The Road to Swellsville

Five Idyllic Beach Towns and Mellow Surf Meccas

Dec 9, 2003
Outside Magazine

Byron Bay Lighthouse overlooks a village thick with outfitters    Photo: Australian Tourist Commission

Australia’s fabled surfie hangout emerges as a multisport playground Byron Bay may be the modern surfer’s idyll—Australia’s most consistent waves pound the white sands around Cape Byron, which rises like a giant snake’s head from the blue Pacific—but veterans of the sport still reminisce about the days preceding its discovery. Indeed, there was a time before the late sixties when the hippies, Buddhists, Hare Krishnas, and naturists of all stripes flocked to the easternmost point of Australia, 570 miles north of Sydney. This fabled era, when Byron Bay was a working-class town supported by logging, dairy farming, and whaling, evidently had its pluses and minuses.

Consider the salutary tale of Bob and Terry, a couple of Sydney beach bums who in 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, tossed their malibus onto a train and made their escape to Byron Bay. Picked up by a friendly passerby at the railway station ("G’day—did you come to find some waves?"), they spent a day riding the perfect swells at an empty beach called Watego’s. It seemed to them a reasonable approximation of paradise. Unfortunately, local cops roared into their campsite, grabbed them by the hair, gave them a short-back-and-sides trim, and then dropped them on a road out of town.

But 40 years is a long time in Aussie beach culture. Not long after Bob and Terry got rolled, redneck Byron Bay became Australia's countercultural Shangri-La—a half-mythic place where surfers could park in their panel vans by the beach, sign on for the dole, and live on a diet of bananas, fish 'n' chips, and illicit local herbs. Today, surfing is not only respectable at Byron Bay; it's downright establishment. In fact, while I was reading Bob and Terry's Easy Rider tale—I was at the scene of the crime, Watego's Beach, flipping through an ancient copy of Pacific Longboarder magazine—a svelte surfie couple dropped their boards outside the lone restaurant, where they chowed down on Thai prawn salad and Tasmanian champagne.

Yes, there are the occasional whiffs of a Hamptons Down Under, but Byron Bay has in fact blossomed in a uniquely Australian, democratic way, balancing its competing interests to keep a low-rise beach paradise intact. To get the lay of the land, newcomers should nurse a schooner of beer at the area's most famous pub, the Beach Hotel. You can play at being a celebrity in hiding—Keith Richards had left just before I arrived in March—or join the international backpacker set on the beach at night, spinning fire sticks as if practicing for Cirque du Soleil. You can eat from sushi bars or vegan buffets, catch an art-house movie, or browse for local indie-rock CDs. And the Aquarian spirit is alive and well: Yoga classes are held at dawn on the beach, crystals are revered in souvenir shops, and radicals are given full voice. (I opened the official tourist guide and enjoyed a lurid essay on the Iraqi war.) Somehow it all seems right in the eclectic Byron Bay soup.

The good news for outdoor fans is that Byron Bay has branched out from surfing—reinventing itself as the Boulder of the South, Telluride on a warm beach. The wonder is that it has taken so long, given the setting: The offshore waters host some of the most fertile marine grounds in Australia, while the mountain hinterland of the Great Dividing Range is thick with subtropical rainforest. Right now, Byron Bay's outfitters are making up for lost time. I strolled through the compact village one afternoon—the adventure companies are clustered together in rabid competition, with names like Wicked Travel and Cape Fear—and within an hour I had signed on for a decathlon of Aussie outdoor escapades, covering land and sea. Admittedly, I skipped the naked bushwalking for beginners, but I was up for everything else, on day trips led by itinerant Aussie guides, many of whom seemed to be on sabbatical from snowboarding in the Canadian Rockies.

For starters, Nightcap National Park, 25 miles inland, has miles of mountain-bike trails, from easy to hardcore. On a wet morning, a sunburned surfer named Lindsay led ten of us through the mist-filled rainforest, where eucalyptuses soared like Grecian columns. The 13 miles I covered felt more like 50, feathering down or grinding up, skidding over sinuous roots, taking in grandiose vistas and secret swimming holes.

With just as much zeal, the Zodiacs slip like sea iguanas off Clarks Beach every dawn. In November 2002, a stretch of the Coral Sea, along Byron Bay's beaches from Brunswick Head to Lennox Head, was declared the Cape Byron Marine Park; a mile and a half offshore, an outcrop called Julian Rocks is rated one of Australia's top ten diving spots, thanks to the thriving piscine community lured by the confluence of warm and cool currents. A dive master named Evan—crew-cut, tongue-pierced, tattooed like a Polynesian sailor—led the underwater trail past squadrons of butterfly fish and angels to the scene-stealers of the dive: moray eels, loggerhead turtles, eagle rays flapping batlike overhead, and ten-foot leopard sharks that drifted so close my fingers brushed their flanks, strangely rough as sandpaper. (In winter, gray nurse sharks pass through—keep your distance.)

Why stop there? I thought. The next morning came a ride on a microlite—Byron Bay's latest craze, a motorized hang glider that soars above the activity—and, of course, I signed up for a surfing lesson. This is still the number-one breadwinner for Byron Bay's outdoor operators, thanks to water temperatures that fluctuate between 65 and 81 degrees and strong year-round swells producing waves between three and six feet tall. Here, a surf scene materializes wherever there is a stretch of sand. The most coveted spots include Cosy Corner and Tallow's, on the south side of Cape Byron, where bushland and the cornflower-blue sea collide. And picturesque Watego's, the most easterly beach in Australia, still tops the charts for where to see and be seen.

Back home in New York, color-coded terrorist alerts were going from yellow to orange. Here in Byron, they also employ color coding. Like schools of fish, surfing students are grouped by the color of their wetsuits. As I proceeded to learn the difference between riding goofy and natural—hopping on my padded board, falling off, hopping on again—the rest of the world seemed very, very remote.

Lodging: Experienced Byron hands stay at a beach called Belongil Spit—it’s away from the center of town, has great cafés, and you can walk along the sand for 15 minutes to reach the action. Belongil by the Sea has four cottages that sleep two to nine, with kitchens, on two acres of botanical gardens, starting at $63 a night (011-61-2-6685-8111, Film stars prefer Rae’s On Watego’s (rooms start at $145; 011-61-2-6685-5695,
Sports: There is good beginner surfing year-round in Byron Bay. For lessons, try Black Dog Surfing, a school that runs beginner classes several times a day ($30 per three-hour group lesson; 011-61-2-6680-9828, The more experienced can take private lessons from former U.S. surf champion, longtime Byron Bay resident, and local celeb Rusty Miller (a two-hour private lesson costs $56 for one person, $99 for two; 011-61-2-6684-7390, [email protected]). Besides surfing, the whole gamut of outdoor sports is on offer in Byron Bay—operators line Jonson Street and the competition keeps prices down. Rockhoppers (011-61-2-6680-8569, runs mountain-biking trips ($52 for a solid day), hikes to watch the sunrise from 3,800-foot Mount Warning ($39), and caving/rappelling trips ($79). Byron Bay Dive Centre (011-61-2-6685-8333, takes divers out every morning to Julian Rocks ($50 per single-tank dive). Hang-glide or microlite with Skylimit ($92 for a tandem flight; 011-61-2-6684-3711,

Filed To: Surfing, Australia

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