There are at least a dozen iconic Australian road trips. The place is just so damned big and, more than that, open. How can an intrepid traveler not want to drive it? There’s the “Red Center road trip” and the “Barrier Reef road trip” and the “Top End road trip” and the “Wine Region road trip” and… I could go on for a long while. There’s even “The Great Ocean Road road trip” — which might seem a tad on the nose except that the route definitely delivers the goods. The fact is, the country contains endless multitudes and, quite often, the best way to explore them is by car.
Among all of these tracks, crisscrossing the sprawling, brawling nation, the “Sydney To Byron Bay road trip” — up the coast of New South Wales — has always been a personal favorite. You won’t find too many of the country’s notable animals in this stretch. It’s croc-less and almost roo-less. The vistas are stunning but not completely foreign looking to the American traveler. And yet… this area is so Australian. The surf culture, the steaming meat pies, the welcoming locals, they’re all as Aussie as could be.
This is where the coolest Hemsworth hangs. Where 85% of the population seems to be boho/surfer/ yoga practitioners. Which… I get what that implies. But have you ever hung with that set in Australia? They’re not nearly as preachy and far more welcoming. Just rock up to any coastal town — ready to camp and ride waves for a few days — and they’ll immediately make room on their blankets as they strum guitars or wave you toward them for a beer while the sun sets.
I love the Sydney to Byron road trip so much that last spring I hopped on a flight (Qantas flies direct from LA to Sydney) and spent three weeks driving the route with my partner, Nikta. It was my third time doing this lap in the past five years — which makes me something of an expert. If you’re thinking of taking the trip yourself, here’s how I like to roll:
1. #VANLIFE OR BUST
As a travel writer, I’ve always been keen to unlock the best way to see each destination I visit. In East Africa, I bought a beat-up Land Cruiser, so that I could drive myself on safari. In Vietnam, I rowed down the Mekong Delta in a traditional sampan. In Cambodia, I rode a bike.
So trust me when I say, “You need a car in Australia.” There’s just no other way to dip into the small hamlets and scenic coves that make your trip unique. In New South Wales, where the #VanLife is literally built into the culture — with public bathrooms, overnight parking, and grills just about everywhere — it would be a shame not to have a vehicle that you can also sleep in. Plus, cozying up in a van post-surf or mid-rainstorm is one of life’s great pleasures.
For our trip, I rented a van from Apollo Motor Homes. It had a bed, a sink, and a fridge — the hotel room essentials. There was also room for boards (skate and surf), clothes, wetsuits, and a stove that you could pull out and cook up on. The stove is the real key here. The ability to make breakfast on the bluffs while watching the waves and chatting with every surfer who passes just feels so distinct to this region.
2. FIND YOUR BEACH
I remember an Aussie saying to me once, “Look, mate, there are that many beaches in New South Wales — you just have to find your favorites.” That many wasn’t meant to refer to an actual number. It was used as a superlative, to stand in for “endless” — because the beaches in this region literally never stop.
On our three-week road trip, Nikta and I dropped in at so many beach towns that we literally lost track of them all. Notebooks were futile. The sleepy New South Wales beach town just has a certain feel that I find intoxicating. There are always a few bakeries. A cruisy little cafe. A smattering of surf shops. You can skateboard around or stroll the streets and people will wave (or offer thoughts on the waves). It’s the free and easy life, distilled to its essence.
Still, with all the beaches in the world to choose from and so many coves and hidden little sections of sand, Nikta and I did have three all-time favorites.
- BYRON BAY: “Byron,” as the locals call it, has been beloved for decades now. But here’s the thing: It’s never turned corporate or gotten un-cool. Musicians play on the rolling lawns daily. Backpackers weave through town on skateboards (barefoot, always barefoot). Would-be Instagrammers stage mini photo sessions on the powder-white sand. It’s a full-on scene and you’d be a fool not to embrace it with open arms. Down at the south end of town, at “The Pass,” surfers set up on the sand for the entire day — trading waves, playing frisbee, laughing to weird Aussie jokes, and generally recognizing the fact that they, of all people on earth, are living right.
- CRESCENT HEAD: Here’s the day Nikta and I had in the tiny hamlet of Crescent Head (pictured above): I surfed, she napped in the grass; she surfed, I napped in the grass; we went to buy coffee and ended up scoring the best banana bread I’ve ever tasted in my entire life; we bombed a few hills and went to the skate park; we napped in the van plus some other stuff that’s not your business; I ate two meat pies in incredibly quick succession; and, finally, I surfed at sunset while she hung out with new friends on the bluffs. And that, dear friends, is how you do a beach day. They say “Crescent is the next Byron” and I get it because the spot is special, but that statement also reveals the true magic of New South Wales — you could say it about 10 different towns.
- BONDI BEACH: Bondi is just… Bondi. It’s a known entity amongst Aussies — Sydney’s enduring hotspot for beautiful people. But it’s also a hell of a gem, probably the best “beach within a big city” on earth. There’s a whole Boho culture around it — full of rootsy eateries, cool shops, and Italian restaurants. The latter might seem like a surprise, but there’s a huge Italian community in Australia, mostly centered in Sydney and Melbourne, which has resulted in some awesome dining experiences (Bondi Trattoria has sourdough pizzas that measure up to anything you’ll find on the streets of Rome). The beach itself is all about fitness. There’s surfing (of course), paddle boarding, body surfing, a very scenic public pool that hangs out over the water, and so many fit people doing fit people stuff that you’ll be ready to swear off those famous Aussie meat pies… for a few hours at least.
