Byron Bay: For Freedom of Mind

Travellers have long been drawn to the major cities on the east coast of Australia: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast are on many an itinerary. Cairns is seen as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef so also gets numerous visitors. However, for those wanting to escape the crowds and experience something a bit off the beaten track, a whole other world exists in Northern New South Wales, with its glorious beaches, bustling markets, and alternative lifestyle communities.

byron bay lighthouse at sunrise

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Just a 40 minute drive from the Gold Coast, Byron Bay used to be a sleepy little beach town.  This has changed in recent years as trendy shops and restaurants moved in to lure travellers.  That said, the laid-back Aussie vibe of Byron is still alive and well.  There are music festivals throughout the year to suit many different tastes and every day visitors stroll the main street, popping into the specialty stores or markets to find that something special.  Whether you want a one-of-a-kind pair of sandals or some awesome Byron Bay cookies, the shopping experience in this little gem won’t disappoint.  

If your bank account is looking a bit lean, there is also plenty to do for free in Byron.  You can swim, surf, or follow the trail to the lighthouse.  It’s a bit of a trek up, but the views of the beach are magnificent.  This is also Australia’s most easterly point.  Anywhere in Byron, the scenery is stellar and it’s a great place to people watch.

protestors falls

Eat

Restaurants line the main street, so you have a lot of variety to choose from.  Best of all, you won’t find any fast food chains in this town: they have been banned! For a true Aussie experience, you can grab some fish and chips from Fishmongers Cafe and head to the beach.  Into middle eastern food? Head down Bay Lane off of the main street to Orgasmic (nope, that isn’t a typo).  If you are there around lunchtime, chances are you will be able to sample their falafel for free and then you may well find yourself hooked!  When we were there the lunch special was a falafel pita pocket with a homemade lemonade for $18.  Absolutely packed with falafel, hummus, tahini and salad, you won’t walk away hungry.  For something smaller or to satisfy your sweet-tooth, head to L’Ultime french patisserie.  Many say the baguettes are the best to be found in Byron and we can vouch for the chocolate tart and the custard and berry tart: both were fabulous! 

orgasmic falafel

Stay

These days there is accommodation in Byron to suit every taste: camp sites, motels and hotels are all available.  Just be warned that accommodation can fill up early when an event or festival is on.  You may want to book before you arrive.

Off the beaten track: Nimbin

If you find Byron too trendy these days and fancy a drive through the countryside, head about 1 ½ hours inland to Nimbin.  Tour buses run daily from Byron. On the way you’ll get a taste of what it’s like in rural Australia and when you reach Nimbin, be prepared to chill.  Known as the alternative lifestyle capital of Australia, it’s filled with interesting art and quirky shops.  Too, don't miss the Hemp Embassy with a wealth of knowledge on the subject of cannabis and medical marijuana. Take your time and enjoy the murals as you walk down the street, or call into a shop where you will likely be offered a free cup of herbal tea to enjoy while you browse. There is also a free gallery exhibiting and selling the works of local artists.  If you happen to be there on the fourth or fifth Sunday of the month, stop by the Nimbin Market and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and pick up some handmade products.

nimbin streets

Nimbin has a number of trails heading out of town as it is surrounded by three World Heritage listed rainforests.  There are sevreal waterfalls, including Protester Falls, which is of historical significance due to it being the site of Australia’s first successful anti-logging campaign.

There are some awesome little restaurants in Nimbin, many of them selling local organic food.  Unfortunately the famous Rainbow Café burnt down in 2015, but the owners have opened a new place down the road called Oasis Café.   Accommodation is pretty basic in town, so if that’s not your style it may be best to stay in Byron or in nearby Lismore. 

protestors falls 2

West Coast Weekends

When people hear the word beach, they generally imagine white sand, lapping waves, and a gentle sea breeze.  However, since moving to New Zealand, for me the word beach conjures up images of black volcanic sand, crashing waves, and the rugged natural beauty that embodies many West Coast beaches, including Piha.  About a 40 minute drive from Auckland’s CBD, Piha feels a world away.

