Travel south of the border and becomes a tree-hugging convert in Byron Bay

Byron Bay has long been regarded as a community of “tree huggers” and while I’ve visited many times, I’ve never thought I’d ever become one…until my most recent visit to the Byron at Byron resort on the southern approach to town. It’s ironic that a resort that faced protests from the Byron-shire greenies a decade ago should now be turning out its own tree huggers by the dozens. But the Byron at Byron’s disciples are not your standard anti-development crowd – no, these tree huggers are leaving the resort spiritually inspired by a five-star experience aimed squarely at wellness for body and mind, and part of that experience includes, literally, laying hands on “the hugging tree” which stands in the natural wilderness that forms part of the property.

The official hugging tree is a broadleaf paperbark that sits on the edge of one of the ponds and along the boardwalk that meanders through the forest behind the resort, and it’s an activity that is encouraged (with care) by chief hugger Lyn Parché, manager of the resort with her husband John and long-time friend of owners Gerry Harvey and Katie Page.

When Lyn first set foot on the 18-hectare (45 acres) site, at Harvey’s invitation, it was unrecognisable from what it is today. Following years of drought and the misfortune of previous owners, what had once been a labour of love and home to ponds full of water lilies, pagodas, and even a tea house, had become derelict, withered and choked. But even then, Lyn says, she felt a spiritual energy from the land and so began the vision for the resort that stands there now.

Although I was lucky enough to take my walk through the now regenerated forest with Lyn as my guide, guests at the Byron at Byron can take a complimentary guided walk on Tuesday mornings. More often than not the guide will be rainforest regenerator Rosemary Joseph who has been working on the project for more than eight years and will relate just how much has been done to restore the native environment. The rate of regeneration has been rapid and forest and ponds now teem with wildlife and birds.

But guests also can take a self-guided walk, armed with a map and information about particular plantings and birdlife and they will see why it’s described as like a Monet painting. My walk with Lyn included a detour along the Meditation Walk and her retelling of the romantic and tragic Willow Story of star-crossed lovers that inspired the previous owners to build the series of pagodas linked by pathways on a miniature island within the forest.

As we walked back, Lyn left to take a quick route to the lobby while I hesitated at the fork in the road – one way led to Tallow Beach, the other to the resort’s 25-metre pool, a decent size for holiday-style laps. I headed towards the beach but, feeling overwhelmed by so much tranquility, I veered off towards my deluxe spa suite (with deep spa bath) for some serious downtime before Happy Hour (from 4.30pm to 6pm Sunday to Thursdays).

This is not to be missed as it’s a time to meet other guests and quietly quiz the staff, and regulars, for local haunts worth visiting. Most evenings Lyn will be circulating among the guests, sharing stories and likely catching up with those who have become friends over multiple visits. About 50 per cent of Byron at Byron’s clientele are repeat guests.

It’s not often that head chef Gavin Hughes makes it out of the kitchen but early risers can catch him on his weekly tour of the local farmers market every Thursday and try to prise out of him special ingredients or suppliers of choice for the delicious menu served up in the restaurant every night. Local produce includes Tenterfield lamb, Bangalow pork and cheese, and Yamba prawns. Scottish-born Hughes made his way to Byron via Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK and popular Sydney harbourside spots, Bather’s Pavilion and Aqua Dining. At Byron he focuses on providing a seasonal menu featuring a majority of local ingredients, and a five-course degustation and share menu have been added to the selection.

The calibre of the food has made the occasional guest chefs and speakers dinners a sellout and the next one with Justin North on 26 October, a degustation matched with five French champagnes, is no exception. The earlybirds grab these well in advance so it pays to keep a look out for coming events on their website. I was consoled with my Happy Hour tips for other nights, including St Elmo’s in town for cocktails and tapas and Targa, offering mouth-watering delights such as twice-baked goat’s cheese soufflé or fried soft shell crab among the entrées, a choice of interesting pasta (and other) main courses and sweet treats including macarons made by a Mullumbimby patisserie.

The Byron at Byron is a good base for a foodies tour into the hinterland where many suppliers welcome visitors to discover and taste on the premises. The resort can provide lots of suggestions and even offers a general tourist drive guide of sights worth seeing. Or there’s always complimentary yoga on the deck in the morning and a menu of spa treatments at the resort, many using native Australian plant ingredients to soothe the skin and soul.
It’s no wonder that Byron regulars say that two days there is as good as two weeks holiday anywhere else. I wholeheartedly agree.