Are you one for the 'It's not the getting there, but the journey' ethos? Not me. But it has to be said that how you reach it has something of a framing effect on your final destination. Take Byron Bay. The two main approaches, whether you're driving or flying, are from Ballina in the south and the Gold Coast in the north. From Ballina it's a segue from one of the sleepier stretches of the New South Wales north coast, all cane farming and quiet. From the Goldie, it's a process of deurbanisation as you cruise through medium-rise, medium-density blocks of flats emblazoned with great retro type and names like Palm Pacifique, Horizons and Sea Quest, through stripmalls dense with Mexican restaurants, tattoo parlours, denture clinics and vast registered clubs. And a flower shop emblazoned with that winning motto: Give Her One Tonight. But as you cross the border from Coolangatta into Tweed Heads and NSW, they give way to caravan parks, petering out as you approach the lushness of Byron and its hinterlands.
An hour by road, Byron is still a long way, aesthetically and culturally speaking, from the Gold Coast. It's not the sleepy country town it once was, by the same token. The city's residents may have famously turned out en masse to show their opposition to the slated opening of a McDonald's outlet back in the 90s, but have been powerless, it seems, to stop the encroachment of Subway and trashy backpacker gift stores. On the plus side, though, the growth of Byron isn't only at the lowest common denominator level. The noughties have seen the rise of an increasingly diverse offering for visitors, with dining, shopping and other attractions rising in quality. And while the streets may have lost some of their innocent charm, a fresh generation of travellers is discovering the smaller satellite communities, especially those of Bangalow, Brunswick Heads and Kingscliff, which are meeting the new demand in different ways.
The natural beauty of the region is hard to overstate. Perch by the lighthouse overlooking Byron Bay, on this island's easternmost point, and marvel at the beaches spread before you, the rich pastures and avocado and banana plantations to the west and the misted mountains ranging from the north. The climb up Mount Warning, about an hour's drive from town, is worth the pitch-dark struggle to be in the first place light strikes the continent and take in one of Australia's greatest vistas. Or at least that's what I hear. For every climber, there's another 50 visitors content to limit their interactions with nature to nothing more strenuous than hitting Main Beach, Watego's, Belongil or one of the score of other luscious beaches within easy striking distance. Happily there's plenty of natural grandeur to occupy the ground between sloth and extreme travel, be it the grace of Minyon Falls or an aimless cruise around the misty hills and valleys above Mullumbimby, the little township 20 minutes from Byron that's the very definition of sleepy. And the surf, of course, is legendary.
Some may lament that Byron's township is less than ideal eye candy, but it's still pretty small, of a navigable size for the just-off-the-beach wanderer, and there's a growing number of places to wander to. Boutiques like Madame Pompidou (a Ksubi-Nolita-Sass & Bide treasure trove) and Tiny People (just the place for decking young Poppy or Apple out like a toddler roadie) are wittier than their equivalents in say, Noosa, and the same goes for the café scene.
One One One and Bayleaf Café spring immediately to mind - Bayleaf has the buzzier vibe and the cooler signage, while One One One has the better, more restaurant-leaning food offer (Corsican braised squid with coriander, paprika and almonds, say, or pappardelle with lamb neck and red wine ragù). Then there's the Byron Beach Cafe. Right on the water, with a wonderful deck, it has recently been reinvigorated by the crew from Dish, and the surfing references -from the video on the flatscreen to the tide details on the blackboard menu - give it a great sense of place. Hell, there's even now a passingly flash nightclub of sorts in the form of La La Land, just the place to work your jaw in time to the rhythm of your arms with all the other white-sunglassed, pink-fluoro-tank-topped fauxhemians chugging Jägerbombs. Or not.
If you're after a drink, chances are you'll venture to the daybed bar at Dish, where the drinks far outstrip the quality of the food, to the Great Northern, a grungy live-music stalwart that plays host to everyone from Billy Bragg to Dizzee Rascal (and that's all in the one week), or to that lynchpin of Byron surf culture, the Beach Hotel. If ever there was a reliable indicator of the way the tide is flowing, it's the Beach.
The biggest news to hit Byron in a while has been the arrival of John and Lisa van Haandel. 'Arrival' is an odd way to put it in a sense, as John has been surfing in the area since the 70s, but it's only been with the acquisition of the Beach Hotel last year that they've entered the market as players rather than holidaymakers. To look at the public bar, little has changed. The surf movies are still screening, the original Crocodile Dundee hat still adorns the bar, and half the town still shows up to drink beer of a Friday night. While the van Haandels are perhaps best-known for their super-luxe The Prince hotel complex and Stokehouse in St Kilda, they haven't set about replicating it here on the north coast, choosing instead to make only minimal changes - upgrading the manchester and bathroom products - to the well proportioned but otherwise pretty straight hotel rooms. The bottle shop now stocks the most interesting wine you'll find for kilometres, but it's the restaurant where things have really been transformed.
