It’s Australia’s yoga capital, but the laidback northern NSW beachside town has so much to offer it can be hard deciding where to start.
By Sue White
Home to hippies, sea changers and more yoga than you can poke a Tree Pose at, if it’s alternative, you’ll find it in Byron Bay. Two hours south of Brisbane on New South Wales’ beautiful northern coast, Australia’s unofficial yoga capital (and easternmost point) is chock-a-block with classes, retreats and chances to chill out.
While the many options can make choosing where to spend your time a quandary in itself, the first decision to make is when to visit. Going by the weather alone, Byron Bay is the perfect year-round destination. But there’s a problem: everyone has already discovered it and the region is heaving under the weight of us all. Sea changers flock here, backpackers settle in for weeks or months, and major events like the music festivals Splendour In The Grass and Byron Bay Bluesfest, as well as the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival keep the region front of mind all year round for many. It’s a contentious issue with locals, whose town’s infrastructure is designed for sleepier times. During big events, the peak of summer and school holidays, this escape from the “real” world seems just as real—traffic jams abound, parking is tricky and many holidaymakers relay stories about sitting in a still car for an hour waiting to get in or out of town. But with a bit of planning, it’s possible to soak up the best of Byron without the hassle.
RETREAT & REJUVENATE
For yogis, any time of year is a good time to visit a retreat. Some of Australia’s most popular yoga teachers make their home in the Byron shire; Jessie Chapman, Flo Fenton, John Ogilvie, Sue Hawkins and Lance Schuler are just some of those offering week-long escapes or teacher training in the Byron area.
On retreat, you’ll be tucked away for hours of classes, training and inspiration. But while taking a Byron Bay retreat is highly recommended, there’s so much yoga on offer around town that you almost don’t have to. Byron is perfect for a do-it-yourself yoga holiday, especially if you check your calendar: try March through May or September through November (just avoid school holidays and the ever-packed Byron events calendar) for your yogic escape.
Start your holiday plans by looking up the timetables of the major teachers and yoga studios. John Ogilvie’s Byron Yoga Centre (www.byronyoga.com) is a good place to begin; its central location at 6 Byron Street, the regular timetable and excellent teachers make this a solid bet. (It’s also handy to know that if you’re taking a class here, vegan cafe Heart and Halo nearby makes a good pre- or post-class pit stop.)
Another great option is Flo Fenton’s Intouch Yoga (www.intouchyogabyronbay.com); she teaches open classes at Suffolk Park, as well as private one-on-one sessions. Jessie Chapman (www.radianceretreats.com) teaches timetabled classes, as well as privates when she’s in town and Red Tent Yoga (www.redtentyoga.com.au) is good for mums-to-be or those looking for a feminine focus. Iyengar practitioners usually head to Byron Iyengar Yoga Lounge (www.byroniyengaryoga.com), just out of town. Remember, if you’re creating your own retreat-like experience, mornings and late afternoons are good times for classes because that leaves you time to enjoy two of Byron’s other important attractions: food and the beach.
If you know where to look, a visit to Byron Bay offers great fodder, especially for fans of vegetarian cuisine. The township arguably boasts more good cafes than many urban city strips and most of them will rustle up a decent soy chai or gluten-free dish for those with special dietary needs.
Although Byron’s main drag, Jonson Street, starts near the beach, for the best food it’s worth beginning slightly further out of the town centre. From the beach, walk 650 metres along Jonson Street until you reach Santos wholefoods store. From here, the eateries seem to be conspiring to offer yogis so much great food it’s unlikely you’ll be able to contemplate a Down Dog for days.
Starting at Santos, choose deli items like pumpkin and tempe quiche or polenta pie (around $8), grab a fresh juice or treat yourself to a healthy sweet such as the chocolate pecan mousse balls (perfect when washed down with a hot soy, rice or whole milk beverage). Take away your goodies or head out the back past the organic fruit and veg to take a (communal) seat in the rambling garden courtyard. Chances are you’ll strike up a conversation with another visitor or local, but if not, it’s a nice spot to read your book or simply relax.
On the same strip, the teahouse-cum-Asian food store, Red Ginger (at 111 Jonson Street) is also an appealing spot for a break, while eco-eaters will appreciate the paddock-to-plate menu of One One One cafe next door. If you’re really serious about having the complete Byron Bay food experience, cross Jonson Street to find The Conscious Cafe (www.consciouscafe.com.au). A relatively new Byron phenomenon, this vegan food haven is hugely popular with local yoga teachers and students, and for good reason. Its offerings are dairy-, gluten- and GM-free, and delicious. It’s also surprisingly tricky to find. At 114 Jonson Street, you’ll be standing in front of a furniture shop. The sign reading “Gluten free furniture” is not a joke, it’s a clue: The Conscious Cafe is around the back (enter through the shop or via the neighbouring car park). Once found, your biggest challenge here will be deciding what to order—Cocoa rice milk and banana smoothie? Buckwheat crepe? Hazelnut raw chocolate cake? Add in the leafy environs and soothing music, and the vibe is of happy locals enjoying catch-ups with friends. It’s the ideal place for whiling away the hours.
