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Byron Bay, Australia

Escape Plan

by Dan Allen
NYC Transgender Support (Photo by AKatz)

After soaking up the sights and sounds of the big city, why not follow the lead of relaxation-seeking Aussie celebs like Chris Hemsworth and Nicole Kidman and head to the top of New South Wales for a stay in Byron Bay.

Cape Byron Lighthouse, Byron Bay (Photo By Destination NSW)

Starting in the 1960s and for the next few decades, Byron Bay then became a sleepy little seaside enclave beloved by surfers and hippies.

Sydney’s amazing gay scene can be exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting. So the rejuvenating beachside escape of choice for upscale bohos Down Under.

The Byron Bay area has been a meeting point for local indigenous peoples for millennia, their name for it, Cavvanbah, even means meeting place. Starting in the 1960s and for the next few decades, Byron Bay then became a sleepy little seaside enclave beloved by surfers and hippies. Some of those early adapters are still around (always ready to regale you with tales of the nirvana-like way things used to be), and they’ve now been joined by a higher-end breed of hip designers, restaurateurs, and wellness practitioners. Thanks to this dynamic and vibrantly creative mix, the Byron Bay of today somehow manages to be both super-chill and surprisingly buzzy.

Getting to Byron Bay is a breeze, with a large selection of direct daily flights leaving from Sydney’s main airport and arriving in 90 minutes or less into Ballina airport, which in turn is just a half hour by shuttle or rental car to Byron Bay. Daily nonstops also arrive from Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, and other major Australian cities.

You won’t find a vibier eatery in town than Bang Bang Byron Bay (bangbangbyronbay.com), which serves up a delectable Asian fusion menu and hand-crafted cocktails in a fun, dimly-lit, speakeasy-like setting right at the heart of Byron. Try the Prawn Toast, the Drunken Chicken (soy-braised and lightly fried), and the Salt & Pepper Squid, and share everything table-wide.

Tallow Beach in Byron Bay (Photo by Silken Photography)

Tallow Beach in Byron Bay (Photo by Silken Photography)

The backdrop really couldn’t be more perfect at Beach Byron Bay (beachbyronbay.com.au), right on the waterfront overlooking spectacular Clarkes Beach, which also happens to be a common humpback whale sighting spot. During the day, Beach’s Kiosk serves casual fare like fish burgers and smoothies, while in the evening, the sophisticated highly seasonal seafood-focused menu includes favorites like Southern Rock Lobster from Coffs Harbor down the coast.

Seafood BBQ (Photo by PixHound)

Seafood BBQ (Photo by PixHound)

Over on the west side of town in an unassuming residential neighborhood, Folk (folkbyronbay.com) is arguably the best café in Byron Bay, paying homage to the town’s bohemian roots with an utterly laid-back, garden-like vibe. The beach-hip clientele is easy on the eyes, and healthy breakfast and lunch options include the Folk Burrito with spiced biodynamic brown rice and quinoa, plus a wide and delicious selection of coffees, teas, smoothies and elixirs.

For the ultimate beachside Byron experience, look no further than Elements of Byron (elementsofbyron.com.au), an absolutely stunning 50-acre eco-resort with 193 luxury villas overlooking either ocean, forest, lake, or pond. The villas themselves are so adorable that you’ll never want to leave, with features like big freestanding bathtubs accompanied by “bath tea” made with Himalayan salts and lavender. The perks of the property seem endless, starting with the incredible Belongil Beach and its dunes right at your doorstep.

The main pool is a dazzling 130-foot infinity lagoon, while a separate and cozier pool area caters to adults only. Staff are exceedingly friendly and eager to help, exotic flora and adorable fauna are plentiful, the full-service Osprey Spa is right on site, and well over a mile of self-guided walking tracks have been carefully laid through the rainforests at the resort’s edge. There are even full (and free) laundry facilities should you decide to stick around for an extra week or two.

Raes on Wategos Byron Bay Mandatory (photo by Madeleine Johnson Sean Fennessy)

Raes on Wategos Byron Bay Mandatory (photo by Madeleine Johnson Sean Fennessy)

Whether or not the rumors are true that Liberace once played the piano here or that Salvador Dalí had a hand in the design, one thing is certain: Raes on Watego (raes.com.au) has been oozing top-end style for more than half a century, and since its grand 2017 revitalization, has landed itself on Conde Nast Traveler’s list of the world’s top 25 hotels. Set just across the street from the Cape Byron Walking Track and down the road from the locally iconic Cape Byron Lighthouse, Raes offers just seven rooms, but they’re each unforgettable, enormous, and truly glamorous. If you can’t book a stay, at least tuck in for lunch at the dining room, with its sublime Mediterranean-influenced cuisine by chef Jason Saxby, its peerless people watching, and its stunning views of Watego Beach.

While Byron Bay is a fantastic place to just unwind without an agenda, it also offers plenty of unique active options too. Combine a couple of the favorites (for locals and visitors alike) with a hike along the Cape Byron Walking Track (nationalparks.nsw.gov.au), a 2.3-mile circuit that takes you through gorgeous rainforest, beach, grassland and clifftops to the famed Cape Byron Lighthouse (nationalparks.nsw.gov.au), the easternmost point in Australia and a renowned whale-watching destination. For dolphin lovers, an exhilarating outing with Cape Byron Kayaks (capebyronkayaks.com) gives you an excellent chance of seeing Byron Bay’s dolphins and whales, and an aquatic view of the lighthouse too. For shoppers, Byron Bay’s central business district is dotted with excellent boutiques, with the best concentration along Fletcher Street, where you’ll find both outposts of Australian’s hottest designer brands and completely unique-to-Byron shops offering one-of-a-kind fashion and homewares, often with the special bohemian flair that makes Byron, Byron.

You won’t find exclusively gay bars in Byron Bay, but in a town this mixed and welcoming, you seriously won’t miss them. Two of the hippest drinking spots in town have Moroccan vibes: Mez Club (mezclub.com.au) on Jonson Street, with its whitewashed Mediterranean décor and very popular happy hour; and Light Years (lightyearsasiandiner.com.au) on Jonson Street, with its interiors inspired by the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech. Both also serve fantastic food in addition to their dazzling cocktails, like Light Years’ ‘Netflix and Chill,’ with popcorn-infused rum, passionfruit, and lemon.

Deep Tissue Massage (Photo by Aleks Gudenko)

Deep Tissue Massage (Photo by Aleks Gudenko)

Byron Shire, the area surrounding Byron Bay, is blessed with some 20 miles of shoreline and a wide selection of beaches, all of which are mixed and welcoming. Local gays generally prefer the small and secluded Kings Beach (which also happens to be one of Australia’s most beautiful nude beaches), located within the Broken Head Nature Reserve south of town. For full-on pampering, Byron Bay is home to a number of excellent spas, including Osprey Spa (elementsofbyron.com.au/spa) at Elements of Byron, and Raes Spa (raes.com.au/spa) at Raes on Wategos.

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