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Great drives: Byron Bay and surrounds

There's something intensely charismatic about the far north east corner of New South Wales.

New South Wales's far north east has acted as a beacon for travellers seeking a side of spirituality with their adventures since the Aquarius Festival first rolled into nearby Nimbin back in the early '70s.

These days the "make love, not war" vibe has been diluted somewhat - there's no doubt Byron Bay in particular is a town with tourism as its focus - but the Northern Rivers still retains something original, a charm beyond mere genetic blessings. It's a place that never fails to convince you that trading it all in for beach yoga and banana trees mightn't be such a bad idea.

The journey, not the destination
Those coming from southern ports will fly into either Ballina Regional Airport, some 30 minutes from Byron Bay, or Coolangatta, the gateway to the Gold Coast.

From Ballina, it's a straight northern run up the Pacific Highway to Byron, after making the obligatory photographic stop at the town's Big Prawn.

Coolangatta airport, by contrast, is a busy regional hub located a landing wheel away from the New South Wales border. Byron-bound types have two options.

The first is the coastal route, via Kingscliff.

Here you'll find Fins, chef Steve Snow's latest location for his seafood restaurant. Snow started Fins in a quaint cottage by the river at Brunswick Heads, with a huge mango tree dominating its garden and a "just let the seafoood shine" philosophy informing his menu. From there, he took Fins to the low-slung Beach Hotel in the centre of Byron, where it really shone.

Byron Bay's eating scene is poorer for Snow's absence, so either make the drive to Salt Village or consider a night, or two, in Kingscliff. The pace is pleasantly slow and cafés line the seafront main street. Peppers Balé Salt, with a range of self-contained villas to pick from, is a chic choice for a place to stay.

The alternative inland route to Byron Bay also offers pit stops aplenty.

First up is Brunswick Heads, a riverside hamlet dominated by the classic Hotel Brunswick. The curvilinear structure and Jacaranda-dotted beer garden give the pub some serious charisma. Middies all around, please.

Next stop is Mullumbimby. Mullum, in local parlance, remains more alternative and quieter than other parts of the area - the townspeople recently lobbied (although unsuccessfully) to stop a national supermarket chain from opening up shop in town. Don't miss the Friday morning farmers' market at the town's showground and Crystal Castle, on the fringe of town, for crystals, jewellery and casual bites at its Lotus Café.

The most easterly point
Byron Bay's pace can be a shock after the small-town mood of the region. Sure, everyone's barefoot and beautiful, but the town itself is far busier and commercial than it once was.

Get in early to secure a room at The Byron at Byron, the smart resort built within a subtropical rainforest at Tallows Beach. Schedule in some time at the spa and wellness centre: a remedial massage in the rainforest treatment "room" is quite the natural wonder.

Another Byron Bay landmark is the Byron Beach Café at Clarke's Beach. The café has gradually morphed from all-day breakfast territory to something slicker, including dinner on the deck during summer. In August 2012, it's revealing fresh interiors and new chef Paul Wrightson's overhauled menus. Watch this space.

It's a short hop from here to the beginning of the Headland Walk via Wategoes Beach. Climb the steps to the Cape Byron lighthouse for almost guaranteed sightings of dolphins and whales (during migration season).

And then there's...
Bangalow has long been the thinking person's preferred spot in this pretty coastal corner, and for good reason. It has the best Sunday markets on the roving regional schedule, held in the village's showground on the fourth Sunday of every month.

You could do a lot worse than a burger at Bang Burger Bar after browsing the stalls, trawling the racks of Bassike or perusing interesting antiques and imported pieces at Island Luxe. Make sure you leave room for a visit to Town Café and Restaurant, run by husband and wife team Karl and Katrina Kanetani. Downtown is the casual downstairs café; Uptown is the first-floor fine-diner. The emphasis is on local produce, beautifully simple flavours and Katrina's winning way with pastry.

Like it so much you want to stay? The Bangalow Guesthouse offers bed and breakfast accommodation in a tastefully restored heritage homestead. There's also the elegant couple's-only Byron View Farm. Its views are unsurpassed, and it's as eclectic and stylish as you'd expect from former Sydney hotelier Robert Schwamberg and his interior designer partner Andrea Duff.

This online exclusive was published in August 2012.

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