3. RIDE THE WAVE (LITERALLY AND METAPHORICALLY)
There’s already been enough surf chatter in this article to turn any non-surfer off forever. But seriously, we’re talking about more than 500 miles of coastline with tons of coves and sandbars and reefs. There are tons of surfers, too — but the everlasting cavalcade of waves can sustain the Aussie boardriders and all the interloping guests. California can’t say the same.
Making a list of where to surf in New South Wales isn’t a subheading in an article. It isn’t even an article itself. It’s a book. There are so many surf spots that it’s far easier to list where not to surf — which is basically just bays (where there aren’t waves) or deep into river inlets (where bull sharks linger).
New South Wales is also one of the best places on earth to learn this sport. First, because the lineups are generally never crowded; and second, because the waves can be incredibly gentle. The inside Shipwreck break at Byron and the cove at Crescent head are dream learning locations — where the waves roll in slowly and the newbies cheer one another on.
On the flip side, Lennox Head, “The Pass” at Byron, and Seal Rocks are all world class spots that see a deluge of pros coming through when the right swell hits. If you have the goods, this stretch of the country has all the waves you could ever want.
The point is, surfing is the culture in this region.. It’s embedded in everything. It’s part of how people connect. If your travel goal is to understand New South Wales, you have to join in a little.
4. PICK THE RIGHT HOTELS
The fact that you can live in your van in New South Wales doesn’t mean you always should. There are some incredible hotels that demand to be splurged on. Besides, you need a break from the road tripping to take a long shower and relax in comfort.
Over the course of our three weeks, we hit four hotels that really stood out and felt special. We filed their expenses under “self-care.”
- The Boogie Woogie Beach House — Old Bar. This hotel, which led off our list of the best “music hotels” on the planet, has live concerts baked into its DNA. There are serious shows every weekend on the outdoor patio — with both local and international bands showing up to rock the place. Upstairs, you’ll find rock star mosaics in each bathroom (we stayed in the Blondie suite), plus record players so that you can keep the party going. When you roll out of bed in the morning, the breakfasts at this joint are absolutely legendary. So are the weekly pizza nights, for that matter.
- EcOasis Resort — Tweed. EcOasis is “in the bush,” as the Aussies say, and that was just perfect for me. This place is so remote that each stilted chalet is well out of earshot of its closest neighbors. For dinner, you’re given a giant tray of locally-caught seafood and accouterments and left throw your own shrimp on the barbie (which isn’t a euphemism but ought to be). For dessert, well… the bathtubs in this place are something to marvel at and no human on earth could help but feel turned on in the sleek, multi-story cabins. In the morning, roll out of bed and explore the various nearby walking tracks, or drive a few miles to swim in a waterfall — the region is loaded with them.
- The Bower — Byron Bay. If every famous travel Instagrammer came together to build their dream hotel, they’d come up with the Bower in Byron Bay (pictured above). The whole thing is very 60s / mid-century modern. It’s also impeccably clean with a bathtub that just begs for Insta-love. But perhaps the best part of the hotel is the incredibly friendly staff. The team at the hotel was just so deeply hospitable that we actually added an extra night to our stay. It was a great call — we got to sleep in “The Barn,” which is one of the world’s all-time cozy hotel rooms when rain patters on the roof.
- QT Bondi — Sydney. This hotel is exactly where you want to be when you’re spending three days in Bondi. Especially if you plan on partying for all of them. The QT is situated right in the thick of things — near the clubs and the beach — and the staff is used to people showing up late. The rooms are sleek and new and those sexy-ass bathtubs… wait a second, is Australia the best bathtub nation on earth? Yes, I think it might be (thanks for attending my TED Talk). Things like free bike rentals are a huge plus if you’re going to be venturing to nearby Bronte beach or even further afield, but with so much to do in Bondi, no one will blame you if you don’t go anywhere.
5. GET THEE TO THE HINTERLAND
With all the incredible beaches in New South Wales, it’s hard to remember that the state extends east for a few hundred miles. You won’t want to burn too much time driving west, but dipping into the “hinterland” — the jungly, wild areas behind the coastal zone — is a must.
For the daring few who drive inland, there’s a ton to explore. The Blue Mountains — west of Sydney — hide massive fissures in the earth’s surface, which you can repel deep into. At the bottom of these verdant slot canyons, you’ll find enormous, Jurassic ferns, flowing rivers, and a whole lot of Land Before Time scenery. As you can see above, Claustral Canyon isn’t just a chance to live out your childhood dreams of adventure, it’s also one of the best photo-ops on the planet.
Heading North, the town of Bellingen feels like a mossy, rootsy hippie haven. Live music plays in every bar in town and the locals are both fiercely proud and incredibly welcoming. The Koompartoo Retreat is a chance to stay deep in the woods in total comfort, only strolling to town when the craving for a nice coffee is too strong to ignore or you’re aching for some tunes.
These inland hamlets and villages all have great growing seasons with plenty of rain, so expect to find truly extraordinary food. Plus, just like in the beach cities, there seem to be bakeries ion every corner. And superb coffee. And fun bars. And…
Considering that we’re two-thousand words in and I’m not even close to tapped out on things to do or places to see, maybe the point I’m trying to make is: There’s a lot happening in New South Wales. Heaps. With that many beaches, the brilliant green hinterland, superb hotels, locally-farmed dining (plus the endless meat pies), and a truly infinite string of surf breaks, this really is a special road trip.
All of which leaves a single question: Who’s ready to pack up the van?