25 October 2017

Brunch and the Beach in Byron Bay

Of all the places on my Australia and New Zealand itinerary, Byron Bay was the one I was considering dropping if I felt I was being over-ambitious. It wasn't that I didn't want to visit but one of the main reasons for going there is the wonderful beach with sand so soft it squeaks between your toes and world-class surfing. I've been to great beaches before, though, and they don't have the uniqueness of Melbourne's coffee scene, for example, or the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, or of Sydney.

Somehow, though, within an hour of arriving in the small, sleepy New South Wales town on Sunday lunchtime, I was already thinking about swapping my flight to Sydney for a later one. It helped that the weather was — one brief storm notwithstanding — beautiful: temperatures in the mid-20s and sunny, with a light breeze, making a pleasant change from the storms and humidity of tropical North Queensland. It also helped that my hotel — the Byron Beach Resort — was two minutes' walk to beautiful Belongil Beach, which leads all the way down to the main beach in the CBD.

Byron Bay is about much more than the beach, though. To use an overtired expression: it's a way of life. People come here for a holiday and stay forever, taken with the beauty of the area, the pleasant climate, the friendly, close-knit community, and the restaurant and café scene. Vegetarians, vegans and those with other dietary restrictions are well-catered-for here, and it may even be easier to find a nut-milk beetroot or turmeric latte here than a really good flat white. The whole town often seems to be bathed in a millennial pink glow, whether it's the food, the cocktails or the sunsets. Talk about Instagram-ready!

Surfing and the beach
I did spend a lot of time on the beach — usually Belongil Beach, as it was so close to my hotel and on the way into town — sunbathing, wave-jumping (the sea is too rough here to swim easily), sunset- and whale-watching, and surfing.

Although I've boogie boarded before, most recently in Massachusetts, I had never surfed and figured that Byron Bay would be a great place to start to learn. I booked in for 3.5-hour group lesson with Black Dog Surfing ($65, although I got a $10 discount for booking in person) on Monday afternoon. On Monday morning, though, I got a call from the ever-cheerful and friendly Tam from Black Dog asking to start the lesson an hour earlier because of the brewing storm. If not, Tam suggested I rebook for Tuesday when the forecast was better.

In the end, I went with the rainy option, which meant that our group of five, instructed by the excellent Stu, didn't have too much company in the waves, and got plenty of one-on-one instruction. I was thrilled to be able to stand up from my first wave — although needed a little booster push by Stu. It took much longer for me to start to get to grips with picking a suitable wave and then paddling hard enough to catch it on my own (the first attempt resulted in a nose-dive and the board hitting me on the head; oof!). Just when we were getting into it, lightning struck and we had to leave the beach early. Tam offered us either a $25 refund, $25 off board hire or $25 off another group lesson. The three of us who were still in Byron on Tuesday all opted for the latter option, of course.

The weather was much nicer on the second day and our group had doubled in size. While Stu worked with the first-lessoners, Jamie gave the rest of us a bit more tailored tuition. By the end, I had grown in confidence and was able to catch some waves on my own and ride them into shore with some success. Of course, I still need much more practice. As the beach was much, much busier that day, it was hard to find enough space, so I was glad that I had my first lesson on the quieter rainy day.

By the end of the second session, I was exhausted, aching, battered and scraped but very happy. I don't think this will be my last surfing experience. If you're in Byron Bay, I'd highly recommend a lesson with Black Dog. It's a well-run company, Tam was lovely and Stu and Jamie were great.

Cape Byron
A couple of miles east of Byron Bay, a headland called Cape Byron forms the most eastern point of mainland Australia. There is a walking/jogging path from the main beach, although be warned (in case, like me, you decide to go for a casual early-morning jog): the path to the Cape Byron Lighthouse is really steep and makes for hot work. I spotted lizards and a kookaburra on the way up, and the views over Byron Bay and the nearby Tweed Mountains, are spectacular. At this time of year, whales and dolphins are migrating south, and I saw several whales and some baby dolphins, which was very exciting; unfortunately, I only had my phone not my camera with me so I didn't get any good photos.