Pacific Dining Room, as the former Fins site is now known, is probably the best restaurant between Sydney and the Queensland border. The van Haandels have opened up the room and brought in chef David Moyle, until recently co-head chef at Melbourne's two-star Circa, the Prince, as well as upping the cocktail ante with a little help from their friends at Longrain. Small plates, such as the textural one-two punch sesame tuna and white eggplant with crab sauce or the Spanish-influenced clams with jamón and squid, are augmented by larger offerings in the vein of reef fish red curry with shaved cuttlefish and sorrel salad or the rabbit porchetta with summer onions and mustard leaf. The vibe is beachy and fun, but there are smarts on the floor, so you can kick back as readily with a glass of La Goya and some fried Padrón peppers as you could opening a bottle of Ata Rangi and settling in for a meal of more substance.
That growing sophistication isn't confined to Byron, either. While Rae's on Watego's and more recently The Byron at Byron Resort and Spa are the glamour accommodation offerings in town, there's flash development popping up along the coast and up to the border. Kingscliff is the flashest. A toytown of bright new housing has sprung up, fairy ring-like, south of Kingscliff itself, about 40 minutes north of Byron. The beachside Salt/Casuarina community is home, too, to not one but three resorts: Peppers, Santai and Mantra. The Peppers property is the big one, and is also home to a Golden Door spa. Perhaps most interesting is Peppers Balé Salt. It's one of two such Balé-branded resorts (the other is at Port Douglas, and a third at Hotham is due soon), the imprimatur being Peppers' foray into a more exclusive market. That translates to it being the closest to the beachfront, with a distinctly upmarket vibe. It's still family friendly, and caters well to the longer-staying holidaymaker.
Salt is also the new site for Steve Snow's Fins restaurant. It was Snow who first put the region on the food map with Fins first by the Brunswick River, then at the Beach Hotel. Part of a retail/dining promenade, the current location fronts a carpark and lacks the charm of its predecessors, but the food is still pretty much as it was before. There's a bit of cultural sleight of hand with some of the dishes, and attention to detail isn't a strong point, but the kitchen-sink seafood dishes like the cataplana are still crowd-pleasers, and Snow's gift for sourcing interesting fish remains.
Brunswick Heads and Mullumbimby - both a quick drive from Byron - have their own appeal. Mullum (as the locals call it) is inland and largely resistant to fancyfication. Brunswick sits on the river just back from the sea, and has a bit more going on in terms of restaurants and cafés, with the likes of Fatbellykat, a Greek-accented mod-boho diner competing with the considerable charms of the beer garden of the Deco and wonderful Hotel Brunswick.
But the best worst-kept secret is the neighbourhood of Bangalow. Yes, you've tried the pork, now try the township. For 1000 head of population, this unreconstructed Federation hamlet sure has a lot of chichi shops and cafés packed cheek-by-jowl down a single block of the main drag. The Bangalow Hotel does a killer burger, while Utopia sees competition for weekend breakfast tables that would put Surry Hills and St Kilda's finest on notice. There's better-than-your-average Siamese dreaming at Bang Thai, and the Saturday growers' market does a neat line in Davidson plums, finger limes, local garlic and the like. Ate is a café/deli downstairs by day and a degustation-only restaurant called Satiate upstairs by night, and if you think finding sous-vide lamb with celeriac, pea mousse and jus gras here hard to wrap your head around, get a load of the price: five courses for a cool $65.
Doors up, Wax Jambu has all the chill-out CDs, Taschen graphics books, train whistles, Tivoli radios and other contemporary designer flotsam a person could want on holiday. The Bangalow Pharmacy can take care of all your Aesop, Dr Hauschka and Acqua di Parma emollient needs, and, just around the corner, the Masonic Centre houses an intriguing clothing and homewares emporium, replete with faded Madonnas, plaster cocker spaniels, antique birdcages, retro maps and St. John-style industrial lamps. There's something inexplicably appealing about seeing the local Country Women's Association shopfront, rich in crochet work as it is, so close to a shop like Little Peach, a specialist in Japanese tchotchkes and vintage kimonos. Bangalow is so hip it can barely see over its own pelvis. All this from a town that was, until 10 or 15 years ago, still referred to by Byron locals as Banga-hole.
Byron and the greater Northern Rivers area are changing, and there's no stopping that, but with the Gold Coast just over the border standing as an example of how not to do things, with places like Mullum, Brunswick and Murwillumbah still holding the forces of gentrification largely in check, and with towns like Bangalow existing to prove that the old and new schools can comfortably co-exist, change - life's only constant - doesn't have to be an ill wind.