Take your time and explore the coast and hinterland on this holiday road trip between Sydney and Byron Bay …
For many of us, a drive along the New South Wales north coast is a blur lost in the holiday rush of getting from A to B. But get off the highway and onto the back roads and you’ll soon find there’s much more than roadhouses and petrol stations to see along the way. Think beautiful beaches; wild World Heritage-listed national parks and rainforest; lush, fertile farmland valleys laced with wide fish-filled rivers and an array of interesting villages and regional towns hiding some of the state’s best kept holiday secrets.
From Sydney, head north on the F3 Freeway and Pacific Highway. After three hours of cut-and-thrust traffic, you’ll be ready for a break so take the turn off to the twin towns of Tea Gardens and Hawks Nest, just north of Newcastle and the Hexham Bridge. There is a koala sanctuary here and you’ll spot koalas around the village streets, and a pod of dolphins that are often visible from the beaches. Take the coast road to Mungo Brush, deep inside Myall Lakes National Park. This shady, lakeside clearing beneath the tea-trees is one of the most popular spots in the park and a great place to stretch the legs, unpack a gourmet picnic or go for a paddle. The road rejoins the highway at Bulahdelah but don’t stay on it for long – the Lakes Way to Forster winds through Bulahdelah State Forest and along the shores of Myall Lake. Turn off to Seal Rocks, a sleepy fishing village where fishermen sell shells outside their boathouses and the pace of life is about as relaxed as you can get. Take a walk up to Sugarloaf Lighthouse on the point overlooking the beach.
Forster, where Wallis Lake spills into the sea, is a fairly quiet holiday resort town but you can still find special moments, like eating local oysters and fish and chips with the pelicans on the wharf outside the fish co-op, or aboard the Avanti, one of the only operators on the east coast licensed to allow people into the water to swim with wild dolphins. Visit Tobwabba Arts, an Aboriginal art co-op, watch the local artists at work, and browse through the collection of brightly- coloured Aboriginal art and designs. Take the ‘back way’ to Port Macquarie along the coast road from Kew through Laurieton to Port Macquarie. But before you do, turn left at Kew and drive through the picturesque farming community of Kendall to find Norfolk Punch, eight kilometres along Batar Creek Road. Norfolk Punch is a non-alcoholic herbal wine made to a 700-year- old medieval monastic recipe. You can watch the wine being made and try some, hot or cold, as you wander through the herb gardens surrounded by rainforested hills. In Laurieton, the lookout at North Brother Mountain has good views over the Camden Haven and its expanse of waterways and beaches. Follow the riverwalk along the Camden Haven River, stop for a coffee at one of the many riverside cafés in North Haven and watch the pelicans swoop down to steal scraps from the fishermen cleaning their catches.
From Laurieton, the coast road cuts its way through heath-covered sand dunes, over headlands with views along endless stretches of beach, and skirts the shores of Lake Cathie (pronounced ‘cat-eye’). In spring, the bushland beside the road is carpeted in Christmas bells and flannel flowers. Time your drive into Port Macquarie to coincide with the afternoon feeding (usually around 3 pm) at the Koala Hospital in the grounds of Roto House in Lord Street and stretch your legs along the boardwalk at nearby Sea Acres, the second largest coastal rainforest reserve in NSW. Head back out towards the Pacific Highway and call into Cassegrain Winery, just a few kilometres north of Port Macquarie, for some wine tasting. Wander through the extensive rose gardens, have a picnic lunch surrounded by vines, or linger over a long lunch at the award- winning Ca Marche terrace restaurant. Once in Kempsey, turn off the highway again to visit the village of Crescent Head or take tourist drive 12 to South West Rocks along the banks of the Belmore and Macleay Rivers and through verdant dairy farming country. At South West Rocks, drive up to Smoky Cape Lighthouse and Arakoon Recreation Area to wander around the ruins of historic Trial Bay Gaol. There’s a great little restaurant here overlooking the bay and the ruins. Back on the highway, turn off five kilometres north of Urunga, driving west to Bellingen. Bellingen and the surrounding hills are home to many alternative lifestylers and dairy farmers. The historic main street is lined with galleries, restaurants and cafés.
