Make no mistake: northern New South Wales is road-trip country. It’s where hinterland highways trickle into quiet, farm-fringed trails and the constant allure of the coast is only one detour away. Although all paths seem to lead to Byron Bay, the beachside hub serves visitors just as well as a jumping-off point for more secluded adventures. And with Qantas commencing direct flights from Sydney to Ballina Byron Gateway Airport, there’s never been a better time to explore NSW’s Northern Rivers region. Throw a board in the back, a towel in the front and hit the road – here are some of the best routes to take from Byron Bay.
Hinterland Way: Newrybar, Bangalow, Federal
It takes just 10 minutes behind the wheel from Ballina Byron Gateway Airport before you’re slicing through verdant farmland and groves of macadamias or coffee. Pull in at Newrybar’s cosy Harvest, 20 minutes north from the transport hub, where the homestead feel is offset by the simple yet sophisticated food (oysters with kelp oil and pandanus vinegar are one example of the clever channelling of regional produce). Stop in Bangalow for a coffee at Woods (pictured above) or mosey around stores such as Island Luxe and Bisque Traders before winding around to Federal, where the who’s who of the Byron influencer set can often be spotted in the gardens of Federal Doma Cafe, a relaxed eatery that serves excellent Japanese food – if you can brave the well-deserved lunchtime crowd.
The new surfers’ paradise: Yamba, Angourie and Yuraygir National Park
Surfers won’t be able to resist a detour to Angourie, less than two hours south of Byron Bay, where irresistibly uncrowded breaks and pristine natural surrounds signal that the search should stop here. The highlight is the National Surfing Reserve of Angourie Point, a rocky right-hand point break that’s suitably challenging for experienced folk. Worked up a thirst? Pop into Yamba’s Dusk Till Dawn Bar Co, where cocktails are creatively flavoured with native botanicals such as lemon myrtle.
Coastal crawl: Cabarita Beach and Cudgen Lake
You know Cabarita Beach (pictured top) even if you don’t know it. Indeed, this wetland-bordered beach was crowned the country’s best in 2020 and it’s only 40 minutes by car north of Byron proper. Take the requisite dip then wander up to the craggy cliffs of Norries Head, where picnic spots abound, along with opportunities for whale spotting. Another five minutes in the car brings you to Cudgen Nature Reserve, where kayaking is the best way to hightail it around – views of the looming Wollumbin (Mount Warning) are best while skimming Cudgen Lake.
The old hippie trail: Brunswick Heads, Mullumbimby, Nimbin
Although Byron Bay has all but retired its longstanding image as an unhurried hippie hub, the sentiment manages to cling on in clusters in places such as Mullumbimby and Nimbin, two inland townships within easy driving distance. “Kitchen-pick” Fleet (pictured above) is bringing the crowds to Brunswick Heads, less than 20 minutes from Byron and “Mullum”, 10 minutes further west of the coast, has a heritage town centre with pockets of new-world influence Punch & Daisy has a big-city brunch menu with a small-town feel). For a breath of fresh air, Nightcap National Park encapsulates World Heritage-listed rainforest, with Minyon Falls lookout the stunning highlight.
The nature-lover’s playground: Ballina, Lennox Head
While the town of Ballina has a slightly sleepier reputation, don’t be fooled: there are plenty of things to do in this nature-rich area. Here, two wheels are better than two feet – it’s a bicycle-friendly town with more than 25 kilometres of cycle tracks – and there’s an unsurprisingly stunning stretch of coastline where, between May and November, humpback whales trail past, easily spotted from Pat Morton Lookout.