ONCE a haven for the chilled-out surfers, today the famous northern NSW beachside town of Byron Bay bears little resemblance to its 60s hippy heyday.
Skyrocketing real estate, overcrowded beaches, raucous drunken backpackers, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and expensive, scarce parking make blissing out in this former utopia nigh on impossible.
However, for those seeking respite and feel good vibes, you can still get a glimpse of old school Byron in one of the small towns who have been passed the tree-changer baton.
From hidden beaches and mouth-watering organic produce, to world class surf and awe-inspiring hikes; follow the alternative lifestyle-types and make a beeline for these towns before the crowds do:
BURLEIGH HEADS, QUEENSLAND
An easygoing beachside vibe, a bevy of surfers, perennial sunshine and a glut of organic eateries — there’s plenty that the nearby Gold Coast suburb of Burleigh Heads has in common with Byron Bay.
While the iconic Gold Coast skyline may be in the distance, the feel here couldn’t be further from that of the high-rises and casinos in the Goldie. Here, a chilled cafe scene, local markets, and stunning national parkland create a calm atmosphere that’s seriously infectious.
Barefooted beachgoers skip between sunning themselves on white sands and picking up a paleo breakfast or acai bowl from local favourite, Burleigh Social, before joining fellow wellness warriors at the nearby Yoga Room.
Anyone can get their nature fix here via the beautiful national park walk — a (shorter) equivalent to Byron’s lighthouse walk or the Bondi to Bronte coastal walk-through a rainforest populated by bush turkeys, wallabies and cockatoos to the popular swimming spot of Tallebudgera Creek.
And, as with the Byron markets, Burleigh’s Village Markets, have been showcasing talented local creatives and designers since 2008. Amid the pop-ups, up-cycled furniture and artworks, there’s an array of top notch food trucks, alongside live local music.
Laid-back, bohemian and creative, Bellingen is a magical combination of stunning, natural beauty, green juice-making cafes, alternative festivals and buzzing markets. Situated halfway between Brisbane and Sydney and a short drive from Coffs Harbour, an influx of tree changers have helped transform this riverside town from agricultural village into a go-to for artists, musicians and small creative businesses.
Its vibrant food scene (organic and locally sourced, of course) has seen an increasing number of bright, young, formerly-big city foodies, opening coffee shops, restaurants and cafes, the hippest of which is undoubtedly cafe-bar-restaurant hybrid, 5 Church Street.
The small town also packs a mighty punch in the festival stakes, with the likes of the Bellingen Music Festival, Writers Festival, Jazz and Blues Festival and Bello Winter Music Festival, pulling in crowds of thousands annually. It’s also home to the biggest monthly market in the entire Coffs Harbour region.
And while Bellingen admittedly doesn’t have the surf that lures many to Byron, a series of picturesque beaches from Urunga to Woolgoolga can be found a mere 20-minutes drive away and in place of a beach, the Bellinger River — a focal point for the community — provides the ideal place for a daily dip.
Meanwhile, slightly out of town, the aptly named Never Never River — known as “The Promised Land’ — is a secret network of crystal clear, deep swimming holes and tree swings amid lush greenery.”
A little more than an hour’s drive from the northwest of Melbourne, Daylesford was previously labelled “the world’s funkiest town” by the British Airways in-flight magazine.
Known for its charming scenery and health-giving mineral springs — alongside its two neighbouring spa towns, there are an impressive 72 springs and more than 30 spas, wellness retreats and healing centres combined — the Zen continues on its leafy main drag where new age shops jostle for space with art stores and organic eateries.
Though liberal year-round, the free-spirited nature of the town is felt even more keenly during the annual ChillOut — Australia’s largest rural gay and lesbian festival.
With world-class surf, more beaches than you can shake a stick at, friendly, easygoing locals and over 300 days of sunshine a year, Yamba has understandably been a longtime favourite for surfers in-the-know. However, since Australian Traveller Magazine named it “Australia’s best tourist town” back in 2009, word has quickly started to spread and the former-fishing village is now truly coming into its own.
Yes, it’s still populated by surfboard carrying, wetsuit clad beach bums but amid the salty surfers, the number of both visitors — and city slickers relocating — is increasingly annually and with this increase of stressed urbanites flocking to Yamba for a sea change, a burgeoning food scene has been born.
You can see this in action at Irons and Craig, a cafe where fresh produce rules and everything is made on site, from the bread to the custom-blended coffee.
In contrast to the jam-packed beaches of Byron, Yamba’s 11 pristine stretches of white sand, five of which are close to the town centre, are positively Robinson Crusoe-like and with 16 great surf spots, an empty break is virtually guaranteed.
But for serious surf-hounds, the nearby beachside enclave of Angourie — just 5km down the road — is bona fide surfing Mecca. A National Surfing Reserve — the second site in Australia to be recognised — it remains a fixture on the international surfing map.
Byron has Bluesfest and Woodford has the Woodford Folk Festival. Each December, more than 2000 local, national and international performers lure a global crowd to this tiny Queensland town, transforming it from Woodford to something resembling Woodstock.
Its pretty colonial-style shops, rich farmland and beautiful surrounding subtropical rainforest, have won over some of these festival-goers who have since relocated.
Many of whom have settled in the nearby, Crystal Waters Eco Village. Spread over 265ha of bushland, the festival was designed along permaculture principles and its monthly markets are popular across the area.