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Byron Bay, NSW

Iconic holiday destination on the far North Coast of New South Wales.

Byron Bay is an intensely beautiful town which, because it has become a popular watering hole for backpackers and holidaymakers on the way up the New South Wales coast, has become deeply divided. Historically "Byron", as it is often called, became associated with the alternative lifestyle movement of the 1970s and slowly evolved into a rather upmarket hippie retreat in northern New South Wales.
It became a "classy" alternative to the more vulgar coastal holiday resorts on the Queensland Gold Coast. Wealthy city dwellers from Sydney and Melbourne, not wanting to mix with the working classes, bought up land in the Byron hinterland. In the 1970s and 1980s the region acquired a reputation as the residence of the rich and famous with Paul Hogan and Linda Kozlowski moving into a mansion in the hinterland; John Cornell (Hogan's sidekick) and Delvene Delaney doing the same and owning a local hotel; and Olivia Newton-John finding the place an ideal retreat from her LA lifestyle. The list of "famous people" and "celebrities" who have decamped in the past two decades seems like a veritable who's who of wealthy people looking for sun, privacy and not theme parks and high rise. And in recent times a number of artists - particularly musicians - have moved to the area.
Some years ago the writer Craig McGregor, who was one of the first to move from Sydney to the area, argued that it was really like the Californian coastal towns of Carmel and Monterey in the way it had evolved to embrace surfers, artists, tourists and celebrities.
The truth, if it can ever be gleaned from these rather exaggerated images, is that for the most part, Byron Bay is a seaside town which has gained a reputation built around the Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival (held each Easter and attracting huge crowds and big names) and the idea that it is a good stopping place on the journey north to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef from Sydney and Melbourne. Certainly it is not an overtly upmarket retreat like Noosa Heads. It is just another coastal town which has experienced a population boom because it boasts excellent surfing, a pleasant climate and plenty of good land.
Geographically it is a town nestling between Cape Byron and the rolling hills of the hinterland.  In the past twenty years it has sprawled in every direction - both up and down the coast and into the rural farmland. One of Byron's most endearing qualities, as Craig McGregor has observed, is that "Public pressure has halted both Club Med and McDonald's from moving in; the green-dominated Byron Shire Council has banned drive-in takeaway food outlets from the town centre; buildings have been restricted to three storeys in height; and a moratorium has been placed on high-density development until the sewerage facilities catch up." That resistance has meant that it really has avoided the ugly high rise of the Gold and Sunshine coasts. Today Byron Bay is a holiday destination catering for a very diverse range of visitors. There are surfboard manufacturers in town, good quality restaurants, a wide range of accommodation options (from backpackers to tree houses and exclusive bed and breakfasts) and the aim of any holiday is to relax, go walking, spend time whale watching, enjoy the excellent surfing and soak up the sun.


Byron Bay is located 770 km north of Sydney and 164 km south of Brisbane via the Pacific Highway.


Origin of Name

In 1770, as he sailed up the east coast of Australia, Captain James Cook named Cape Byron after Vice-Admiral John Byron, nicknamed 'Foul Weather Jack', who was the grandfather of the famous 19th century English poet, Lord Byron. Prior to that the local Bundjalung people had called the area "Cavenbah" meaning "meeting place".


Things to See and Do

The Beaches
Belongil Beach
Famous as the local "clothes optional" or nudist beach - most people come to sunbake but there is a good beach break when there is an offshore breeze. A section of the beach is dog friendly. North of the rock wall is the wreck of the SS Wollongbar which is suitable for snorkelling.

The Wreck
The Wreck is located between Belongil and Main Beach (part of the continuous beach). For surfers there is a beach break which is good for short rides. The surfing conditions have been largely created by the wreck of the SS Wollongbar.

Main Beach
Main Beach is the most popular family beach because of its easy access from the centre of town and the fact that it is patrolled during the summer months. Swim between the flags. Surfers can expect good breaks in the right conditions.

Clarkes Beach
The furthest point east on the Main Beach which arcs to the north of the town. Surfers claim it is a good beach for beginners because of its sandy bottom and gentle right-handers. It is patrolled in the summer months. It is particularly popular with windsurfers, bodyboarders and paragliding enthusiasts.

The Pass
The Pass is a popular access point for scuba divers. Good parking and a pleasant picnic setting. Popular with families with good big waves when there is a large swell. Surfers recognise it as the best beach in the area when the conditions are right and consequently there is a common complaint that when the surf is up so are the crowds. Many locals say they avoid the spot because of the competition for waves and the number of people in the water. "It's because it's so accessible, it's a great place to surf, it's a good long board wave and a great short board wave and it's easy to paddle out there unless it's really big" says local surf coach Gary Morgan.

Wategos Beach
The ritziest of all the beaches. Accessible from the road which heads up to Cape Byron lighthouse. This is an enclosed area of opulent houses with a small, quiet beach for families and those who want to avoid crowds. Surfers claim it is particularly good for longboards with the highlight being "a lazy right-hand point-break".

