Thursday, September 09, 2010

Byron Bay

This winter marked my mom's third trip to Australia. While here, she develops a routine and makes a life for herself: shopping, cooking, reading, going to meetings, etc. We don't feel compelled to entertain her, but did want to show her at least one part of Australia that she hadn't seen before.

We decided on Byron Bay, a gorgeous, hippie beach community on the north coast of NSW, much closer to Brisbane than Sydney. Visiting Byron made a lot of sense because Mickey and I hadn't been before either and it was low season (aka cheaper than summer), a definite plus when vacationing in a place as expensive as Byron Bay.

Mickey and I favor bed and breakfast type accommodations because they're usually good value: personal attention that seems to lend more authenticity to your experience. This trip was a bit trickier because we were traveling as a trio and required two rooms. Fortunately, the Cape Byron Retreat offered the perfect solution: a two bedroom, self-catering cottage on a quiet piece of land in the Byron hinterlands for about $200/night.

Only about 10 minutes drive from the beach and town, the Cape Byron Retreat offered country charms. The owners have a horse named Budget (whose favorite snack is white bread) and are regularly visited by peacocks, echidnas and wallabies. My mom was delighted to wake up on our first morning there to find a wallaby grazing in the field. My binoculars afforded a really good look at the creature's almost fox-like face.

We spent our first morning brunching and then browsing the food and craft market in Bangalow, a country town about a half hour from Byron. We anticipated a couple of quaint stalls selling the usual craft market goods: honey, soaps, T-shirts, etc. and found that and so much more. The market included at least 200 stalls and took at least an hour to circumnavigate. We walked away with fresh strawberries, a muddler made of native banksia wood and a spider ornament for our Christmas tree.

The sky was partly cloudy as we drove on a country road back to Byron to have a look around the lighthouse and beach. Parking there was scarce and expensive ($7), but worth all the trouble when we looked down from the cliff at a pod of thirty or so dolphins swimming around the headlands. Far out on the horizon, we also spotted a whale watching boat and glimpses of the whale it was tracking.

We spent Sunday in the country again (I guess that's what you do when visiting a beach town in winter). We stopped in the delightfully named Murwillumbah for lunch enroute to the Natural Arch, a beautiful but oddly little known waterfall in a national park across the Queensland border. The drive from Murwillumbah to the Natural Arch was spectacular and worth the trip in itself. We passed semi tropical farms selling lady finger bananas from unmanned roadside shelters. The passing clouds and happy cows reminded me of some of the farms we saw in Maui.

Because we had a late flight back, we had time to swing by the sprawling Gold Coast, a beach suburb dotted with highrise hotels and apartment buildings. The Gold Coast aspires to be a bit like Miami, a fashionable party scene, and achieves this in that it comes off as very un-Australian. Plenty of Aussies wouldn't go near a beach as crowded as Surfers Paradise. They have the luxury of thousands of miles of white sand beaches and only 22 million people with whom to share it.

We were feeling very upbeat about the Gold Coast, Byron and the whole region until we boarded our Jetstar flight back to Sydney. After spending 45 or so minutes on the tarmac, mechanical problems ultimately prevented us from taking off. We de-planed (I hate that phrase) and boarded a different plane, free of mechanical issues. We got as far as the runway when the captain said, "I'm afraid I have some bad news" over the PA system.

Incredibly, Sydney international airport has a curfew of 11pm. Airlines who miss the curfew get stuck with a hefty fine, in the neighborhood of $200,000. In other words, they are fined more than it costs to put a plane full of people up for the night in a Gold Coast hotel. It's funny that I'd had such a fabulous weekend and yet staying one more night was the very last thing I wanted to do. I guess I must give Jetstar credit in that they sent us to a decent hotel and paid for our buffet breakfast and got us back to Sydney in a timely fashion the next morning.

All in all, Byron isn't any different than most Australian beach towns. It's beautiful with clean white sand, clear turquoise water, mostly empty and completely worth a visit.

No comments: