Byron Bay and, as we round the verdant headland into Sharps Beach, we spot a humpback and a southern right whale (fun fact: you can tell the difference between the two by the way their spouts spurt) breaching above the breakers. The cavorting creatures offer a spontaneous welcoming party on the drive from the airport and it’s not just the whales that are migrating to the Australian coastal town in the far north of New South Wales.
Where once visitors to Bryon encountered hippie-dippy locals wafting patchouli and sporting dolphin tattoos and dreads, today there’s a new breed of luxury lifestyle entrepreneurs in town. Haute restaurants, hip wine bars, boutique hotels and designer yoga and Pilates studios have sprung up faster than you can say “namaste”, transforming the once-sleepy tourist town into one of the world’s ultimate wellness destinations.
With high-end businesses offering everything from infra-red saunas, massage and crystal healing to equine therapy, naturopathy and sailing lessons, simply take your pick from five-star accommodation such as 28 Degrees guest house and Rae’s on Wategos beachfront hotel and be sure to make time to experience all the lauded restaurants, including Harvest and Fleet and natural wine bars and organic cafes such as Supernatural and Doma that are redefining Byron Bay as gold standard for chillaxing in style.
Many of the town’s new arrivals are entrepreneurs arriving from Sydney, Melbourne and other Australian state capitals looking for a sea change, a tree change or a bit of both.
Deb Garske had a little more to contend with when she made the move from Sydney to open 28 Degrees in Bryon in December 2016.
“I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma stage four and was told I had two weeks to live,” she says. “We decided to move to Byron because we were married there and we knew we loved it. We opened 28 Degrees two weeks after I finished chemo. That was my recovery: turning a negative into a positive to live a beautiful life in Byron Bay.”
Checking in to 28 Degrees is like being welcomed to the beach house of a wealthy friend with impeccable taste: Garkse and her husband Lyndon have lovingly restored an old Queenslander-style home into a Byron boutique basecamp, where barefoot luxury reigns supreme.
“My builders were talking about astrology and eating quinoa salads while they worked on the property,” laughs Garske. “There are a lot of like-minded people here and I just feel really connected and comfortable.”
When it comes to comfort, the rooms at 28 Degrees have that, and plenty of beach charm, in (buckets and) spades. Mine is light and airy with views of the lighthouse, a deep bath, pot plants, beeswax candles, organic Cultiver linen and Biologi Skin skincare products. There’s a custom-built communal kitchen stocked with complimentary refreshments including local Moonshine coffee, coconut water, Stone & Wood beer and breakfast provisions including paleo granola, organic yoghurt and home-made rhubarb compote.
Located on the aptly named Marvell St, the property is just steps away from the beach, the main shopping strip and some of the best restaurants in town and has a pool and sunny outdoor decks should you decide to simply chill and perhaps have a chinwag about surfing with Deb’s son Jack, Australia’s number one long-boarder and ranked 13th in the world. I do just that, but then I’m keen to venture out and make my first stop at Habitat, the upmarket retail and residential development that opened in 2017.
I browse the designer furniture, fashion and homewares stores (for all things interior you must visit Tigmi Trading) after taking a yoga class at Bende Body (more on that below) then pull up a wooden stool at the sleek Spanish-influenced cafeteria Barrio Eatery and Bar. Over charcoal-grilled eggplant and fluffy faina (chickpea bread) I chat with co-owner Tristan Grier, who is also a partner in the hinterland restaurant Harvest Newrybar and the caffeine providore Sparrow Coffee.
“Byron has had a huge shift culturally,” he says. “There is a much more entrepreneurial, creative and tech-driven spirit here thanks to people who are really trying to use Byron as a platform from which to be on the world stage.”
From fashion designers and CGI companies to yoga businesses and beauty brands, you’ll find many of them in Habitat, a collection of six neighbouring buildings for living and working in which has been designed as a hub for commercial operations and community to co-exist.
“The great thing about Byron is you have more freedom, space and time to create than in a capital city and what we are trying to achieve with Habitat is bringing these people together to share opportunities and experiences.”
One of the businesses in Habitat is Bende Body, founded by Emma Seibold after she moved from Sydney to the town of Mullimbimby, near Byron, two and half years ago with her husband and their two children. Like Seibold’s nine other Barre Body fitness studios across Australia, it’s a chic, minimalist space offering her signature ballet-style workouts along with yoga, Pilates and, this being Byron, goddess groups, with a monthly sound bath and full and new moon rituals.
“Byron Bay has long been a destination for people in search of meaning, healing and creativity,” says Seibold. “First the hippies and forward-thinkers... now it’s a place for all people who are looking for a more in-tune life without compromising on being connected to the world.”