Cosy Corner/Tallow Beach
Sheltered from the north-easterly, Cosy Corner is hugely popular and is a place where the "learn to surf" people take beginners. From the path up to Cape Byron lighthouse the dramatic view of the beach has it stretching to the southern horizon. There are no fewer than six surf schools at Byron Bay. Check out http://www.sasurfschools.com.au/nsw-surf-schools.php?pagenum=2 for details.

Suffolk Park
The suburb/town to the south of Byron Bay has a good beach (the southern section of Tallow Beach) which has good short breaks and good waves when the winds are west or south-westerly. This section of the beach is dog friendly.

Cape Byron Walking Track
The delightful Cape Byron Walking Track is a 3.7 km walk (2 hours) which passes through coastal rainforest, along the cliffs and offers panoramic views of the coast where, in season, it is possible to see dolphins and whales.  In May, and from August through to October, the lookouts on the walk are ideal for spotting the humpback whales which migrate up and down the coast. The entire track (see the map which is downloadable at http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/~/media/Visitor/Files/PDF/Maps/cape-byron-pdf-map.ashx) starts at Captain Cook Lookout behind Clarkes Beach heads east beside Lighthouse Road to The Pass, winds behind Wategos and Little Wategos Beaches to the headland and then rises up the hill to the Cape Byron Lighthouse before heading back down Tallow Ridge to Lee Lane behind Clarkes Beach. All the time it is passing through the Cape Byron State Conservation Area. There are a number of excellent lookouts along the way. For those who don't want to do the complete walk, the track can be accessed at numerous points along the way. For more information check out http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/Cape-Byron-State-Conservation-Area/Cape-Byron-Walking-Track/walking.

Byron Bay Lighthouse
Byron's most popular attraction is the Byron Bay lighthouse although, with a car parking fee of $7.00, it is the most expensive lighthouse experience in New South Wales and possibly in Australia. It is located only 300 metres south of Australia's easternmost point, Cape Byron. The lighthouse, which is made of pre-fabricated concrete blocks, was completed in 1901 and stands 18 metres high (118 metres above sea level) and has a range of 27 nautical miles (40 km). The architect was Charles Harding who followed James Barnet, the New South Wales colonial architect. The style is typical of the kind of lighthouse designed by Barnet. The lighthouse uses an 8 ton optical lens made in France. It was originally lit by a six wick burner which was replaced in 1922 by kerosene and in 1956 by electricity. It was officially handed over to National Parks and Wildlife in 1998. For more information check out http://www.lighthouses.org.au/lights/NSW/Cape%20Byron/Cape%20Byron.htm. It is now possible to stay in the lighthouse keeper's quarters. Contact the NSW National Parks and Wildlife service, tel: (02) 6620 9300. The lighthouse has its own website. Check out http://www.byronbaylighthouse.com.

Arakwal National Park
Located immediately to the south of Cape Byron Lighthouse, and edged for 3 km by Tallow Beach, Arakwal National Park came into existence as recently as 2001 when the local Arakwal Aboriginal community and the state government created this co-managed (between National Parks and the Arakwal people) charming, unspoilt haven for migratory birds (osprey, white-bellied sea eagles, pied oystercatcher) which is bordered by sand dunes, a quiet beach and rich coastal heathlands. It is an escape from the bustle of Byron Bay with a number of tracks through the park. Check out http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks/parkhome.aspx?id=N0173 for more details.


Other Attractions in the Area

Broken Head Nature Reserve
Located 8 km south of Byron Bay, this 98 ha reserve offers two attractions: the Broken Head picnic area and the Three Sisters Walking Track (1.2 km one way, 90 minutes round journey, medium difficulty) which wanders through rainforest and overlooks secluded King's Beach, a popular fishing spot. The walking track offer excellent views of the coastline against a backdrop of rainforest. It is a sad comment on the area that there was a time, before the arrival of Europeans, when the area between Byron Bay and Lismore was all sub-tropical rainforest. Today less than 0.4% of that area is left. Broken Head is one of those remnants and contains such beauties as white booyong, rosewood, red bean, yellow and red carabeen, bangalow palms, maidens blush and brush box. For more details check out http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/broken-head-nature-reserve.

Julian Rocks
Located 2.8 km from shore in the Cape Byron Marine Park is Julian Rocks, a hugely popular dive site where a mixture of warm tropical currents and cooler temperate water attract over 1,000 species of tropical fish. In the winter months it is common to see the endangered grey nurse shark. There are daily dive tours with Sundive. Check out http://www.sundive.com.au or tel: 1800 008 755.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the Bundjalung Aborigines had lived in the area for thousands of years (the middens on the coast are at least 2,000 years old) and it was estimated there were at least 500 living in the area by the 1820s. They hunted the pademelons, wallabies, bandicoots and flying foxes in the hinterland and knew the area as 'cavaba' (in an early map this was spelt 'cavvanba' and, for a brief time, it was known as 'Cavanbah') which probably meant 'meeting place'.

