Good vibrations in Byron Bay
In this week's Lonely Planet 'Great Escape', be the first to catch the Australian sunrise, then re-align your chakras on the shores of New South Wales's blissed-out beach retreat
Wednesday 29 January 2014
First there's the sound of a chuckle from the gumtree outside your window. Then come gales of full-blown laughter. Byron Bay's locals boast they are the first people the sun kisses as it rises in the morning; the town sits on the tip of the easternmost point of the Australian mainland, making it the place to pay your salutations to the sun. But you don't need an alarm call to watch the sunrise when you've got raucous kookaburras to shoo away your slumber.
Now wide awake, you make your way to Palm Valley (just a short walk if you are staying in town). From here, you climb the uphill track to the lighthouse. No lingering along the way – you can enjoy the views on the trip back down. At the top, you find a glistening white lighthouse standing sentry over the bay below. Built in 1901 and lovingly maintained, it's an icon of the region. But this place has a deeper, richer past. A sacred spot for the indigenous Arakwal people, this circle of land was a site of Aboriginal initiation rituals for eons, time that casts a long shadow over the present moment. You choose your place on the circle from which to watch the sun rise over the Pacific, absorbing the intense and still energy of this place as you welcome the new dawn. Even the most hardened cynic feels the spirits of the land here.
To the Arakwal people, Byron Bay is known as Cavanbah, the "meeting place". To its dreadlocked and tie-dyed younger residents, it's known as "chill-out central", where surf and sunshine meet. And to its bendy baby-boomers, it's known as a healing place, where mind and body meet in cosmic alignment at its many yoga or therapeutic retreats. Positive energy flows here, from the top of the hills and valleys formed by volcanic eruptions, down through creeks and estuaries to the rocky bays and sweeping beaches below. Whatever your age or inclination, Byron Bay is an escape from everyone else – and a retreat back to yourself.
The perfect getaway
There is stretching happening on every corner in Byron, but if it's yoga you're after there is no better choice than the Byron Yoga Centre, the longest-running school in town. Drop-in classes are held throughout the day, starting at 6am. Each teacher has their own style, but the philosophy of the school is "purna", meaning integration or completeness. Although the practice is alignment-based, the focus here is on yogic values, which include truthfulness, simplicity and a burning effort to achieve a goal. The values of the centre seem to flow through its teachers and into the practice.
Yogic values teach that you only keep what you have by giving it away, so time to splash some cash in the direction of the Cape Byron Kayaks crew in exchange for a chance to say hello to one of the bay's 300 resident bottlenose dolphins or, if you're lucky, to see humpback whales – from June to November, these magnificent mammals make their annual migration.
Surfing in Byron Bay Curious by nature, the humpbacks swim close to the coast and are not shy of paying you a visit while you kayak – and at up to 15m long, you can't miss them.
If the whales are curious, then the dolphins are positively intrusive, ducking and diving and splashing in the waves around you. A short stop at Wategos Beach for a drink and a Tim Tam (Australia's famed chocolate biscuit) does little to still the beating heart from the exhilaration of being so close to these animals. Hold on to your paddles as you surf the waves back to shore at Clarkes Beach.
From your early-morning meeting with the sun and yogic meeting of body with mind to your communion with the bay's mammals, you'll start to feel your crown chakra melting into your heart chakra right about... now.
There are three airports to choose from: Ballina, Gold Coast or Lismore. Ballina is the closest, but there are cheaper, more frequent flights to Gold Coast, and catching the bus to Byron is a breeze. The only golden rule of a spiritual escape in Byron is to avoid high season (summer: December-February), or peak periods such as Easter, end-of-school week and the music festivals, when accommodation is hard to find.
Kick your spiritual side to the kerb for the day and go shopping. If it's Thursday, start with a trip to the Byron Farmers' Market, where you can sample the area's finest produce. On the first Sunday of the month, local crafters display their wares at the Byron Community Market at Butler Street reserve – it's feathers, candles and tie-dyed T-shirts galore, complemented by a sizzling array of food carts and the distant strumming of a ukulele or thumping of a djembe drum.
On any other day, head to the Byron Arts and Industry Estate, where, with a bit of hunting around, you can find local artisans at work and buy their goods for a fraction of the price in town.
This is an extract from 'Great Escapes', published by Lonely Planet (£29.99). To order a copy, go to shop.lonelyplanet.com
* Kayaking with pods of dolphins playing in the waves beside you
* Watching the humpback whales' annual migration from the lighthouse
* Visiting a yoga ashram, or simply attending classes at the renowned Byron Yoga Centre
* Letting it all out with a twilight drumming session on Main Beach
* Taking your pick from massage, acupuncture, reiki or reflexology at Osho's House
* Sampling the beautiful produce of the region and meeting its colourful characters at the Byron Farmers' Market every Thursday morning
* Taking the multicoloured day-trip bus to hippie central, "magic" Nimbin
Location: Northern New South Wales, Australia
Best time of year: March to April; June to November for whale spotting
Ideal time commitment: At least a week
Essential tip: Avoid peak season (December to February)
Pack: Swimsuits, walking shoes and an open mind
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