When you do head back to Jonson street, food cooperative Fundamentals (www.fundies.com.au), affectionately called “Fundies” by the locals, features a good-value cafe and a well-stocked food-cooperative that’s perfect for stocking up to cook at home or for packing a picnic to the beach.
HIT THE BEACH
With so much good food and yoga on offer, it can be easy to forget Byron’s main attraction: the white sandy coastline. As with everything else here, visitors are spoilt for choice. Most tourists start at Main Beach, home to a surf club that also hosts twice-daily yoga classes upstairs (www.beachsideyogaandmassage.com.au). Although Main Beach is lovely, it is busy. It’s far better to walk east towards the famous lighthouse and explore the surf haven of Wategos. If you need a coffee break or excellent meal en route, Byron Beach Cafe (www.byronbeachcafe.com.au) is highly recommended for both the food and the superb views.
Those heading west can walk for literally miles along Belongil Beach and beyond, and the walk is highly recommended; start from Main Beach, head left and keep walking. With squeaky white sand stretching for miles, a shoeless stroll here will quickly leave you understanding why so many people pick up sticks to move to the region.
Once you’ve stretched, eaten and walked, it’s time to be pampered. There’s no shortage of healers in Byron Bay—the noticeboard outside Fundies is a great place to find a masseuse, healer or therapist happy to fit you in for a treatment or two.
If you don’t want to do the ring around, try Beachside Yoga and Massage, upstairs at Main Beach Surf Club ($70 for an hour; www.beachsideyogaandmassage.com.au), or the cheap and cheery Thai Sabai, conveniently located at 115 Jonson Street (near all that great food); massages cost around $65 an hour.
LOVE THE NIGHTLIFE
Plenty of visitors come to Byron looking for big nights out, but if you’re in town for a yogic escape, you’ll likely want something more low key. For a quiet drink complete with yogic ambience, the Buddha-decorated Balcony Bar on Jonson Street is an excellent choice.
If you’d like a more formal event, check what’s on at the Byron Community Centre on Jonson Street; there are often lots of interesting events and concerts scheduled. For a local night in, head to Pighouse Flicks, an arthouse cinema with big comfy seats (www.pighouseflicks.com.au).
Although there’s plenty to keep you occupied in and around Byron town itself, many who live in the area do so because of what’s out of town. The Byron hinterland, which includes areas like Mullumbimby, Bangalow and The Channon, is gorgeous and well worth a daytrip, but you’ll need a car to do it. If you don’t mind sharing your visit with others, time it for each town’s market day—check www.byron-bay.com for schedules.
South of Byron, towards Lennox Head and Ballina, lie two more worthwhile side trips, both centred around that healing plant: tea-tree. Producer of tea-tree products, Thursday Plantation, has an interesting education centre just off Gallans Road, prior to arrival in Ballina. It’s free and open seven days: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. Don’t rely on calling them for information as, oddly, their information line doesn’t seem geared up for visitors. But arrive with a brochure in hand (get one from Byron Bay’s tourist information centre on Jonson Street) and you’ll find an interactive display centre, tea-tree maze and plenty of interesting information about the history of the tea-tree.
Head back towards Lennox Head, a small beachside town 20 kilometres from Byron town, and you’ll find Tyagarah Tea Tree Lakes, which are surrounded by tea-tree plants. The stained brown water may look unappealing, but it’s simply the colour from the plants fringing the lake’s edges. Jump in and soak up this healing plant’s properties, and allow the giant, natural tea-tree bath to complete your Byron stay with a giant dose of, “Ahhh”.
Sue White is a Sydney-based writer and author of smartphone app Yoga Holidays Worldwide.
Resort style: Set in a tropical rainforest slightly out of town, the gorgeous Byron at Byron Resort and Spa has daily yoga classes as just one part of a comprehensive wellbeing offering. Specials start from $285 per night; www.thebyronatbyroncom.au. Bed & breakfast: Byron Bay has hundreds of locals opening their homes to visitors. Find one you like at www.airbnb.com or www.stayz.com.au. Camping or caravanning: A short stroll from the centre of town, the cabins and holiday huts of Glen Villa resort on Butler Street are a good budget option; www.glenvillaresort.com.au.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND Byron Bay is 180 kilometres south of Brisbane and 35 kilometres north of Ballina. Drive from Sydney (about 11 hours) or Brisbane (two hours). Virgin Blue, Jetstar and Rex airlines all fly to Ballina airport, with direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne or Newcastle. Numerous shuttle companies operate from Ballina airport to get you into Byron Bay. Book on arrival or pay in advance with a company like Xcede ($15 each way; www.xcede.com.au). Some travellers simply grab a flight to Coolangatta airport and drive down from the Gold Coast instead. Having a car is great for getting out to the surrounding areas or to classes a bit further out of town, but in Byron itself walking or cycling is far more relaxing. Rent bicycles from Byron Bay Bicycles on Jonson Street ($96 for a week; www.byronbaybicycles.com.au).