* In 1770 Captain James Cook sailed up the coast in the HMS Endeavour. Writing in his ship's log on 15 May 1770 Cook recorded "I named Cape Byron ... a tolerable high point of land, bore north west, distant three miles. It may be known by a remarkable high peaked mountain lying inland north-west by west from it. Inland it is pretty high and hilly, but near the shore it is low; to the southward of the point the land is low, and tolerable level..." Cook named the 'high point' Cape Byron after Vice-Admiral John Byron who was the grandfather of the famous 19th century poet, Lord Byron.

* In 1828 Captain H.J. Rous took soundings and named the bay to the north of the cape, Byron Bay.

* In 1840s surveyor Robert Dixon passed Cape Byron and noted that the local Aborigines were "fine looking men ... all friendly having neither spears nor waddies with them."

* By the 1840s cedar cutters had moved into the area to exploit the cedar stands in the hinterland. They remained in the area until the 1850s.

* Around 1869 Europeans began to settle the area. It was during this year that the area was formally subdivided.

* The first settler in the district were Thomas Skelton who purchased land in 1881.

* In 1883 Captain Frederick Howard surveyed Byron Bay and developed a plan for breakwaters and jetties.

* By 1886 an early settler, Eli Hayter, had opened a butcher's shop. Around this time town lots were sold and general stores, hotels, blacksmith's shops and a receiving office for mail were all built.

* In 1886 work started on the town's first jetty which was completed in 1888. That year the local Post Office was established.

* In 1889 and 1890 reserves for local Aborigines were established in the area.

* By 1890 the richness of the local soils meant that crops of bananas, pineapples, corn, potatoes and a variety of vegetables were being grown and herds of horses and cattle were grazing in the valley.

* In 1894 the town's name was officially changed from Cavanbah to Byron Bay. This was also the year the railway arrived.

* In 1895 Norco (an abbreviation of North Coast Fresh Food and Cold Storage Co-operative Ltd), a company producing local dairy and meat products, opened a major factory in the town.

* By 1897 £18,000 had been allocated to build a lighthouse at Cape Byron.

* In 1901 the Cape Byron lighthouse began operating.

* A new Court House and Police Station were completed in 1921.

* By 1925 Byron Bay's Norco factory was the largest butter producer in Australia.

* Electricity reached the town in 1926.

* By 1938 there were still only 1,750 people living in Byron Bay area.

* The Byron jetty was removed in 1947.

* By 1962 all whaling along the coast had stopped.

* The Norco Butter factory closed in 1975.

* By the late 1980s the district had attracted "celebrities" like Paul Hogan, John Cornell, Elle Macpherson, Olivia Newton-John and Johnny Young. Hogan spent nearly $4 million building his quasi-Spanish mansion at Possum Creek. John Cornell bought up 43 one acre lots to preserve his rural outlook.

* In 1998 a local avocado farmer who had renamed himself Fast Buck$ became a local councillor on a platform designed to stop development.

* Today Byron Bay attracts more than 1.2 million visitors each year.


Visitor Information

Byron Bay Visitor Centre, 80 Jonson Street, tel: (02) 6680 8558.


Useful Websites

There are a number of detailed websites. Each has its own specialities and they are all worth checking out. Check out http://www.byron-bay.com; a detailed history of the district and the lighthouse can be downloaded at http://www.byronbaylighthouse.com/uploads/3/7/2/1/3721236/history.pdf; the official site is at http://www.visitbyronbay.com; and there is a magazine at http://www.byronandbeyond.com.

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  • The info on Byron Bay is way, way out of date, the town has been bought out by greedy rich who care not for the environment or community, neighbours are a pest to their plans of redevelopment. In fact there is no community left, I started living here in the 1986, it was still a fun town full of alcoholics and druggies, the odd millionaire would rub shoulders at the Rails and The Top was pre Cornell. Many of the little dealers/shop owners of the Cross who were sick of the Roger Rogerson and The 21st Division demanding more stand-over money moved to Byron Bay in the early seventies on. By the way, the real locals refer to the town as ‘the Bay’. Nimbin was the REAL hippy/drug town but many of the Bay’s shops were drug outlets on the side, otherwise they’d go broke because after the whaling ended in 1962 and then the Norco piggery and butter factories closed in the early 70’s the town’s people were broke. The surfers and dropouts became the source of revenue, then The Byron Bay Blues Roots Festival and later Splendour In The Grass (aka splinter in the arse) provided the dealers a very lucrative income source. A good mate of mine sold eckies at the Beach Hotel under the approval of Strop – he supplied the eckies!!
    The Bay is still the beautiful place it always has been, but the locals are all but gone, 2 & 3 bedroom fibro homes on 1/4 & 1/8 acre blocks worth 100k have been snavelled up and redeveloped for holiday lets and b&b’s asking astronomical prices. Almost no long-term rentals are available causing constant traffic jams into and out of the Bay because everyone lives outside of the Shire! There are many others who have greater knowledge of the Bay’s history, but they won’t talk about it to outsiders.

    Michael van Kempen