Piha's main beach looking towards Lion Rock

Piha's main beach looking towards Lion Rock

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When you head to Piha, you do so to enjoy nature.  Piha is about 40 kilometres West of Auckland with a population of about 600. Once there, on the beach is definitely the place to be. While it is lovely to laze on the sand and work on your tan, it’s also a place that just begs to be explored.  From the Piha Surf Lifesaving Club, you can head left to climb Tasman Lookout or right to climb Lion Rock, an eroded 16 million year old volcanic neck.  The views from both spots are excellent.  A word of warning, straight up seems to be the preference of Kiwis, so there are no meandering walkways.

From Lion Rock looking across Piha's main beach to Camel Rock

From Lion Rock looking across Piha's main beach to Camel Rock

If you choose Lion Rock, traditionally called Te Piha, you are entering a site that is sacred to Te Kawerau a Maki people and their ancestors lived on its slopes. As such, it is important that visitors are respectful.  The climb is a bit tricky at the lower reaches, but luckily there is a sturdy railing to help you on your way.  Once you get past the first bit, there are stairs that make the rest of the climb up fairly easy for anyone who is reasonably fit and healthy.

If you have a bit more time, there are numerous other trails to follow around the hills that encircle the town. The area is gorgeous and there is enough to explore to keep most visitors occupied for quite some time. I suggest you take the time to slow down and really enjoy Piha. It has a great vibe that you will somehow miss if you just stop by for an hour or two. But be careful, it may be addictive and as soon as you leave you may be dreaming of your return!

Stay

The Piha Domain Campground is a nice base to explore from. Just a short walk to the beach, it's also right across from the Piha Cafe and the art gallery. The bathrooms have been recently refurbished and are clean, as is the kitchen. We suggest you arrive early, pick a spot to set up camp, and then set off to explore the area.

Pleasurable camping at Piha Domain

Pleasurable camping at Piha Domain

Eat

Piha Café is a great little place with lots of atmosphere and amazing food. This cafe has the best eggs benny I've ever eaten - perfectly cooked free-range eggs with heaps of bacon on homemade sourdough bread. The plate is garnished with a bit of pesto and it greatly enhances the flavours of the other ingredients.

Eggs Benedict Piha Cafe style

Eggs Benedict Piha Cafe style

I can also highly recommend their brownies (and as an American, I like to think I know brownies).  On weekends, this place is usually packed to the brim, so service can be a bit slow but who's in a rush at the beach anyway? If the weather allows, head to an outdoor table with a view (and an umbrella). 

What a way to end a day at Piha!

What a way to end a day at Piha!

Written by Stephanie Rummel & Photographed by Susan Blick

Tauranga: Just a Day Away

Blessed with lots of sunshine and warmer temps than most of New Zealand, this is a great place for a bit of beachside R & R.  Less than a three hour drive from Auckland awaits this city break.

The view from The Mount

The view from The Mount

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If you come to Tauranga, you need to climb The Mount.  There are two paths up, one short and sharp and the other a bit more meandering.  Although we chose meandering, we still found it to be a bit challenging, but the views from the top made it well worth the effort.  It takes over an hour with a few photo stops, so leave plenty of time.

If you want to visit something outside of town, McLaren Falls is a good choice.  This used to be a power station but it has been transformed into a park.  Usually dammed, yet twenty-six times a year (every second Sunday) the water is released creating a pumping river and raging waterfall.  Plenty of kayakers and rafters head to the rapids for a bit of an adrenalin rush.  If you aren't into extreme sports, lots of others just climb over the rocks and take a swim in the numerous pools upstream.  There is also an animal park and a cafe nearby.  In 2014 a pedestrian bridge was opened alongside the one lane bridge for cars to make things a bit safer for the public.

McLaren Falls

McLaren Falls

Stay

This hotel ought to satisfy if you want gorgeous views over the water and a bit of luxury.  The best rooms at the Trinity Wharf Tauranga Hotel have balconies that put you right out over the water with views of the bridge.  As I type this, I'm enjoying the sea breeze as I look out over the harbour.  Beautiful at bot sunrise and sunset, this hotel won't disappoint.

The Trinity Wharf Tauranga

The Trinity Wharf Tauranga

There is a lovely infinity pool on-site and the restaurant has spectacular views and a menu that will cover most tastes.  The beds are comfy and the bathtubs, some of them spas, are the kind you can just sink into.  What better way to forget about city life for a while?