From the Bellingen turn-off it’s 25 kilometres to Coffs Harbour, but take a side trip up to Dorrigo. The national park here is great for either a quick one-hour visit or you can spend all day here on one of the longer walks. Don’t miss the Rainforest Centre, which has an excellent interpretive display and Skywalk, a dramatic boardwalk above the rainforest canopy that leads out over the edge of the escarpment for spectacular views. The road back down the mountain through the rainforest to Coffs Harbour is gorgeous but is narrow in sections, so take care. Coffs is around the halfway point of the trip, and there’s a string of beachside resorts just north of town, beyond the Big Banana, which is worth stopping at for a chocolate-coated frozen banana if nothing else. If you’re hungry, take a short detour to Sawtell, just south of Coffs Harbour. There are more restaurants than shops in this town!
From Coffs, it will take you around an hour to get to Grafton, where the first thing you’ll notice is the trees. Most famous are the jacarandas, celebrated each October in the annual Jacaranda Festival, but if you take the time to drive through the residential streets you’ll find avenues of fig, Illawarra flame trees and a host of others — more than 6,000 in fact. From Grafton head northeast along the banks of the Clarence River to hit the coast at Yamba. You’ll pass through lovely little villages like the historic 19th-century river port of Ulmarra, once a thriving centre of river traffic, but now home to a collection of galleries, antique shops and craft stores. Maclean, 28 kilometres further on, calls itself Australia’s Scottish town, and many of the stores and street signs highlight the Scottish heritage of the village. Take a drive up to the lookout for great views of the township, river and valleys. North of Maclean the countryside is predominantly sugarcane, and the road follows the river to Yamba, home to one of the biggest fishing fleets in the state. Pick a nice spot beside the river and watch the fleet go out at sunset. The 30-minute ferry trip across the bay to Iluka is one of the best value cruises around.
For some great picnic sites, head north to Evans Head, a sleepy little village at the mouth of the Evans River, where there are dozens of shaded sites along the river bank, the lookout, or nearby at Dirawong Reserve, which is spectacular in spring when the headland is carpeted in wildflowers. Most sites have barbeques and tables. From Evans Head, it’s about a 30-minute drive to Ballina, this time on the mouth of the Richmond River. Again, the beaches here are wonderful. Explore them on the walking and cycle track which hugs the coastline. The best time to do this is early morning, so you can stop halfway at one of the cafés on the beach for breakfast while you watch dolphins surf the waves only metres from your table.
On the northern outskirts of town, Thursday Plantation was the first commercial tea-tree plantation in the world. The operation began some 30 years ago selling the hand-bottled and hand- labelled tea-tree oil at local markets, and has grown to export to more than 28 countries. There are free tours of the plantation and factory. There is also a good café here, and you can spend a few hours wandering around the Melaleuca Maze, aromatic gardens, sculpture park and rainforest reserve. If the mosquitos get you in the rainforest, try some tea-tree oil, it stops the itching and swelling in seconds.
Head inland from Ballina to play a round of golf at Teven Golf course, stop for lunch and a spot of window shopping at Bangalow or wind your way along the coast via the beachside communities of Lennox Head and Suffolk Park. Before you know it, the iconic Cape Byron Lighthouse will be shimmering on the horizon, but this time, the getting there will have been just as much fun as actually being there.
DAY DRIVES FROM BYRON
A favourite day trip is to head out into the heart of Rainbow country to Nimbin. Once the centre for alternative lifestylers, aka hippies, the town is a little more feral than freestyle these days, and don’t be shocked if you are politely offered drugs whilst wandering down the main street. Despite this, it’s still worth a visit; the shop fronts in the main street are decorated with colourful, psychedelic murals, the quirky museum is a head trip back to the Age of Aquarius and there is a range of shops selling New Age goods and some good cafés selling all sorts of organic and vegetarian food.
A maze of local roads wind through the valleys around here, in and out of pockets of rainforest, along ridge tops and through picturesque villages. The views are fabulous and there are plenty of roadside stalls selling fresh fruit, veggies and macadamias.
Drive out from The Channon to Protester Falls, site of one of the first conservationist protests in Australia. It’s a 15-kilometre drive along a gravel road (could be difficult if there has been recent rains) that tunnels through the rainforest. You’ll see massive tree ferns and tall trees festooned with staghorns and bird’s nest ferns, and pass by small farms with cows munching contentedly in front yards. Once at the falls it’s a ten-minute walk to the cascades. The Channon is also home to the famous Channon Craft Markets, the second Sunday of each month. If you miss the markets most stallholders move with the markets between Byron Bay, Nimbin, Bangalow and The Channon on alternate weekends.
How far: Sydney to Bryon Bay is 783km.
When to go: The north coast enjoys a mild climate all year, with winter temperatures seldom falling below 10°C, although the best swimming weather is between December and April. The hinterland has slightly greater extremes, and can get quite cold at night in winter.
More information: www.visitnsw.com.au