BYRON BAY, AUSTRALIA — My face flushed cherry red and my sweat-soaked sundress clung to my body. I stood, elated, on a wooden platform at the summit of Mt. Warning, a jagged peak in the Gondwana rain forest. The mountain, in the far northeastern corner of New South Wales, Australia, bears witness to the first flicker of sunlight on the continent.
By the time I reached it, however, the sun was setting and fog had crept in. Dappled twilight pierced the mist, affording glimpses of the vast subtropical valley below, and the buzz of cicadas filled the air.
This dreamscape was just one stop in a series of excursions I had arranged to take from the relaxed beach town of Byron Bay during a nine-day stay in mid-December. My friend, Jordan Lee, grew up in the area and offered to take me to many of the places he remembered loving as a boy.
Australia's North Coast is a prehistoric-looking wonderland of soaring mountains, staggering waterfalls and epic white-sand beaches. Byron Bay acts as its spiritual center and is the ideal base for exploring the surrounding terrain. Nightcap National Park's Minyon Falls and Mt. Warning make for excellent day trips, as do the small towns that dot the rugged landscape, including the Channon, Chillingham and Lismore.
Europeans arrived in Byron Bay in 1770 when Capt. James Cook anchored here and named Cape Byron after Royal Navy officer John Byron, grandfather of the poet Lord Byron. In 1973 the nearby village of Nimbin hosted the Aquarius Festival — think Woodstock Down Under — and the resulting influx of flower children put down permanent roots.
These days the subculture still favors those who believe in the healing power of crystals and the holistic benefits of yoga therapy and ayurvedic medicine. As such, the small town, which has a population of near 5,000, has become a prominent destination for boho backpackers, dred-locked surfers and free-spirited drifters from around the country and the world. It also hosts the popular Byron Bay Bluesfest and the Byron Bay writers and film festivals.
Jordan and I divided our time between lounging on the beach and driving in a small rental car to various points of interest. We started each morning with coffee. Yes, that's a no-brainer, but Australia enjoys worldwide acclaim for its delicious coffee drinks, and Byron Bay is no exception. A great place to grab a cup is the Top Shop, which is popular with locals and serves a heart-stopping flat white. It is specific to Australia and resembles a latte, but with a bit more coffee. It's exceptionally creamy and goes down like liquid dessert. Add a flaky croissant and you're good until lunch.
Sufficiently caffeinated we hit the road for the hour-and-a-half drive northwest to Nightcap National Park and a hike to Minyon Falls. The park is in a stunning rain forest that evolved from the erosion of the extinct Tweed volcano, which forms the largest caldera in the Southern Hemisphere. Jagged gray-black rocks jut from the ground; towering oak trees, their thick trunks wrapped tight with vines, provide a canopy against the sun; and electric-green moss blankets nearly every surface like a living carpet.
The hike to Minyon Falls, an impressive 330-foot waterfall that crashes down the side of a sheer, serrated cliff, is a fairly easy one (especially compared with the harrowing 2.7-mile round-trip trek straight up Mt. Warning). We clambered over craggy rocks and hopped small streams of ice-cold water to arrive at the base of the falls. During our visit the waterfall was not flowing thanks to a drought, which disappointed Jordan. But I could imagine the scope of the falls from the size of the cliff and vowed to return.
It was late by the time we returned to Byron Bay, and we were tired. Restaurants in town tend to close early, so we opted to get meat pies from a little take-out shop called Byron Hot Bread Kitchen. Eating a meat pie or two is a must in Australia. These savory offerings are about the size of a bread plate and consist of a crisp, golden crust stuffed with all manner of fillings, including rich lamb and mint, spicy curry chicken, tender steak and cheese and more.
We took the pies back to our hotel, an easygoing hideaway called Byron Beach Resort, and devoured them on our patio, which looked out on the ocean across the street. After dinner we put on our bathing suits and strolled to the beach for a night swim. The sky was a thing of beauty: a black velvet curtain poked with a million pinpricks of starlight.
All the while the circular sweep of concentrated light from the famous Cape Byron lighthouse reminded us not to drift too far out to sea. The country's most powerful lighthouse was built in 1901 on the cape, the easternmost point of mainland Australia. It's among Byron Bay's most visited tourist sites and is a good place for whale watching.
We swam each morning in the rough blue-gray sea before driving on picturesque back roads to several small villages, including Nimbin, Lismore, Mullumbimby and Billinudgel. Each took an hour or less to reach, and each had its own personality and usually a small pub where we would stop for a cold beer and a snack.
If Byron Bay is the hippie heart of New South Wales, Nimbin is that heart's aorta, pumping out all things cannabis-related. Smoke shops in frontier-style wooden buildings painted in a rainbow of colors dot nearly every corner, and there is even a hemp museum. (Marijuana is illegal in Australia, but Nimbin is known for its tolerance.) The pub at the Nimbin Hotel has a breezy back patio where we watched an old woman, her gray hair swept in a sloppy bun at the nape of her neck, strum a guitar for a few friends.
I don't recall the words of the song she sang — I believe it was her own composition — but the beautiful sound of her voice summed up the feel of the land, the sea and the sky in this rare and solitary pocket of Earth.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times