I take one of Seibold’s barre classes, one of the most challenging workouts I’ve ever done. After connecting with muscles I didn’t know were there, I make my way just down the road to Zephyr Horses. I pass on the horseback archery clinic “release your inner-warrior. Learn to ride rein-less and shoot targets with bow and arrow” and instead take one of the coastal ranch’s popular forest-to-beach rides, which begins in lush native bushland and ends with an invigorating canter on the beach at sunset.
It’s one of the most exhilarating and enjoyable experiences I’ve had, but all the exercise has made me hungry again so I take a trip to the nearby township of Newrybar.
A stalwart of the region’s dining scene, since 2007 Harvest Newrybar has refined a reputation for spectacular menus showcasing under-utilised native and wild Australian ingredients, thanks to its dynamic duo of chef Alastair Waddell and forager and wild food expert Peter Hardwick.
Every Wednesday the pair present a selection of new ideas and flavours for guests to try, with those that receive the thumbs up making their way onto the restaurant’s ever-changing menu. The day I visit that means oysters with kelp oil and pandanus vinegar; pulled lamb with cos lettuce, lime and peppercorn dressing; and deliciously moreish brussels sprouts with pancetta, black tahini and buttermilk.
Be sure to leave time to explore the property’s bakery with its 116-year-old wood-fired oven, market gardens and adjacent delicatessen, from which you must pick up a loaf of sourdough to take home before a little retail therapy in Newrybar Merchants, which carries a wide range of covetable homewares by some of Australia’s top interior designers.
Another destination restaurant to visit is at Rae’s on Wategos. The seven-room hotel sits almost flush on the sand at Wategos, a small surf beach round the heads from Byron Bay. It punches well above its weight when it comes to luxury. With decor straight out of a Slim Aarons shoot, interiors by hotshot Sydney designer Tamsin Johnson and genial staff kitted out in candy-striped uniforms by Melbourne’s Lucy Folk, the boutique bolthole is not only home to the only spa in Australia to use products by Italian apothecary brand Santa Maria Novella (the two-hour Cleopatra head-to-toe indulgence treatment is divine) but also houses a restaurant that, under recently appointed head chef Jason Saxby, is hitting new highs.
Start with a pretty plate of local burrata, Boon Luck heirloom zucchini, finger lime and herbs, then move on to the more serious stuff perhaps Rocky Point cobia with broccoli, fermented garlic and lemon oil, followed by the decadent cocomisu with Daintree chocolate, liqueur and espresso jelly with wattleseed sponge and coconut cream. Finish the afternoon in style by checking into one of the Morocco-meets-Miami-themed rooms and fall asleep to the pounding of the surf.
Back in Byron’s newly hip industrial estate on the outskirts of town, I continue my indulgence with a facial at Little Company, where the minimalist chic decor chimes perfectly with the treatments employing a small range of quality natural and organic brands.
Just around the corner you’ll find Nimbus & Co, where the woody scent of Palo Santo fills the air. I’m led to one of its Japanese cedar wood cabins for an infra-red sauna. You may have your doubts but sitting naked for 45 minutes in a wooden box heated to 65 degrees actually feels amazing.
Some people use the time to watch Netflix or check emails but I simply sit and quietly sweat, before emerging cleansed and beatifically calm. A healthy mocktail at the Beach Hotel, Byron’s most famous pub overlooking the sand and surf of Main Beach, feels like the perfect way to round out the afternoon.
I take a seat at the Green Room, once a pokie venue and now a cocktail bar with a focus on sustainable and locally sourced produce and watch another spectacular sunset. The property also features brand new mid-century influenced accommodation by Studio McQualter, the firm behind the Mecca Cosmetica and Zimmermann store fitouts, including the fashion brand’s newly opened Paris flagship.
But you can’t say you’ve really done Byron properly until you’ve consulted one of the town’s many crystal healers peddling everything from improved wellbeing and better sleep to greater confidence and connection to a higher power. Deb Garske arranges for Glenda Alchemy (real surname Anderson) to visit me in my room at 28 Degrees.
She brings a selection of tuning forks and a bag of crystals that must weigh almost as much as she does. My journey to enlightenment through her Quantum Energy Healing Human Design System is facilitated through a “laying-on of stones”, then employment of the tuning forks to bring their energy to life. After a little over an hour, I emerge feeling a little spacey but utterly serene. Did it work? I’m not sure but it was a lot of fun.
Despite all the fancification and frenetic interest Byron’s median house price is now more expensive than Sydney’s and a staggering 2.24 million people visited the town last year it thankfully remains a hippie haven at heart, it’s just that the influx of money has lifted standards across the board.
You’ll still find the beaches just as stunning and the locals as herbal as ever, because, as an advertisement for Byron Bay Community College states on the car on my way back to the airport, you “come here to pursue your passion, find your centre and follow your dreams”.