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TRAVEL & LEISURE

A Road Tripper's Guide: Sydney to Byron Bay

The ultimate NSW coastal pilgrimage.
By Jasmine Crittenden
June 20, 2016
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A Road Tripper's Guide: Sydney to Byron Bay

The ultimate NSW coastal pilgrimage.
By Jasmine Crittenden
June 20, 2016
  shares

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Whether you're heading north to chase the sun or to escape reality at Splendour in the Grass, there's no need to hurry to Byron Bay. In fact, with around 800 kilometres of road to cover — flanked by epic beaches, rivers, national parks, fresh produce, microbreweries and creative places to spend the night — it's your god-given duty to take your time. So, call your boss, nab a few extra days off and start planning your rest stops. Our road tripper's guide to the Legendary Pacific Coast will provide all the excuses you need.

CENTRAL COAST

Despite being a 90-minute drive from Sydney, the Central Coast, with its calm water, surf beaches, cute villages and swathes of national park, is surprisingly unspoilt. Light on cash? Claim a patch of grass or caravan at a Central Coast Holiday Park. Alternatively, check into a light and airy two-bedroom apartment at the Patonga Beach Hotel, perched on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.

Ten minutes drive east is pretty, pretty, National Trust-listed Pearl Beach. With just 600 dwellings and encircled by trees, it's home to two excellent lunch spots — the hatted Pearls on the Beach, specialising in Middle Eastern-inspired deliciousness, and the more budget-friendly Pearl Beach Cafe and General Store (go the choc chip pancakes with Nutella-maple fudge sauce, sliced banana and candied bacon).

Across Broken Bay lies Killcare. Here, you can tuck into tasty, hatted Italian while surrounded by landscaped gardens at Manfredi or grab a $5 bacon and egg roll at The Fat Goose. Afterwards, stretch your legs while soaking in panoramic coastal views in the Bouddi National Park and, on the way out, swing by Distillery Botanica (home of an eponymous, garden-grown gin and Mr Black coffee liqueur), as well as the Six String Brewing Company. For more Central Coast tips, check out our weekender's guide to Patonga, Pearl Beach and Killcare and our day tripper's guide to Copacabana and the Bouddi National Park.

NEWCASTLE

Two hours drive will land you in mighty Newcastle, sometime steel capital, now artsy community and one of Lonely Planet's top ten cities of 2011. For a comfy sleepover in a sunny room downtown, stay at The Lucky, which reopened in 2014 after a $6 mill revamp.

Not enough time to spend the night? It's still worth detouring for a coffee (and cosy lounges) at Sprocket Roasters, a meticulously prepared cuppa at Tea Project or a locally-brewed beer at Foghorn. For scallop chowder or wild-caught prawns while gazing at the Tasman Sea through floor-to-ceiling windows, book a table at Merewether Surfhouse or, to catch up with Silverchair bassist, Chris Joannou, pop into The Edwards, where he and barista Chris Johnston have turned Joannou's parents' laundry warehouse into a friendly, funky eatery-cafe-bar.

Get some exercise wandering among the CBD's many independent artists' spaces and laneways plastered with street art, or take a stroll along the Newcastle Memorial Walk, which spans the clifftops between Strzelecki Lookout and Bar Beach, affording 360-degree views. You'll find loads more Newie ideas over here.

PORT MACQUARIE

Port Macquarie, perched on the Hastings River and bordered by eighteen beaches, is another three hours' drive north. On the way, stop overnight at Old Bar to sleep with your favourite rock star (be that David Bowie, Nick Cave, Dave Grohl or Louis Armstrong) in the Boogie Woogie Beach House. Each room in this designer, boutique hotel, located a short scurry from the beach, is dedicated to a music legend and comes with its own vinyl player (LPs supplied). Plus, there's live music on Fridays and Sundays. 30 kilometres inland, in the tiny town of Wingham, farm-fresh produce is turned into scrumptious dishes at Bent on Food. If you happen to be passing by in October, time your visit to coincide with the Wingham Akoostik Festival.