There is a small museum inside the lighthouse and you can also take a guided tour to visit the top. There's a cafe near the lighthouse and another closer to sea level at The Pass, in case you're in need of refreshment after your jaunt.

On my last day in Byron Bay, I got up at 5:15 am and ran back up to Cape Byron to watch the sunrise. There weren't any whales or dolphins in sight but nature did put on a rather lovely sunrise for me, and I really felt I'd earned my view.

Coffee, Food and Drink
The only coffee shop I visited that was just a coffee shop was Barefoot Brew Bar, a tiny hole-in-the-wall spot operated by Barefoot Roasters. Although they do serve Aeropress-brewed coffee, I only had five minutes before my surfing lesson so I had a piccolo with a Colombian single-origin coffee, which was very nice. There isn't a lot of seating room — just a handful of stools on the pavement — but it's a great spot and the coffee was good. You can also buy beans to take home.

Coffee with breakfast and/or brunch
Bayleaf Cafe
I only managed to visit Bayleaf on my last morning in Byron — my surfing lesson weren't compatible with its opening hours, but when I showed up, post-run, at 7:00 am, it was already bustling. As well as all-day brunch (I had some excellent scrambled eggs on sourdough), they serve coffee from Marvell Street Coffee Roasters, who roast on the industrial estate in town. I had an Ethiopian Konga coffee brewed through the Aeropress and it was delicious with gorgeous apricot and bergamot notes. It was so nice, I may even have bought a bag of beans... The ceramic cups were beautiful too (apparently they sell out immediately after they come in).

Although very close from my hotel as the crow flies, the road to Folk is much longer-winded and not exactly attractive — there's a lot of construction going on. It was well worth the effort, though: the relaxed café is beautifully decorated with interiors done out in wood and with green and plant accents; the covered garden, meanwhile, is a delightful respite. The coffee is from Duke's Coffee Roasters in Melbourne, and the best piccolo of my stay in Byron Bay was made at Folk using Duke's seasonal blend. The organic, ethically sourced, vegetarian all-day menu is creative, and everything comes beautifully prepared. My avocado toast came with homemade dukkah, local baby greens, grilled citrus and toasted seeds, and almost looked too good to eat.

I popped into Combi for a very late post-surfing brunch — actually, my second brunch (and my second avocado toast, as it turned out), of the day. There are a lot vegetarian and vegan options on both the food and drink menu at Combi — I dislike feta so I went for the 'vegan avocado toast', which came without it. The coffee was nice too: an Ethiopian, Colombian and Papua New Guinean blend roasted in the Yarra Valley near Melbourne.

Top Shop
A popular spot for a spot of pre- or post-beach brekkie, Top Shop is located at the eastern end of the CBD, a short walk from Clarkes Beach. I had a much-needed brekkie burger (bacon, egg, hash brown, avocado, lettuce, cheese...probably other things too; it was delicious!) and fortifying piccolo after my morning run. At busy times — probably most of the time — you may have to wait, but there is plenty of seating inside and outside the beach-shack-style cafe.

Lunch and Dinner
Main Street Burger Bar
I'd been waiting all holiday for a burger, so I was glad I had the opportunity in Byron Bay (most places that aren't exclusively burger joints only seem to serve burgers at lunchtimes). I had a very good cheeseburger and some perfectly crisp sweet potato fries at this cool, casual restaurant on Byron's main drag, Jonson Street. I also had a beautiful and delicious gin cocktail, which was pink (in honour of #DinePink) and came with edible flowers.

Treehouse on Belongil
Located next to my hotel, The Treehouse was buzzing every night (thankfully, it did quieten down after 11 pm; yes, I am old and boring). I went for pizza one night and the Capri pizza I went for was pretty good and reasonably priced.

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