The Northern Rivers is the most north-easterly part of New South Wales, and is perhaps best known for the chic boho vibe of Byron Bay.
However, there’s a lot more to this destination. Bypass the hustle and bustle of Byron, then breathe in, slow down and relax on pristine Pacific coast beaches, or in deep fertile valleys and lush hinterland rainforests. The region’s providores give foodies plenty of choice: from fresh locally caught seafood to hinterland-grown coffee, while the arts scene offers eclectic regional galleries and myriad local weekend markets. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it just around the next bend on that meandering hinterland road. And the subtropical climate makes the Northern Rivers the perfect holiday destination all year round.
The region is serviced by direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Newcastle to the Ballina-Byron Gateway Airport. Alternatively, the two-hour drive south from Brisbane or the one-hour drive from the Gold Coast make the area reasonably easy to access from these major air hubs.
Here are ten of the best things to do in the Northern Rivers.
The region’s panoramic coastline and moss-green hinterland are best admired from the air. Cruise on the ocean air-currents with the eagles on a tandem paraglide flight, or watch the world drop away silently beneath your feet on a hot-air balloon flight. If you have need for a little more speed, a helicopter tour out of Ballina or Lennox Head is the way to go. It will give you the opportunity to get spectacular aerial photos, and perhaps do some whale spotting at the same time.
If you love to surf, the Northern Rivers offers access to kilometre after kilometre of pristine coastline, and near perfect breaks wherever you happen to pull off the road. Total beginners should book some lessons with the professionals at Stoked Surf School. For the ultimate adrenaline rush, try tackling the coastal wind and waves on a kiteboard. Harnessing the energy of the wind while you stay on your board is pitting yourself against nature in one of the most exhilarating ways possible. Those in search of more gentle watery fun, should head for placid Shaws Bay or Brunswick River. They’re both perfect for a spot of stand-up paddle boarding.
No doubt by now you’ve worked up a thirst, so do a behind-the-scenes tour of the region’s craft breweries and distilleries. Meet the brewers, sample tastings, and learn what makes the region’s boutique brews and flavoursome gins some of the best in the world. The tour includes a visit to family owned and operated Cape Byron Distillery, who planted their own personal rainforest so they could forage for botanicals to create their bespoke gins. If you’re based around Ballina, drop by the father-and-son-operated Seven Mile Craft Brewery. Located next door to Ballina Airport, it’s the perfect spot for a pre or post-holiday coldie.
The beautiful Richmond River dissects Ballina township and creates plenty of unique opportunities for some urban fishing. Cast a line off the downtown jetty, or from one of the sandy beaches and inlets that line the river. Keep an eye out for dolphins cruising by. To learn more about the local marine eco-system, book a Richmond river cruise with Out of the Blue Adventures. They also offer a whale watching cruise with a professional marine biologist on board. Humpback whales migrate up and down the Byron coast between June and November, and a sighting is guaranteed or you get a return trip at no extra cost.
Nothing beats sourcing fresh produce direct from the farm gate. Just take a leisurely drive and fill your basket with fruit and veggies from the various roadside honesty stalls. There are also several weekly Farmers Markets that bring growers together. Try the Lismore Organic Market on Tuesdays and the Nimbin Farmers Market on Wednesdays.
Artisanal gourmet products are just as plentiful. On the green slopes of Newrybar’s hinterland, you’ll find Zentvelds Coffee Plantation and Roastery. Learn their seed-to-cup story on a roastery door tour, and take home your own special blend. Further south, Summerland Farm is a working macadamia nut and avocado plantation, which also has free-ranging chickens. Their restaurant is open seven days a week.
Artists flock to this region for inspiration, and there are plenty of opportunities to tap into the creative flow during your visit. Lismore Regional Gallery hosts solo exhibitions by local artists and a diverse program of touring events, while the Northern Rivers Community Gallery in Ballina stages a variety of adult workshops. You’ll discover myriad creative spaces in hinterland towns such as Mullumbimby and Nimbin. The colourful Nimbin Candle Factory is open seven days a week.
Walking is the way to go in this part of the world. The coastal path around Ballina’s northern breakwall is perfect for a relaxed stroll and you’re almost guaranteed of seeing dolphins riding the waves and chasing balls of baitfish. Follow the coast past Lighthouse Beach, stopping for a coffee at the Lighthouse Beach Cafe, or perhaps a yoga class with Bliss Body & Soul. They’re held at the Ballina Lighthouse and Lismore Surf Lifesaving Club. There are great views on offer from around the historic Richmond River Light.
Closer to Lennox Head, follow the trail from Skennars Beach to Pat Morton Lookout for a spectacular view of the coastline. Alternatively, enjoy a walk in the cool embrace of Nightcap National Park. There’s an easy 1.4-kilometre option that winds its way through verdant groves of Bangalow palms to Protestor Falls. Vision Walks will take you into the same rainforest after dark, equipped with a set of night vision goggles.
Fancy a round of golf? You’re in luck! There are some magnificent courses in this part of the world. Teven Valley Golf Course is a boutique nine-hole course tucked away in the hills behind Ballina. The Craig Parry-designed holes will test your skills, but the sublime surroundings more than make up for the challenge. Ballina Golf and Sports Club’s 18-hole course occupies another stunning setting. Following North Creek, this easy-walking course is lush with landscaped gardens and tree-lined fairways.
Climb into the saddle at Pegasus Park Equestrian Centre near Bangalow and explore the region on horseback. Established more than 25 years ago, owner Ramona offers lessons for complete beginners and group trail rides along Lennox Head beach. More experienced riders can head off on their own along the forested trails nearby.
If back roads beckon, the Northern Rivers region offers no end of day trip destinations — and many of them harbour tasty treats to boot. Sleepy Brunswick Heads is a great beachy option. While you’re there, fill up on goodies fresh from the oven at Bruns Bakery.
Up in the rolling hinterland, swing by Barefoot Farm at Eltham. It produces pecan nuts and an array of related gourmet products, that will make delicious gifts for friends back home. The Eltham Hotel’s Sunday lunch is popular with the locals.
Continue heading north to the tiny town of Federal, where you can feast on fresh sushi with a twist at the Doma Café.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in the Northern Rivers? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Susan Hinchey is a freelance travel writer who, even as a teenager growing up in country New South Wales, knew she wanted to see the world. A couple of years out of high school Susan embarked on an eight-week European Contiki tour. Since then she has visited Alaska, Canada, Thailand, Vanuatu, Fiji, Greece, parts of North America, and Britain several times. Susan’s go-to getaway is a camping trip anywhere along the Australian coast. Her favourite travel moments have included sailing the Mediterranean and visiting Denali National Park in Alaska.