For riverside accommodation in Port with a pool, as well as access to vintage bikes and paddle boards, there's Sails Resort By Rydges. Come lunch or dinner, head to the hatted Stunned Mullet for oyster flights, Glacier 51Toothfish or Orange-reared venison, as well as stunning views over Town Beach. Back in town, there's tapas, art and live music at Latin Loafer, and creative, local-produce driven dishes in Drury Lane Eatery's leafy courtyard. The best coffee in town is served among Social Grounds' murals and dark wooden tables and cracking beer is brewed onsite at Black Duck.

The nine-kilometre Port Macquarie Coastal Walk is the place to work off your excesses. Start at Town Beach and finish at Tacking Point Lighthouse, taking in three beaches, several breathtaking lookouts and Sea Acres National Park, where the rainforest meets the sea. A shorter adventure is the 1.3-kilometre long, seven-metre high Sea Acres Boardwalk. Our weekender's guide can help with further explorations.

URUNGA AND BELLINGEN

Drive another 130 kilometres to get to Urunga, a tiny town where two rivers — the Bellinger and the Kalang — meet the sea. To see both river mouths up close, take a stroll on the one-kilometre long, elevated Urunga Boardwalk. You can expect 360-degree views all the way — inland over the Great Dividing Range, north towards Mylestom Spit and south as far as Nambucca Heads.

Next, take a break from the coast and head west to Bellingen, a laidback, artsy 3000-person town on the Bellinger River's banks. There are eco-friendly retreats aplenty, but, even if you don't have an over-nighter in mind, leave some time to wander among the art galleries and jewellery makers of The Old Butter Factory and hang out in local cafes.

For rainforest walks and waterfalls, travel another 35 kilometres inland to reach Dorrigo National Park. Get a mid-road trip workout with views on the Blackbutt Walking Track or visit several cascades on the Casuarina Falls circuit. The Dorrigo Rainforest Centre will give you the lowdown on local flora and fauna, as well as a dizzying adventure on the canopy-level Skywalk.

COFFS HARBOUR

Another hour of road time and you'll be in Coffs Harbour. Take your mandatory snap with the Big Banana before making tracks to Aanuka Beach Resort or, to escape the crowds, an Arthouse Beachfront Apartment on Emerald Beach, 20 kilometres north. May to July and September to November make up whale watching season, so head to a vantage point with a picnic and keep a lookout — Muttonbird Island's viewing platform and Emerald Beach's Look At Me Now Headland are both prime spots. Alternatively, jump on a local tour boat.

HINTERLAND WAY

For the final stretch — between Ballina and Byron Bay — try substituting the well-trodden Pacific Highway with the Hinterland Way. Starting at Ewingsdale, this idyllic, winding road takes you through the lush, green rolling hills west of Byron Bay. Make your first stop the Macadamia Castle and Animal Park, where you can sample local macadamias and hang out by a frog conservation pond. A ten-minute drive will bring you to teeny-tiny Newrybar, where the the oldest bakery in Australia has been transformed into the Harvest Cafe, Deli and Bakery. Linger over fresh sourdough baked in a 107-year-old woodfired oven, twelve-hour braised lamb shoulder or charcuterie, prepared onsite.

Last of all, drop into Bangalow for heritage-listed buildings with shady verandahs, independent art galleries, peaceful parks and a stroll along Byron Creek. The epic Bangalow Market takes over the town on the fourth Sunday of every month, bringing live music, local farmers, artworks, design and loads more.

YAMBA

If, however, you decide to stick to the coast, then make Yamba, 140 kilometres north of Coffs, your final pre-Byron Bay stop. After all, the CSIRO and Stanford University reckon it has one the best climates in the world, alongside San Diego, California and Bunbury, Western Australia. Even in July, you'll notice locals swimming — a warm current comes through, often pushing water temperatures up to summer levels. If you're keen for a dip, try Brooms Head Main Beach, which is beautifully protected by Yuraygir National Park. Keep an eye out for dolphins and whales while you're at it.

Every Wednesday morning, local farmers bring their produce to the Whiting Beach Car Park for the Yamba Farmers Market. Alternatively, you'll find one of the best meals in town at the waterfront Yamba Shores Tavern. Definitely order the prawns — they're some of the freshest and most delicious on the East Coast.

Top image: Richard Rydge.

Published on June 20, 2016 by Jasmine Crittenden

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