A road trip…Canberra to Byron Bay

A while back I did a trip with my Partner in Foodie Road Trippin’ Crime Marija Ivkovic. She takes the pictures in the equation. It’s become Something That We Do Together Now. We both love eating, “unplanning things”, stepping sideways to meet random characters and just Heading Off To See What Happens. That’s what a road trip should be about, I think.

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Margan Vineyards, Broke

This route is a well travelled one by many who head to Byron for whatever reason. But most people fling through in one hit (Sydney-Byron takes 8-10 hours) or stop in one of the well-versed towns. But there’s a better way. Let me tell you about it…

Some things to know and bear in mind:

* Best time to do it? Any time is great. But winter is a wonderful time to be checking out some of the food on offer in the areas (mushrooms! wine! beetroot!). Also, the water is warm up north and Byron, once you get there, is wonderful from June-September.

* Inland or coastal? Try a combination. Most people do the coastal route up the Pacific Highway. There are some great bushwalks and towns to visit that I’m betting you’ve never heard of…and some of the most beautiful remote beaches…read on below. But with just a little skip to the left, inland, are some very rustic areas that are a boon to explore: The Hunter, The Manning Valley, the Bellingen area.

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Marija and me.

* Go for daggy. As in, daggy towns that don’t try to be something they’re not. They often have a great pub where you can stay the night and meet locals and eat a great steak. Marija and I found the daggier the town, the more fun we had.

* You might need a 4WD…there are some roads that require some off-road adventure…like this little rally experience in the Bellingen State Forest.

Full disclosure: We drove a Jeep Wrangler. I’ve driven one for about six months now as an ambassador for Jeep Australia. They like that I take it out and use it as it’s meant to be used….for adventures!

* Base your trip around quirky accommodation and bushwalks. That’s how we did it. It’s how I do all my trips. If you’re after accommodation ideas, go to Visit NSW. There’s treehouses and lighthouses to stay at. And converted banks. If you’re after bushwalks, do a search at NSW National Parks.

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Cross-referencing different bushwalking maps…I’m a map addict!

* Side-step the roadhouses and service stations for snacks and try out some of the quirkier foodie stops along the way. I’ve listed some great ones below. But also check out this rundown of the best places to eat on the NSW coast.  Before I forget, there’s also Plough Inn Hotel in Buladelah and Brush Turkey Café  which serves homespun food prepared by volunteer cooks.

* Travel light. If you read my Daylesford road trip post, you might notice I’m wearing exactly the same clothing on this one. I live out of one suitcase at the moment. But also, I like to have a “bushwalking and travelling” outfit that I pack wherever I go. It means I don’t have to think about. And it’s the best combo of clothing for the job. Me: shorts, cap, t-back bra, singlet, warm woolen layer, vest, scarf. Done.

* Tune into Radio National. Somehow we didn’t get around to hooking our ipods to the stereo and instead switched the dial to ABC’s Radio National. They run the most amazing conversations and documentaries. I love The World Today at midday and PM with Mark Colvin. And This American Life with Ira Glass on Sunday evenings is worth diary-entering.

The trip…

First stop:  the Hunter Valley. Leaving Sydney after picking Marija up at a railway station north of the city, we veered off the Pacific and went for Broke. Literally. Broke is a very cute little town with a few cafes and a pub/burger joint on the side of the road that was bustling with bikies.

We were bound, however, for lunch at Margan Wines. Quite a few people on Twitter recommended the place as a fantastic “special” eatery. We didn’t hold back and ate, um, six dishes between us. The swordfish carpaccio marinated in preserved lemon on top of a broccoli risotto was a taste bomb.

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This would be the carpaccio.

Ditto the wagyu shin with cauliflower puree…and the duck lard potatoes…and the braised fennel…

I loved that they write up all the veggies on the blackboard that come from their garden. Each day they choose a few to “highlight” as side dishes. Boy were we happy fennel was up the day we visited!!!

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So so so happy with the wagyu and the duck fat spuds!

The veggie garden is just outside the restaurant. Most of the menu is based around what they pull out of the ground that morning. And as a wonderful aside, the whole vineyard is the first Certified Organic vineyard (including the restaurant) in the area.

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If we had more time: I’d consider eating lunch or having a coffee at Broke. It had a great Sunday drive feel to it. Lots of character and full of colourful characters and some cheaper food options if your budget ain’t up to anything fancy.

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Loitering on two wheels…

Next stop: We then took the inland route up to Gloucester, around the base of Barrington Tops and on to Wingham.

