Why Byron Bay and the Blue Mountains Should Be on Every Travelers' Must-visit List
I found myself lost in Blue Mountains National Park, and I hadn’t even left my hotel. For the first hour in the Hydro Majestic Hotel, a sumptuous Art Deco warren about 90 minutes west of Sydney, my hometown, I wandered wide-eyed from one theatrical setting to the next, taking in the glass-domed lobby and quirky murals from the 1920s that depict both medieval knights and outback safaris. But even amid the Gatsbyesque flourishes, it was the sweeping vistas of the Megalong Valley, considered the Grand Canyon of Australia and a key part of the Blue Mountains’ 3 million-plus acres of forest, that were the most captivating. Looking out at the atavistic expanse — which was, as the name promised, bathed in azure eucalyptus haze — I expected a pterodactyl to sweep into view.
The property, which spans more than half a mile along a rugged cliff edge, was the perfect starting point from which to explore a part of New South Wales that figures large in Australians’ vision of our vast, untamed continent. The first European settlers saw the raw terrain as an intimidating barrier, and it took 25 years to find a route through its labyrinthine bushland after Sydney was colonized in 1788. But in the Victorian era, “the Blueys” became the country’s first vacation destination — the Adirondacks of the antipodes. Sydneysiders in search of fresh air and open spaces began visiting its villages, with their odd English-sounding names such as Blackheath and Medlow Bath, where the Hydro Majestic was built. (In fact, explorer Captain James Cook gave the state its Anglocentric name, New South Wales, in 1770 because he thought its coast looked like the soggy shores of Wales.) Guests used the elegant hotels as launchpads for day hikes into pristine valleys, where the endless ancient forests were framed by sandstone cliffs and filled with kangaroos, wallabies, and iridescent cockatoos.
With such rich wildlife, it figures that the Australian conservation movement was born here in the early 1930s, when a group of bushwalkers raised money to buy their beloved Blue Gum Forest — situated within the now-national park’s Grose Valley — to save it from logging. “It shows what individual action can do,” said environmental activist Chris Darwin, the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, when I met him in his home in the foothills. “They created the seed of the national park, and it remains an inspiration.”
A few days after arriving, I channeled those feisty bushwalkers of the past and set out along the same trails that have been used for generations — first, a brisk descent to the iconic Three Sisters, a trio of crooked sandstone fingers that rise from the bush, then a three-hour trek into the Grose Valley, a route that was restored in 2017 and offers an instant immersion into the wild. Deeper in the Blue Mountains lie resorts that blend their eco-cred with luxury — none better than the award-winning Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley, which places as much weight on projects like planting 200,000 native trees as it does on comforts like private plunge pools and elaborate tasting menus.
The health of the natural world looms large in the Aussie psyche, as global warming has made the continent a bellwether of climate change. On my trip, the green messaging began in New York, where I moved in 1990. Aware that long-haul plane trips are part of the problem, Australia’s national airline, Qantas, has developed the aviation industry’s largest carbon offset program, with the funds going to environmental initiatives including replanting rainforests along the shore opposite the Great Barrier Reef to block fertilizer runoff from farms. This year, Qantas also broke new ground by offering frequent-flier miles to passengers who purchased offsets, and last May, it operated the world’s first “waste-free flight,” from Sydney to Adelaide, where every in-flight item was reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Even more ambitious: Qantas aims to cut its waste output by 75 percent by the end of 2021.
To complete my crash course in Aussie conservation, I hopped on a short flight north of Sydney to the Blue Mountains’ alter ego: Byron Bay. This once-remote surfing town not only boasts one of the most flawless beaches in New South Wales but also sits on the edge of a caldera where tropical and subtropical rainforests meet. Byron first achieved its place in Down Under mythology as the country’s hippie capital, filled with New Agers who wanted to devote themselves to crystals, yoga, and mind-altering substances. Then, in the late 1970s, when its idyllic hinterland became threatened by logging, the town’s radical energy seized newspaper headlines. It soon became the jumping-off point for protesters from all over Australia, who sabotaged chainsaws and lay in front of steamrollers.
Byron has mellowed since then. Now it’s best known as a home for Hollywood star and native son Chris Hemsworth. But as I drove into town, I found its hippie essence intact: the hand-carved wooden sign at the town entrance exhorts visitors to cheer up. slow down. chill out. and is followed by a flashing alert: be on the lookout for koalas — their habitat is disappearing. I checked in to a legendary boutique hotel called Raes on Wategos. It was the barefoot-beach answer to the Hydro Majestic, a gleaming white villa that, in 1994, was converted into a luxury inn with a vaguely Moroccan flair and is now freshly renovated. The seven-suite property is where the gods would go on vacation — or at least Keith Richards and Tom Cruise, both former guests. I opened my wraparound patio so I could be lulled by the crashing surf, then followed a coastal trail for 10 minutes to an open-air café, spotting humpbacks and dolphins cavorting along the way.
There I met local rangers Liz Dorgan and Matt Wiseman, who gave me a rundown of how the conservation struggles of the 70s led to the creation of a network of national parks in the rugged country around Byron, an area loosely known as the Northern Rivers. “It’s a biodiversity hot spot,” Dorgan enthused. “The caldera rises 3,600 feet, so you’ve got these spectacular escarpments, huge waterfalls, and, thanks to the rich volcanic soil, rain forests with rare trees like Antarctic beech.” They pointed me to the most accessible taste of raw wilderness for a day hike: Minyon Falls, in Nightcap National Park.
After a 90-minute drive past rural stores selling handmade red-velvet pants and local organic teas, I was bouncing along an unpaved mountain road through a tunnel of ferns and vines. Minyon Falls surges 330 feet over a cliff that was once part of an ancient volcano, and hiking down to its base led to a natural swimming pool filled with crystalline water, perfect for a purifying dip. The ascent was more of a workout, but just as Victorian hikers in the Blue Mountains would have retreated to the Hydro for high tea and scones, I headed back to Byron to settle into one of the casual restaurants with patios overlooking the Pacific. At sunset, no music was needed: it was enough to listen to the waves and watch the humpbacks at play.