The view from the restaurant's outdoor dining area

The view from the restaurant's outdoor dining area

Eat

The restaurant on-site at Trinity Wharf Tauranga, Halo, is a very good option if you find you are unable to drag yourself away from the comfort of your room for any length of time.  Plus, you just can't beat the views!  We went there for both high tea and dinner and found both to be very enjoyable.

The highlight of high tea was definitely the light and flaky Devonshire scones with jam and cream.  Absolutely to die for!  We couldn't come to an agreement as to whether the brownies or the cheesecake came in second, so let's just say you won't be disappointed with either.  We weren't such a big fan of the salmon sandwiches, but I'm pretty sure that's just a personal preference.

High tea 

High tea 

When it came to dinner I had the lamb, which was cooked to perfection and served with bok choy.  For me, it was the perfect serving size.  Sipping wine and looking out over the water, I really couldn't imagine a better way to end a day than looking out over Tauranga's harbour.

lamb dinner

Dunners in New Zealand's Southland

Dunedin is a small city located in New Zealand's far South-East.  In it's early days it was one of the busiest cities in the country, but today it's a sleepy little town that's easy to get around that has a multitude of things to see and do.  Dunedin punches well above its weight.

Dunedin's railway Station

Dunedin's railway Station

Things to do

With its compact city centre packed with numerous historical churches and buildings there is a lot to take in before even leaving the city limits.  Namely, the old railway station better known in the old days as Gingerbread George is a major city sight in itself, but while there we highly recommend you book a sightseeing trip on one of the trains.  If you are pressed for time, check to see whether the 90 minute Waitati Seasider is running.  On the other hand, if you have a bit of time up your sleeve, take the 4 hour Taieri Gorge trip.  It will take you through the dramatic scenery of the gorge, over a number of very high viaducts and the trip provides an insightful commentary along the way.  And if the weather in Dunedin isn't too flash, you may be pleasantly surprised by better weather in the gorge.

Taieri Gorge

Taieri Gorge

Another thing to do is take a scenic drive around the Otago Peninsula.  This will take you past the Harbour Cone, which showcases Dunedin's volcanic history and through quaint little seaside towns like Portobello.  As you continue on you will reach Taiaroa Head where you can see albatross, seals and yellow-eyed penguins.  Numerous tours run from the area to get you close to the action.

Nearby hidden gem

Many travelers venture the 76kms to Moeraki Boulders, but few stop at Shag Point Nature Reserve that is right on the way.  If you are hoping to get up close and personal with some seals, this is the place to do it!  We got there at about 9am and stayed for one and a half hours.  For most of that time we had the place to ourselves and the fur seals were everywhere (even right beside the viewing platform).  See them sleep, swim and play!  And they were just as curious to see us as we were to see them.  It's a great place to see shags and other seabirds as well!

Moeraki Boulders

Moeraki Boulders

Fur seals at Shag Point

Fur seals at Shag Point

Stay

For a great location and good quality at an affordable price, it's hard to go past the Scenic Hotel at 123 Princes Street. Located in the heart of the city, this clean comfy hotel has spacious rooms that include a proper table to sit at along with tea and coffee making and a fridge. Free wireless internet and a free newspaper are also bonuses. There is valet parking in a parking garage, but plenty of street pay and display parking is also available. This parking is free between 6pm and 9am.

Eat

For great pub food, head to Mac's Brew Bar on Stewart Street. With funky decor, a great vibe, and delicious food, this place won't disappoint. As the name suggests, they have Mac beer on tap along with a variety of other choices in bottles. The burgers and chips definitely won't disappoint and the sliders looked great. Live music on Saturdays just adds to the atmosphere.

For something special

If you are looking to splash out a little, try Etrusco at the Savoy at 8 Moray Place. It serves up Italian food that will keep you coming back. We had the Pane Al'Aglio and Schiacciata with salami to start. Absolutely amazing! We followed this up with Sugo Di Carne and Nonno. There is a bit of chilli in the Nonno, but it's not spicy. Both dishes had the pasta cooked al dente and were seasoned beautifully. We topped off the meal with two delicious desserts and coffees. We went another day and had soup, salads and antipasto and nothing disappointed!

In the Realm of Nizwa

When you arrive in Nizwa, you get the feeling it is a city that is experiencing a high degree of growth and change.  This is supported by all the construction in the city that will render your GPS almost useless!  It is also a part of Oman that is steeped in conservative traditions ...

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