I have always found that certain locations appealed to a deep-seated part of me associated with wellbeing. It's difficult to explain. These places instill tranquility, encourage reflection and induce deep satisfaction or pleasure; they often exhibit stunning, long-lasting beauty; and they occupy a permanent position in my remembrance.
As a child, I found such places tucked away along the coasts of Dorset and Cornwall, 'the English Riviera', and in the highlands and islands of the Wester Ross in northwest Scotland. Later in life they have included Monterey in California; Grand Canyon; Venice; the Mani peninsula in Greece; Formentor in Mallorca; and Three Castles in County Cork. Australia has several contenders for the list of soul places: places of worship, but not as we know them.
In some cases it's obvious why. Venice is outstandingly beautiful, even though it's man-made, and it is a city of gently lapping water rather than roads so it's peaceful. Around every corner is a thing of beauty. Grand Canyon is one of the most extraordinary geological features you will ever see. I was literally speechless at the scale of this gash in the earth's surface. Many places are very beautiful, but some have that extra something, a je ne sais quoi, an X factor... They're awesome (in its original sense).
I first visited Byron Bay during my second trip to Australia. I flew from Sydney to Brisbane, hired a car and drove south. I turned off the main highway and drove along Ewingsdale Road with rising excitement. At Jonson Street, I turned left automatically, headed for the beach, and drove to the end of the car park overlooking Belongil Beach. What I saw took my breath away: the sweeping bay with the humps and tumps of the ancient Mt Warning caldera fading in bright afternoon sunlight that played off the surface of the sea like a million sparklers. And black-dot surfers catching the waves. This picture, taken when I introduced my friend to Byron last Easter, doesn't do it justice.
Every visit to Byron, I've done exactly the same thing upon arrival. It's a ritual. It's a deep-breath-and-'Hello,-Byron,-I'm-back' moment. It's always been sunny with cotton-wool-ball clouds and I've always found somewhere to park - even on Blues & Roots Easter weekend (but I can't guarantee either).
The bay was given its name by Captain Cook, in honour of his friend John Byron who had sailed around the world a few years earlier. The town grew as European settlers cut down cedars, then grew sugarcane, then farmed dairy and beef cattle. Later it was a whaling station.
These days Byron Bay is a hugely popular tourist centre. But its inhabitants have fought long and hard to prevent it being spoiled by the usual blights of development - principally high-rise blocks and nasty fast-food outlets. It has expanded, and one young waitress complained to me last time that the shops now include high street chains such as Sportsgirl and exclusive boutiques selling clothes with Sydney price tags. She was not impressed. There are certainly many more shops than when I first visited, but the majority of them are still small and individualistic. I shop in Byron with the expectation of finding something different.
All kinds of people go to Byron: surfers, backpackers, hippies, 'alternative lifestylers', romantic weekenders, festival-goers, market-goers, whale-watchers, yoga devotees, hang-gliders and wealthy celebrity 'locals' as well as ordinary ones. There are many types of accommodation - you can even stay in the Cape Byron Lighthouse keeper's cottage - and all kinds of places to eat - from Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide-recommended restaurants to bustly breakfast cafes to excellent fish and chip takeaways.
Because of what Byron does for me, I don't mind all the people. I can sit in a traffic crawl on Lawson quite happily, and I didn't even get cross when we received a penalty notice - for parking facing outwards in a car park (what's with these crazy rules, Australia?) - although my friend was not happy. I have a smile on my face from the moment I arrive in the place.
Byron's beaches are beautiful.
My favourite has to be Wategos (at the top of this page, and below), which lies at the foot of Cape Byron, on top of which sits the landmark lighthouse. As you walk up to this, the most easterly point of the Australian continent, you can sometimes see turtles or rays in the water below and, at the right time of year, whales passing by.
When we did this at Easter, we were given an impromptu tour up the lighthouse. As we stood at the top our guide remarked on our misfortune not to have been there earlier, when a pod of about 20 dolphins playing in Wategos bay had suddenly surfed the waves travelling inshore. No sooner had he said it than they did the same thing again. We were high above them but they were unmistakably dolphins, leaping over the waves, having fun. A Byron magic moment. This is the spot, but it's surfers you can see, not dolphins.
Some people don't like Byron. It's too crowded, they cry: Bangalow is quieter and more charming. Nimbin is more alternative; Brunswick Heads is just as beautiful but without the hoo-ha; the lush forest and farmland of the hinterland are more interesting; and Mullumbimby, or Murwillumbah, or somewhere else with lots of 'm's and 'u's in its name, is much less expensive.
They may well be right. But I love Byron. When it's busy and bustly; in the autumn when the weather's more threatening (below), or it's raining; and even... even... when I once spotted a Saga-like tour bus. I love shopping there; eating there; having a coffee or a beer there; people-watching there; walking along a beach and staring out to sea there. It is, quite simply, MKP*.
The more time I spend in Australia, the more lovely beaches I will find. I already have Mission Beach and Cape Tribulation to add to those of southwest WA on my list of specials. But the first time I went to Byron, it inveigled its way into whatever it is that makes me me, and I can't imagine not being very happy to go there.
I've always had to wait years between visits, but not any more.
* my kinda place