’ strong undertow. Jono Hill started his cult Melbourne roastery and café 10 years ago. Last year he opened its espresso bar outpost in the heart of Byron Bay after moving his family to the region.
“It’s been our holiday place for years,” says Hill. “Then I had kids. We were up here a few years ago for summer and I just thought, it’s time to move up here for good.”
Just off the main drag, Wide Open Road Byron Bay is a “mini version” of the Melbourne mothership. “It’s only got 20 seats so it’s super intimate,” says Hill.
The fit-out is an inviting mix of terrazzo tiles and steel shelves, recycled timber and antique lights and draws a reliably eclectic cross-section of locals and travellers. “Byron is such a mix. People come in with sandy feet after their morning surf and the international visitors are starting to come back. It’s great to hear different languages being spoken in the café again.”
As for the coffee, there’s a world of choice, including different house blends for milk and mylk coffees, single origin beans that rotate through the menu every few weeks and their own house blend of chai. If you need to refuel, grab a bagel and a seat – “or take it across to the beach and watch the waves!”
Wide Open Road >>> Go Sea Kayak
When he’s not behind the espresso machine, Hill can be found in the water. “I surf whenever and wherever I can, but I also love getting into the quiet of the river at Brunswick Heads. It’s pretty spectacular where the turquoise river runs into the ocean and it’s great getting away from the crowds on the beach breaks.”
Kurt Tutt, a Byron Bay Surf Life Saving Club stalwart and owner of eco-award-winning Go Sea Kayak, also appreciates the quiet pace of life in Brunswick Heads, 15 minutes’ drive north of Byron Bay. “Byron can be busy and here it’s a sleepy village nestled between the river and the sea that feels like you turn the clock back a few decades.”
Tutt leads on-water adventures along the Brunswick River – the two-hour meanders taking in river beaches and mangroves, wildlife sightings of dolphins, turtles and stingrays, and swimming in the clear waters.
“The river is surrounded by national park and you can hear kingfishers singing to each other. It’s great for people wanting to tone it down and find peace and tranquility,” says Tutt.
Another Brunswick Heads bonus: “It’s only about two blocks big.” But this small-scale coastal idyll punches above its weight in places to visit.
Stop for a treat at Natural Ice-Cream Australia – otherwise known as the blue van from which chef Wal Foster (ex-Aria) serves artisanal small batch cultured ice-creams using native Australian ingredients like paperbark, lemon myrtle and pandanus.
And then there’s the iconic Art Deco Hotel Brunswick. “The pub has an amazing beer garden and overlooks the river. It’s the focal point of the whole town,” says Tutt.
Go Sea Kayaks >>> Black Drop Café
When his kayak is back on dry land, Tutt often heeds the siren song of Pottsville, 20 minutes’ drive north. This unassumingly beautiful beach town is where you’ll find Black Drop Café (18 Philip Street, Pottsville). “It’s the perfect combination of excellent food, warm service and a great little location,” he says. “It’s just a really pleasant surprise where you always feel so welcome.”
Emily Hayes opened the café last year with her partner, James Attard. For the pair and their two children, “Pottsville is the best place on earth. It’s the quintessential Aussie beach town that’s laidback and where people still say hello to each other on the street. Every day I wake up I feel like I live in paradise,” says Hayes.
The idea for their first café was a long time in the making, but the recipe is simple: “something small and local. We concentrate on great food made from amazing local produce. And fantastic service.”
Look for the café with the huge fig tree out front, often with children hanging from its branches. The light and breezy timber fit-out is a stage set for locavore breakfasts and lunches with a difference: think chilli scrambled eggs with Byron Bay mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes and basil, or pork belly red curry with peanut praline, charred pineapple and green mango. Coffee by local Blackboard Coffee Roasters is reliably good, but the selection of natural wines lift lunches to the next level.
“We also have picnic rugs people can borrow to take their food across to the park or down to the creek,” says Hayes. “It’s not a bad way to enjoy Pottsville.”
When they have time off, Hayes and Attard and their two young children embrace the area’s natural beauty, including Mooball Creek (“go there for a picnic and swim in the crystal-clear waters”) and the Pottsville Wetland, a koala sanctuary where the marsupials can often be seen dozing in the trees.
If it’s sunset drinks you’re after, “you can’t go past taking a bottle of champagne out to the Hastings Point headland. You can even spot whales from there at the right time of year.”
Black Drop Café >>> Tweed River House
When an occasion calls for celebration, Hayes and Attard head to Murwillumbah. Twenty-three kilometres from the coast, the arty town sits on the banks of the Tweed River and the graceful Tweed River House is the jewel in its crown.
“It’s a stunning new bistro and bar with magnificent views of the cane fields and the mountains from the first-floor balcony,” says Hayes. “The food is modern French and there’s a great wine list as well. The whole area is so laidback it’s great to have a place where you can dress up for date night.”
Gregory Lording and his partner, Phillip Hepburn, had moved from Sydney to enjoy semi-retirement when they spied the gorgeous but fading 1907 weatherboard on their morning walk into town.
“It hit the market and we took it as a sign,” says Lording. A nine-month renovation later, it opened in September as a picture of Gatsby-esque glamour dressed in vintage finery, including pressed metal ceilings and crystal chandeliers.
“We designed it with a nod to those little villages in France with their own destination Michelin-starred restaurant. And we have our own pontoon, so you can arrive by boat.”
Murwillumbah is certainly an artistic town. You can take some of the River House’s style home with a visit to Bowerbird Emporium (9 Wollumbin Street, Murwillumbah; 0400 167 391). The acclaimed Tweed Regional Gallery is another local star, home to significant exhibitions of modern Australian art.
“There’s a huge creative crowd here in Murwillumbah,” says Lording. “But at its heart it’s still just a gorgeous country town.”
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