For many, the land “Down Unda” is a country of koalas, kangaroos, Crocodile Dundees and sexy male actors…ahem Chris Hemsworth (swoon). While all those elements might certainly make up part of the Aussie cultural landscape, this vast country (roughly the same size as continental USA), is far more diverse and complex than the cinematic stereotypes. On a recent trip to Oz, I saw a side of coastal Australia that included a rich culinary scene, trendy new hotels, cutting edge wellness retreats and the friendliest locals you’ll ever meet.
Since I’m an adventure travel blogger, on-camera travel expert, travel influencer and general travel addict, I was invited as a guest of Tourism Australia and Air New Zealand, sent over to experience the best of the country’s offerings in the Queensland, New South Wales area – aboard one of the best ways to get to Australia.
Eager to experience Australia’s Gold Coast, I packed my bags and set out on an epic 10-day adventure hitting such hot spots as Byron Bay and Sydney.
My Oz experience actually began with a kind crew from New Zealand aboard Air New Zealand. The airline, which has daily flights to Australia via Auckland, flew me to Australia to sample their onboard amenities, like the award-winning SkyCouch to get a taste of their “cuddle class.” Their Skycouch is a row of three Economy seats that together create a flexible space where passengers can lie-flat and sleep on the flight. Whether you’re traveling with the kiddos or that special someone, the Skycouch promises more space to canoodle with your favorite travel buddy. I was traveling solo, so no cuddling for me, so I found solace in a glass of their award-winning wine, a crisp Savignon Blanc from the Malborough region.
Are you looking for the best spas and wellness retreats in Australia? Wondering what the best restaurants are in Byron Bay? Where do you buy crystals and meditate in Australia? Read on… While there were many wonderful things I experienced on my 10-day visit to Australia, here were some of my highlights.
First stop was a visit to Gwingana Lifestyle Retreat for a few days of relaxation and rejuvenation. A visit to this luxury spa/wellness center offers a chance to jump start a healthier lifestyle and new You. It’s no doubt one of the best spas and wellness retreats in Australia. The food served here is mostly vegan or vegetarian, with a no caffeine, no booze, no sugar and a no cellphone policy! It was a much needed digital detox for the Instagram obsessed. Unplugging from the 24-7 demands of modern technology is a growing trend that many wellness retreats around the world are adopting.
Coming to Gwingana gives its guests a chance to connect with nature, learn about mindfulness, embrace gratitude and get pampered at the spa. The daily schedule included morning Tai Chi, tutorials on topics like gut health and healthy herbs. Afternoons are dedicated to Dreamtime, for guests to relax, nap or indulge in one of Gwingana’s signature spa treatments. I instantly could feel the stress melt away as the therapist rubbed my body with hot rocks and stuck acupuncture needles in my forehead, as part of their rockupuncture treatment. I absolutely loved it and really relished in the pampering and quality time with yourself. Caring staff, spectacular food (they even make sprouts taste delicious!), top of their field specialists and magical masseuses. It’s an amazing spot to unwind, reflect, to tap into your own power, learn about health and be a better person. In short, Gwingana is amazing…I only wish I could live there year round. (Ps. For an extra baller entrance, book a private helicopter ride with Gold Coast Helicopter Tours. I arrived at Gwingana via helicopter transfer from the Gold Coast airport and it was a super fancy and efficient way to arrive in style.)
After three days of being a good healthy young solo female traveler, it’s not surprisingly that the first thing I did when I left the sugarfree sanctuary of Gwingana was fall mouth-first into a pumpkin tart at the Murwillumbah farmers market. Ooops. The market offers some of the best produce from the Tweed Valley and Northern Rivers region. It’s a meeting place for farmers selling fresh organic produce and members of the community, who gather here weekly with the kiddos to shop, eat and listen to the live music.
Belly filled with sinfully delicious tarts from the Simply Divine Delicacy stand, I hopped back in the car and continued my journey to a popular spiritual center in the area called Crystal Castle. If you like crystals and chakras, you’ll love Crystal Castle & Shambhala gardens, a private botanical garden filled with crystals, subtropical plant life spreading across 5 hectors of lush flora and fauna.
I embraced my inner hippie and joined their peace experience, held daily at 3:10pm. For about 45 minutes, it’s a guided visual meditation with the sound of crystal bowls, followed by a sacred Kora Walk around the World Peace Stupa. While I tend to be highly critical of such woo hoo hippie hallabaloo, I did find the experience very calming and, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t help but feel very grounded and relaxed at the end. A walk through the stunning gardens, past epic Buddha statues, around meditative labyrinths and massive crystals is said to enrich the spirit.
