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The One and Only Byron Bay

Written by Alison Bone

Famed for its beautiful beaches and laidback lifestyle, Byron boasts a past that is diverse as its eclectic present. From the Arakwal tribe who lived harmoniously on the land for more than 20,000 years, to the cedar cutters, cane farmers, sand miners, surfers, hippies and holiday makers, each new wave of arrivals has made their mark on the Byron Bay we know today.

“Byron has changed,” people say. It sure has! For a small town, it has a big history, and it wasn’t all peace and love. The story begins with the arrival of the Arakwal tribe of the Bundjalung Nation, around the end of the last ice age. They lived sustainably, harvesting what grew seasonally, hunting possums and wallabies, and fishing in the abundant waters. Known as Cavanbah or ‘meeting place,’ various tribes would meet to exploit seasonal bounty like the mullet run and the ripening of the bunya pine nuts.

With the arrival of Europeans in the 19th century, Cavanbah underwent a radical transformation. Massacres decimated the indigenous communities, and the sound of axes echoed through the surrounding rainforest as cedar cutters and farmers forged their way into the hinterland. By the time they were done only about 1% of the Big Scrub, the largest subtropical rainforest in Australia – which had once covered 75,000 hectares – remained. The rich volcanic soil on the deforested hills were planted with sugar cane and bananas. A timber jetty was constructed and the town, renamed Byron Bay in 1894, became the second busiest port in NSW, with cedar logs, dairy produce, meat and passengers freighted in and out. The waters around the cape were treacherous and following numerous shipwrecks, the lighthouse was erected on sacred Aboriginal land. The coming of the railway further fuelled Byron’s growth into an industrial town.

Whilst Byron’s days as a port ended in the 1950s, the jetty now set the scene for whaling. Over an eight-year period, 1146 whales were killed and hauled onto the jetty for processing. The abattoir was busy too, and according to the Byron Bay Historical Association, “the town was described as reeking from the stench of the piggery, meatworks and whaling factories with their effluent colouring the sea and washing on the shore.”

A time of healing

Following a century of abuse of country, the 60s and 70s ushered in a period of well needed change. Surfers arrived, lured by perfect waves and laidback lifestyle. They weren’t interested in jobs in the meatworks and some started small shops and cafes. Wishing to tread more lightly on the earth, their alternative way of living was captured in the iconic 1972 film, Morning of the Earth. The following year, Nimbin’s legendary Aquarius Festival brought hippies and the counterculture to the shire, with many staying on to create conscious communities. The creative energy flowed, and the arts and music scene flourished. With the closing of the meatworks in the 80s and the subsequent loss of jobs, the town’s focus shifted towards tourism, and Byron’s beautiful natural scenery was now seen as something to preserve rather than exploit.

Following years of negotiation, a landmark Indigenous Land use Agreement was signed with the Arakwal People in 2001, recognising them as the traditional owners of the area contained in the newly created Arakwal National Park. Now, more than 50% of the combined land and sea area between Brunswick Heads and Lennox Head is incorporated in parks and reserves.

These days, arriving at the Main Beach car park, visitors are treated to a vision of paradise and a serene beauty that belies the town’s chequered past. Famed around the world as a coastal idyll and place of escape, Byron’s magic lies in its natural beauty; the peel of a perfect wave, the shade of a pandanus palm on a hot sunny day, a humpback whale cruising by, a pod of dolphins at play in the bay, a white sand beach lapped by a shimmering aqua sea. Now more holiday destination than hippy town, you find world class restaurants, stylish resorts, and chic boutiques alongside farmers markets, healing arts and thriving cottage industries, but its quirky and independent spirit lives on. And may it continue to do so, because there is nowhere else in the world quite like Byron Bay.

Discover Modern Day Byron

When you’ve had your fill of sun, surf and sand, hire a bike or take a wander to explore the town and its surrounds.


The Cape Byron Walking Track is a 3.7km loop which leads through rainforest, clifftops and grasslands to the lighthouse, now a maritime museum and gallery. This is one of the best places in Australia to see whales (June – October) on their annual migration from Antarctica. Hunted almost to extinction in the 20th century, at least 50,000 whales are expected to pass by in 2024. Join a fascinating Cape Byron Tour with Explore Byron, to learn about the history and significance of the Cape for Byron’s first people.


Stock up on candles, crafts, clothes, ceramics and artisanal food at the colourful Byron Markets (1st and 3rd Sunday each month.) Catch the hippy vibe at the little cluster of long-standing shops like Etnix, Trinkets and Trash Vintage on Jonson Street, and browse crystals, gemstone jewellery and esoteric books at Soulife across the road. Drop by Spell and Auguste the Label for a touch of bohemian whimsy, Golden Breed for vintage/classic surfwear, and Planet Corroboree for Aboriginal artwork and digeridoos. Many of Byron’s designers and creators have moved out to the Byron Arts and Industry Estate, which has grown over the years to become a ‘must visit’ destination and now includes the upscale Habitat precinct.


Byron has a vibrant, ever evolving food scene, including hatted restaurants like Karkalla, which embraces local native food, and Beach Byron Bay with stunning ocean views. Head to Ember for an elevated steakhouse experience, or wander up the hill for a burger with a side of nostalgia at Top Shop, housed in Byron’s 1950s milk bar. And if you are keen to sample Byron’s legendary vegetarian cuisine, try No Bones, Yulli’s Byron Bay and The Byron Bay General Store – an atmospheric cafe that inhabits one of the Shire’s oldest commercial buildings.

Bay Lane buzzes after dark on the weekends, with tables out on the street. Casual eateries here include longstanding Orgasmic Falafel and Fish Mongers. Or soak up the intimate setting at Moonlight while sipping biodynamic wine and grazing on Japanese bites. Looking for night life? Miss Margarita is always lively, for a more sophisticated vibe head to Lovers Lane and Casa Luna. For live music, there’s always something going on at Beach Hotel, The Rails Hotel and The Northern.


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