If we had more time: I’d definitely try to spend some time at Barrington Tops. There are some great accommodation options and bushwalks.

There are some very well received cheese places and wineries to check out along the way. We liked this little place – Bare, just outside of Broke – on the side of the road where the lovely lady inside makes her own organic soaps out back, as well olives and pickles.

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And what did I say about random characters? I met this one at the Broke servo. He just became a friend.

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A new friend at Broke servo

Funnily, he turned up at Bare, too. And continued to be a gnarly, funny old guy, offering to share a beer with us. He and Bare’s owner were sitting down to share one and watch the sun set. We headed off into it however. Magical.

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We decided to take the inland route because we just had this gut feel it was going to be beautiful and more adventurous. We were rewarded. There was a calm stillness to the landscape and it was hard to fathom where in the world we were. We rolled in and out of small, one-street towns and stalled briefly to check out the action in the pub. End of the day weariness is such a wonderful thing to observe. Seeing parts of the country you’ve never heard of, and seeing Australians living different lives to your own, is equally so.

Next stop: Wingham. Wingham is an old farming town that’s been prosperous over time. You can tell. The buildings and streets are grand. It’s now just on the cusp of becoming a popular tourist stop…I can see why. It’s just off the highway (about 15 minutes) and is a perfect place to break a trip for the night. They also have a lot going on – a Beef Week festival, a Scottish festival and bush regeneration projects.

We stayed in a converted bank – The Bank Guest House. Bev who runs the joint is exactly the kind of woman you want to have open the door to you when you arrive a little late in the evening, cold and car-numb. She had the fire going and set up a little plate of local meats, cheeses and veggies, with a bottle of local Red Tail wine.

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Wingham ain’t a big town. Two streets and you’re done. But Donna Carrier is a local who is committed to making the town worth a visit, especially if you’re a foodie. Bent On Food is on one of the streets. Trust me. You’ll find it. Next door is her homewares place, Bent on Life, and she also has a cooking and cheesemaking school around the corner. Check out the calender. Could make a good little weekend activity. When we visited she was gearing up for her Men Only Curry Cooking Night.

We ate breakfast the next morning here among her jars of homemade relishes and chutneys. There’s also a cute outdoor courtyard. Fabulous local mushrooms and eggs!

If we had more time: we’d have stocked up on her relishes and some local cured meats and cheeses from nearby Comboyne and had ourselves a picnic lunch en route. We’d also have skipped over to Ellenborough Falls, about 50 minutes away.

Another thing to look out for: The Legendary Pacific Coast organisation put out a booklet with all the spots I mention, as well as highlighting some great driving routes in the area. They also have a iPhone app.

Next stop: Kendall. This place is just off the highway (about 5 minutes) and is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of place. But I mention it because there’s a funny little cafe – Beetroot’d – that (you might like to guess it…) serves ONLY dishes made with beetroot. It was closed the day we were there…but I hear it’s worth dropping in on. Even just for the novelty of it all.

Another stop: Laurieton. On the way down to Canberra, I broke up the journey by staying in this lovely little fishing town (just across the highway from Kendall). It’s one of the closest beachside towns to the highway and seriously one of the prettiest spots to explore. I stayed in Diamond Head – about another 5 minutes down the road in a national park at The Diamond Waters Treehouse and it was a joy to lay my head on their pillows. Owners Peter and Kerry have built two genuinely eco houses, nestled in the trees, which are located on a nursery with a fantastic cafe that locals say makes the best coffee in town. Care has been taken in every direction to ensure it’s as “green” as can be. There’s a wonderful pot belly stove and a breakfast hamper is left in the fridge…with figs! And local bacon! And local yoghurt!

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Jeepin’ to Diamond Beach walk

I ate that night at Oasis in Laurieton. I swear I dined on the best lamb rack I’ve ever had. And the next morning I did the bushwalk from Diamond Beach Caravan Park. Stunning. I cried from happiness.

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The veiw from the morning walk

If I had more time: I’d have bought some local oysters from the co-op down on the river and done what Kerry and Pete do – take them down to the beach at sunset and have with a glass of wine. Also, I’d check out the town’s local food markets and their Slice of Haven festival (there’s a crew of locals that are fanatical about foodie experiences and organise a range of different foodie things). Oh, and I’d walk to the top of North Brother Mountain at sunrise.

