The problem with Halcyon House is it’s so very seductive you may never want to leave. Whereas some design hotels can be austere and over-thought, from the moment I walk into the former 1960s surf hotel in Cabarita Beach on the East Coast of Australia I feel an instant sense of ease, comfort and warmth.
Perhaps it’s the scent of the hotel’s signature citrus and neroli candles burning in the lobby, the cheerfully eclectic art collection and richly styled interiors or the warm welcome from staff in crisp blue and white uniforms. It’s more likely to be the Ink gin welcome cocktail proffered on arrival, the hue of which perfectly matches the sparkling ocean on the doorstep.
Like many Kiwis and Aussies, I have fond memories of the beach house of my childhood, where our family would while away weekends and holidays swimming and surfing in the summer and playing board games and cards during winter. But where our beach house was a shabby, if much-loved shack, Halcyon House is a reboot of the classic bach that oozes seaside style in (buckets and) spades.
The brainchild of Brisbane sisters Siobhan and Elisha Bickle, who bought it in 2011, the hotel opened in 2015 after two years of planning and 15 months of renovations under Sydney-based architect Virginia Kerridge.
“We wanted [Halcyon House] to give guests the opportunity to recall past memories of their favourite beachside holidays throughout their stay,” says Elisha.
The property does that, but so much more. Although the New South Wales Tweed Coast has long been the poor cousin to hip neighbour Byron Bay to the south, and the shiny Gold Coast to the north, now it’s having its moment in the sun thanks to the hotel positioned midway between the two in a sleepy beachside town 20 minutes from Coolangatta Airport.
The property’s Euro-touches, designed by Brisbane interiors maven Anna Spiro, bring a little Positano to Cabarita Beach while retaining a quintessential Australian feel. The blue and white palette runs from the restaurant, Paper Daisy, to the staff uniforms and the bicycles lined up at the entrance for exploring the local area.
Each of the 21 rooms and suites has a unique design and when I check into mine it, too, features the signature sky and ivory palette, with a quilted fabric bed head, fabric-upholstered walls, brass lamps and vintage art works and antiques. I have views of the pool and the ocean from my expansive balcony. The white-tiled bathroom has brass fittings, a marble vanity, English tapware and handmade floor tiles.
The complimentary minibar includes beer, wine, soft drinks and is the icing on the cake of a rich experience that combines the concept of refitting an old property for contemporary appeal with the finely judged aesthetic detail that recalls the UK and US properties of Firmdale Hotels.
Halcyon House was an outlier of the recent trend of refurbishing surf motels when it opened four years ago, and although its history offers a compelling narrative around which to weave a new design chapter for the guest rooms, the main action still takes place around the pool much as it did in the 1960s.
Framed by pandanus palms and white-painted fences, with a summery playlist, blue and white striped sun loungers and a magazine rack stuffed with surfing, fashion and travel reads, the pool has even spawned its own #halcyonhang hashtag for what is easily one of Australia’s most Instagrammable hotels. Time your arrival right, and one of the staff from the restaurant will do the rounds from a vintage cart serving up homemade icecream.
Speaking of the restaurant, unlike most in hotels, Paper Daisy is a magnet for locals as well as guests. Thanks to a slew of accolades including Best Hotel Breakfast (Gourmet Traveller 2018), Australia's Top 100 Restaurants (Australian Financial Review 2018) and a Two Hats Award (The Good Food Guide, 2019), it is also a destination restaurant drawing epicureans from all over Australia and beyond.
Chef Jason Barratt began his career at the Stokehouse in Melbourne and has held senior roles in the southern city at Circa The Prince and the three-hatted Attica. The experience is reflected in what he plates up, which runs from hearty dishes such as pork collar with white beans, sour plum and red cabbage and wagyu cooked in ash with wild mushrooms and sweet onion, to a range of vegetarian options.
For lunch I begin with a toasted corn, sorrel and buckwheat crisp, followed by stracciatella and baby cucumber with pepitas and basil, then coal roasted broccoli with sunflower seeds and green olives. Barratt gives a nod to nostalgia for Australiana with his lemon aspen, macadamia and Weet-Bix tart for dessert, although my favourite pudding turned out to be the coconut ash cannoli with pineapple and mint.
Breakfast, however is the true halcyon hour at this property. As the sun rises, I roll out of bed and straight into the surf, washing off the salt at one of the poolside hot showers before sitting down to a freshly-made smoothie with sourdough toast with beans and peas, cauliflower, almond, kale and feta.
It all sounds like beachy bliss, but I should note I wasn’t planning on the rain. When the heavens open shortly after I finish eating, the aforementioned board games come into play by the crackling fire in the lounge adjacent to the restaurant. It also features an extensive library of holiday-appropriate paperbacks running from Jackie Collins and Iris Murdoch to Bryce Courtenay and John Le Carre.
I page through Collins' 1979 best-seller The Bitch, a thoroughly guilty vacation pleasure which I augment later in the afternoon with a glass of pinot noir and some fries with seaweed salt from the bar. Several hours in, the rain shows no signs of letting up, so visiting the hotel's day spa feels the most sensible option.
Forget those temples of minimalist white Zen, Halcyon Spa joyfully celebrates colour, print and whimsical design with a waiting room of comfy couches, more books and magazines and a coffee table with a giant clamshell atop, filled with bright orange pineapples that prove particularly cheery on a miserable afternoon.
The treatment menu using Australian skincare brand Sodashi and cosmeceutical brand O Cosmedics runs from facials to massages and everything in between the body balance salt glow scrub is particularly popular but after my indulgence in the bar I head straight to the steam room to sweat it out.
Its unique dome shape recalls a Turkish hammam, and its chic blue and white tiles are almost as popular with beauty bloggers as the pool. If you’ve forgotten your togs or sunhat, the boutique in the spa’s waiting room sells a covetable selection of resort and swimwear by international labels and some of the best brands in Australia, including Matteau, Bassike and Jac + Jack.
When the weather finally clears, it’s time to prise myself away from the property and explore its surroundings. I make use of the complimentary bicycles and cycle north to the town of Kingscliff, to explore its quaint cafes and eclectic boutiques followed by a stroll along the shore.
Other options include visiting the spectacular Minyon Falls or hot-air ballooning over Mt Warning, or for culture, head to Murwillumbah. Its M-Arts Precinct has art, coffee and food in an industrial warehouse that also houses the Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Centre, where you’ll find a strong collection of portraiture, regional Australian works and those of the late and highly regarded Olley. You can also take morning tea on the cafe’s deck.
If you’re craving the big smoke, the restaurants, cafes and shops of Byron Bay are a 30-minute drive away, but I’m keen to explore Cabarita Beach, which turns out not to take very long at all. The sleepy village is home to a supermarket, a couple of cafes, a Thai restaurant and a handful of artisan jewellery stores.
On offer on my way back, I stumble across the Cabarita Beach Surf Lifesaving Club, just 100m from the hotel. The “steak sandwich and fish ‘n’ chips” vibe is perfectly in tune with memories of my family beach holidays. Upstairs there’s a wide balcony from which to watch the rolling surf.
On my final morning at Halcyon House, I rise before dawn and make my way through the inky blackness up to Norries Headland. As the sun rises, the short coastal walk through a tunnel of mangroves and rainforest affords constantly changing vistas of the coastline, including several of its popular surfing pointbreaks.
When I arrive at Norries Headland I find a bench with 180-degree views of the ocean, sip my takeaway coffee and gaze back at Cabarita Beach. The moment of peace and solitude is the perfect way to end an idyllic weekend recalling the glory days of my very first beach holidays, which have been rekindled in style at Halcyon House.