There are many contemplation spaces, sacred pathways and the largest sone blessing Buddha in Australia. There are also daily workshops like “Energize your Life,” “Psychic Awareness,” “Crystals Chakras Astrology & Healing” and Aura readings.
Knowing little of my own aura, I opted for the aura photo with a mini interpretation. They explained to me that the aura is an electromagnetic field that exists around every living thing. I slipped my hands into a special metal device and it measured the electromagnetic pulses from the meridian points on my hands and converts into the equivalent color vibration. Each color has a significance that reflects a physical or emotional state.
On to one of my fave spots in all of Australia – Byron Bay, a hip beach town along Australia’s Gold Coast. Located in the far-northeastern corner of the state of New South Wales, Australia (some 480 miles north of Sydney and 100 miles south of Brisbane), Byron Bay draws an eclectic mix of backpackers, bikini clad hipsters, beach babes, sun-seekers, spiritual yogis and fashionistas.
Having visited Byron back in 2003 as a twenty-something backpacker, it was here that I was inspired to make travel a bigger part of my life. I found inspiration on the floor of a dingy backpacker bar. There was a postcard that inspired me to travel around the world for a longer stretch of time. 80 countries, 7 continents and many years later, I find myself back in Byron Bay, having come full circle, this time as an established travel writer, a travel expert and a new mom.
Back in 2003 I stayed at an artsy budget backpacker hostel, but this time around, I really lived it up at the only five star luxury hotel in the area called the Byron at Byron Resort and Spa. It’s a swanky spot with an infinity pool, day spa and alfresco fine dining serving up a killer breakfast buffet. Set on 45 acres of sub-tropical rainforest, there are trails (with the occasional wild turkey) leading to some 90 bright red suites. These suites have everything you could ever need and are well-equipped with a kitchen, separate lounge/dining area, plasma TV, two enclosed balconies and deep free standing bathtubs. It’s a great choice for high-end accommodations while in the area.
BEST RESTAURANTS IN BYRON BAY:
The next few days involved eating my face off. Breakfast, lunch, dinner… I pretty much visited every well known farm-to-table restaurant in the area and got my eat on. Here are a few of my favorite restaurants in Byron Bay.
Byron Beach Café: This contemporary beach shack café serves up some delicious breakfast and lunch options oceanside. I ordered the avocado on toast and enjoyed a killer view of where the tropical waters of the Coral Sea meet the nutrient-enriched water of the southern Tasman Sea.”
Mavis’ Kitchen , a charming historic house with an organic garden, delicious seasonal dishes (best roast chicken ever!) and sweeping views of Mt. Warning.
Fleet Restaurant: This tiny shopfront restaurant with only 15 seats in the beach town of Brunswick Heads, is a hit with critics. The food was a little too experimental for my palate but it does promise some with intriguing tastes. Be sure to try the dip of smoked mullet with crisps of potato and fish skin for scooping.
Harvest Café (www.harvestcafe.com.au): Serving up fresh, local, organic food in an old farm house oozing country charm.
Cicchetti, a modern Italian restaurant with contemporary Venetian dishes.
100 Mile Table, this local spot serves up simple but satisfying homecook’n. Expect to find hispters seated at a communal harvest table, working on their laptops. The flourless dessert is aaaaah-mazing!
Leading the culinary pack is Three Blue Ducks at The Farm. It’s part working farm, part super cool restaurant – with the inspiring motto: “grow, feed and educate” – that has won tons of culinary awards. The dishes are all incredibly fresh and seasonal with a constantly evolving menu of vibrant salads, fresh fish dishes and hearty meats raised on their 86-acre working biological farm. Set on a relaxed, beautiful setting with a foraging trail and playground for the kids, Three Blue Ducks at The Farm was by far, my top pick for best restaurants in the Byron Bay area. If you come here, expect amazing dishes with a forward-thinking food and farming philosophy.
NEXT STOP SYDNEY:
That wraps up some of my favorite moments from the first part of my Australian adventure. Next stop – Sydney where I check out some cool up and coming neighborhoods.
For more info on Australia, check out www.australia.com. For all the amazing things to see and do in the regions I visited, check out Queensland and New South Wales. When it comes time to book your ticket, visit Air New Zealand for more flexibility and connectivity via Auckaland to any of the eight Australian destinations: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Cairns, Adelaide, Sunshine Coast, Perth and Coolangatta (The Gold Coast).