Another thing to look out for: Jean at Amber Healing Farm makes the most amazing healing food. She sells it online, and you can also find it at the local markets. Try her tapioca bread. Just trust me on this. She also hosts families and groups at her gorgeous property just out of Laurieton.

Next stop: Hat Head National Park.  I can’t tell you how excited I get about brown tourist signs, the ones that denote a bushwalk. This place is full of them. Marija and I did the Smokey Cape walk from the lighthouse. It’s a stunning single-trail walk through forest, down to a secluded beach and back out again – about 2 hours.

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Looking back down from Smokey Cape

If we had more time: we’d stay at the Smokey Cape lighthouse.

Next stop: Bellingen. We spent our last night here. What a town. A stack of movies have been set here and it’s home to a bunch of writers and artists and journos (George Negus, David Helfgot). We stayed at North Farm, a cheap farm-stay kind of experience where the roosters wake you up. We ate at the Federal Pub in town. I kid you not: they had gluten-free chicken parmigiana available. I love this pub. I’ve visited a few times and it’s always packed. I’d consider staying here next time, too.

In the morning we shot this little blurb on what to pack for a road trip. Enjoy. And enjoy the roosters.

Then we had breakfast at Purple Carrot in town – organic and local stuff and great breakfast offerings. They also serve the local Amelia Franklin coffee. We had eggs holandaisse with kale. And we were very happy.

Then. We went bushwalking. Friends, this was a highlight. Do this if you want a real bush treat: drive out to Dorrigo. Turn right at the Rainforest Centre. Do the Wonga walk through one of the few World Heritage Listed parks. Absorb the dense, knowing, still energy of the trees and drink water from the waterfalls. Enjoy.

The walk is about 6km. I nattered on excitedly the whole way to Marija about all the bushwalking tricks I’ve learned over the years and so we decided to film my three favourite tips… you can also get a feel for JUST HOW BEAUTIFUL THE FOREST IS!

We then popped into Dorrigo. Be sure to check out the massive antiques and knick-knack shop.

If we had more time: We’d have tried the pizza at the pizza joint in town (my friend Lizzy raves about it) and tried more walks (there are 11 National Parks in the area). The Red Dirt distillery (handcrafted vodka!) is meant to be worth a visit, too.

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Wonga Walk!

It had been at least a few hours since we ate. So we drove back to Bellingen and had lunch at Mouza Cafe, a middle-eastern/Indian joint that everyone in town raved about. We had Goan seafood curry and homemade pickles, and some gluten-free pakora. Warm, nourishing, happy.

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The chef makes his own pickles…

I think you’d struggle to go wrong on the food front in Bellingen.

Some other recommendations:

* Kombu Wholefoods – a great shop and really friendly staff…great for supplies.

* No 5 Church St – Kombu staff say it’s the most authentic organic place in town.

* No 2 Oak St – it has a SMH “hat” and is said to be worth driving up the coast for. I’m really sad we were there on a Monday when they were shut. The owners seem so real and passionate. Go for us and report back!

We then trundled our way back to Byron, another three hours up the highway. If you want to know more about what to do in Byron, read my Byron Bay Guide..it’s pretty comprehensive. Or check out my Byron Hinterland Road Trip.

my canberra visit

If you’re driving up from Melbourne or elsewhere, you might like to check out some of the incredible food offerings in the ACT district. I’m from the area (I grew up outside Canberra) and I can tell you the place has developed massively since then. I really recommend checking out The Poacher’s Way for ideas. And I REALLY REALLY recommend trying out Grazing, the restaurant in the Gundaroo Pub (about 25 minutes out of Canberra, toward Sydney). I took my brothers and sister out on a cold Sunday afternoon and we sat in front of the fire and ate the most amazing array of local food – white Jindabyne rabbit, lambs’ brains, Tumut trout….oh, just check out the menu for yourselves. All the wines are local, too. And they brew their own beer. And you can wander in their veggie patch afterwards, or down main street Gundaroo (there was a kid walking their Shetland pony the day we were there…).

grazing A road trip...Canberra to Byron Bay

OK. That’s all for now. Do you know the areas I mention? Want to add your suggestions?? Let me know if you do the route and report back on your highlights!!

You might also like to check out my slow foodie road trip to Daylesford. And you might like to suggest a road trip route you think Marija and I should take next?

Finally, to be upfront with you: Destination NSW hosted my visit. However, all destinations and experiences are true recommendations. I’m upfront with all sponsors that I only ever report honestly on my experience. It works better this way.


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