Swap Byron Bay for Yamba for laidback charm without the superstar attitude

Hit the waters off Turner Beach. Picture: Destination NSW
Hit the waters off Turner Beach. Picture: Destination NSW

Head to the coastal idyll of Yamba for all the laidback charm of mega-popular Byron Bay with none of the superstar attitude, writes Rose Jacobs. Shh! It's our little secret.

The movie stars and wannabe hipsters may still be flocking to the tried-and-tested hangout of Byron Bay, but New South Wales has a new coastal hotspot that Chris Hemsworth and Zac Efron are yet to lure the paparazzi to. Say hello to the lovely, laidback, sun-kissed shores of Yamba.

As you turn off the Pacific Highway onto the welcoming stretch of Yamba Road that leads east towards Yamba's town centre, you'll pass palm trees, sugar cane crops and sleepy little inlets of the Clarence River along the way. While technically you're still in far northern NSW, there's a distinct Queensland feel to this landscape.

The sun shines hot year-round, saturating colours as if turning your vision into an old summer holiday polaroid photo. Crank the car radio and cruise in on the main road of town. It's not hard to find... there are really only two or three buzzing streets in total, dotted with cafes, burger joints, bakeries, real estate agents and surf boutiques.

The beauty of Yamba is not in what's there... but rather, what's not there. There are no ultra-trendy bars and clubs, no lines to get into restaurants and no over-dressed hipsters scanning each other from head to toe. This is the place where anything goes, flip-flops are as dressed up as you'll get and its perfectly acceptable to wander into the real estate agents wearing your bathers with sandy feet.

Now after you've got your bearings, the true gem of Yamba is on the shoreline. The beaches are pristine, seemingly endless, lined with holiday homes and surrounded by national parks. The result is a holiday where you'll never feel crowded, where every patch of sand feels like the best spot on earth, the water is warm and the waves perfect for all ages. Nearby, there are plenty of dog-friendly beaches and loads of stunning lookouts.

A trip to Yamba wouldn't be complete without a visit to the iconic Pacific Hotel. Perched proudly atop the highest cliff point overlooking the main beach, the Pacific is like a grand old dame of Aussie seaside architecture. She's nothing fancy, but with her curved white concrete walls and giant glass windows looking out from the bar and dining room, these are arguably some of the best seats in any pub in Australia.

The accommodation at the hotel isn't flash but the views are five-star. Waking up to the orange sunrise drifting across the blue ocean outside your window is priceless. And the rates are pleasantly surprising, starting from $70 per night.

If you're after something a little bigger, more private or built for groups or families, then there's a selection of Airbnb rentals and privately owned beach houses around Yamba. The local design style is mostly breezy, with natural materials, large windows, sweeping verandas and lush gardens. And if you don't have ocean views, you'll be no more than a five-minute walk away.

For a romantic couple's retreat, then Clubyamba is the adults-only option for you. It has outdoor spa tubs, a five-star rating and balconies with views, perfect for a sunset glass of bubbles. It's easy walking distance to restaurants.

When you holiday in Yamba, forget about entertaining yourself with theme parks, crowded tourist attractions and expensive tours. The natural beauty of the region is where you'll discover your fun. The Yamba River Markets attract a relaxed crowd every fourth Sunday of the month with live music and local produce. The landmark Yamba Lighthouse still commands your attention when taking a stroll around the headland. Kids will love a day trip to pat some farm animals at Cardiff Alpacas in nearby Harwood. And for a very special way to cool off on a hot day, head to the nearby natural spring water swimming hole, the Angourie Blue Pool.

Much like the accommodation and activities around Yamba, the dining scene is also unpretentious and built around the natural environment. As you can imagine, seafood is therefore one of Yamba's standout cuisines.

The sky's the limit - stargazing off Yamba Main Beach. Picture: Destination NSW

The sky's the limit - stargazing off Yamba Main Beach. Picture: Destination NSW

Run by a third-generation local fishing family, Sandbar is by far the pick of the town. The cafe/restaurant in a ramshackle old seaside hut features a seasonal menu that is just as good whether it's breakfast, lunch or dinner. Seriously, try and choose between the caramelised banana, bacon and ice cream on cinnamon-spiced French toast topped with candied maple syrup; or for lunch, the creamy garlic Yamba prawns; and dinner, panko-crumbed local whiting.

For something a little more ritzy, then The Italian on the Hill is a must. Serving authentic Italian handmade pasta with fresh local seafood and wood-fired pizzas, this place is a crowd-pleaser.

And a personal favourite (since we are on holiday in Yamba no less and it is a rite of passage), local fish-and-chippie the Clarence River Fishermen's Co-Op. Order a kilo of prawns - the locals say a trip to Yamba doesn't count unless you've had a fresh prawn roll. And once you've had one, I'm sure you'll agree.

For the kids, the highlight is the Yamba Icecreamery. Warning: these creamy delights are highly addictive. But then again, after a few days in Yamba you'll start to think the entire experience is addictive. Before you know it, you'll be strolling barefoot down the main street, sand on your feet and saltwater in your hair, a bag of fresh prawns in one hand, a dripping ice cream in the other and a contented smile on your lips. Oh, and if you spot the Hemsworths or the Efrons anywhere near the place, just smile and point them in the opposite direction please. And definitely don't let them try one of your prawns.

Drive: The drive from Sydney to Yamba is roughly seven hours, plus a few rest stops. From Brisbane it's a quick three-and-a-half hours straight down the coast.

Fly: For a quick escape, flights are just over an hour from Sydney to nearby Ballina airport and run regularly. Prices vary but are often as little as $150 one way, even during school holidays. Hire cars are available from Ballina airport as well as shuttle buses to Yamba.

Explore more: myclarencevalley.com

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