Friday, 27 January 2017

NSW Summer Series: Northern Rivers

Through January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles about New South Wales. 

In 2010 I visited the Northern Rivers region of the state, courtesy of Northern Rivers Tourism. This is what I found...



When American author Norman Maclean wrote A River Runs Through It in the 1970s, he had in mind the US state of Montana. But his book’s title could well be applied to the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales.

Stretching from the broad banks of the Clarence River up to the Queensland border, this green region is threaded by numerous waterways, from humble creeks to mighty rivers.

It’s famous for its sandy Pacific coastline, which contains popular beach holiday towns such as Byron Bay. These places, though no longer sleepy, offer all the usual Aussie beach holiday pursuits of swimming, surfing, sunbathing... and sitting outside a pub with a drink at hand, not doing much at all.

However, the region’s interior is less crowded and also worth exploring, with its mix of subtropical rainforest, craggy mountains formed from ancient volcanoes, and small towns that have been re-energised in recent years by an influx of creative types seeking tree changes at an affordable price. As a result, they’re littered with good food outlets, quality accommodation and quirky shops.

With that pick-and-mix contrast of subtropical weather, interesting towns and extensive beach frontage, the region sounds like a good place to go in search for greenery, relaxation and good food.

Grafton

I've safely traversed the quirky iron bridge that soars above the Clarence River, before taking an unexpected bend as it angles down toward this inland city.

After that small adrenalin rush, I have an agreeable dose of calm here in the garden courtyard of Georgie’s, a restaurant within the Grafton Regional Gallery (158 Fitzroy St).

This 1880 building was once a doctor’s residence and a small hospital, the residence up front and the hospital at the rear. There’s currently a Ken Done exhibition within the gallery, which seems fitting as the artist lived in the area as a kid.

I’m more focused at the moment on the art of food, served to my table in the courtyard. On this balmy evening it’s an extremely mellow space, with a pleasant breeze wafting through the dimly-lit dining area, and fairy lights arranged around its perimeter. There are tables indoors, but why would you want to sit there on a night like this?

The food is a pleasant surprise. It wasn’t that long ago that it was hard to get a high quality meal in a country town this size, but the kitchen turns out a succession of dishes the equal of any city restaurant, with an emphasis on produce from the region. On today’s menu, there are prawns from coastal Yamba, haloumi from the Tweed Valley, and oysters from the Nambucca River.


Bangalow

Everyone knows about the popular beachside town Byron Bay, but fewer have heard of Bangalow. Byron Bay’s more sedate sister is located just a few kilometres inland, but has a completely different feel to the hedonistic coastal bustle of Byron.

The main street, once part of the Pacific Highway but now pleasantly unhurried, is lined with attractive buildings that mostly look as though they were built sometime between the late 19th century and the mid-20th.

Everything you’d expect of a village is present - a red-brick post office, an old pub, even some surviving red wooden phone boxes.

Though it does have regular shops serving local residents, Bangalow is also littered with the fancy little boutiques associated with upmarket holiday towns. As one local resident tells me, it gives visitors to Byron Bay something to do on rainy days.

Among the retail therapy options are Indian furniture emporium Wax Jambu (19b Byron St), and the art-dealing Barebones Art Space (44 Byron St).


Byron Bay

And finally to Byron. The first impression I have of this town is of bustle - actually a mixture of bustle and informality, as the streets are packed with people wearing not much more than bathers and thongs.

They’re bustling, but at a measured pace (if that makes sense).

To be honest, the town isn’t much to look at, as its streetscape is overwhelmed with commercial signage on fairly featureless modern buildings. But at the end of the main street is Byron Bay’s chief asset, its fine sandy beach, and this has been worth waiting for.

It’s a cracker, a long curling stretch of sand between prominent headlands, one of which is topped with Byron’s postcard-happy lighthouse. Loads of people are swimming and sunbathing today, and there’s an air of mellowness about the place.

Lunch is at the Beach Byron Bay (Clarkes Beach, Lawson St). It was once a humble beachside shack that went to seed, then was regenerated into a modern restaurant with a view directly onto the beach. The food is excellent, with yet more seafood and an emphasis on share plates.

The sharing concept is clearly a hit, as there are a lot of groups dining together on the deck section of the eatery. There’s something very “modern Australian” about this scene, the way the place melds beach informality with the craft of fine food.

I like it; in fact I’d say there’s a wave of relaxation breaking over me right now.