Snorkeling a few feet above a 150-year-old green sea turtle, the circumference of a Fiat 500, I can’t help but be completely captivated by its calm company. And it’s not the only aquatic marvel that has got me looking stupefied. A pod of dolphins greet me with a splash, and on the way back to the mainland of New South Wales. I watch whales somersaulting sayonara across the sea, all in the span of a short outing to Cook Island (Joong-urra-narrian).
A visit to the Tweed region—a pristine coastline of pastoral hamlets and national parks—lets me get close to what makes it special. Days are spent sailing through ancient rainforests and being humbled by aboriginal welcome ceremonies; sipping Ink gin—Australia’s original colour-changing spirit–and savouring fruit that tastes just like chocolate pudding at one-of-a-kind farms. What’s more, I spend my evenings at specialty hotels with spa services as soothing as the sunset kissing the stone’s-throw-away shoreline, eating at award-winning kitchens that garner the goodness growing in the volcanic red soil that spoils this naturally rich region.
THE STAY (foodie stop): More than a boutique property with bijou bedrooms and large prices, Raes on Wategos (raes.com.au)–a fetching spa hotel on Wategos Beach–distinguishes itself by dint of one of the most delightful degustation menus in Australia. Modeled by Executive Chef Jason Saxby, who made his métier in the Michelin restaurants of Europe, the dishes are a comprehensive mix of made-in-Australia produce, Mediterranean influence, and East Asian accents. Saxby leans on local producers to supply his kitchen to an extent that even the plates are homegrown, each set a six-month collaboration with a ceramist from the coastal community: indicative of the meticulousness that signals mealtime in the breezy, ocean-facing Raes Dining Room, best experienced by ordering the table d’hôte.
To start, an amuse bouche of raw, dry-aged Kangaroo– temptingly tender—rolled in a diaphanous pinkie-sized portion of a peking-style pancake, and topped with Tonnato—a velvety, Italian seafood sauce; quickly followed by the Sourdough Cornetto, an equally diminutive but delicious harbinger of the haute cooking ahead: a thin of sourdough cone crowned with a cluster of assorted caviars. Larger portions include the Market fish (in this case, mackerel) served alongside a Ballina Beach pipi tartare—small, sweet saltwater clams–in a smoked pipi white wine and garlic broth, infused with dashi ingredients like seaweed, reduced with cream, and blended with butter–a triumph of poissonnier work.
Such saucier skill also sets the tone for the spanner crab tomato tagliolini. The slender strands of pasta are coated in a bold as brass shellfish XO sauce, a full-circle homage to the Chinese influence on Italian cooking, its richness balanced by the acidity of the tomatoes, the sweet pepperiness of basil leaves, and creamy stracchino. The dish has the style of Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy, the crab meat capped with a mesh masquerade mask of crisp squid ink. Beyond seafood, try the Wagyu steak and braised beef cheek, cooked in sweet sherry with fermented black garlic and white garlic cream, finishing up with the Basque cheesecake served with a peppy quandong jam, and mandarin millefeuille. The entire tasting menu can be ordered vegetarian or vegan, along with wine pairings for each course. Raes’ Cellar Bar and Moroccan-tiled bath house are not to be missed.
THE DAY (foodie stop): The Farm Byron Bay (thefarm.com.au) is an outing with the uncanny ability to charm every member of the family. The 80-acre, 100 percent-spray-and-chemical-free property holds a collective of micro businesses that champion the heritage breeds and organic produce used and sold on the farm. There’s the Three Blue Ducks Restaurant, think Sunday Roast Dinners—the likes of low-roasted, pepper-crusted brisket, butternut pumpkin, and sourdough yorkshire pudding—and picnic hampers to eat on the property, along with a produce store holding local a trove of artisanal honey and cheeses; The Bread Social boasts freshly-baked sourdoughs and pastries, and gelato and sorbets are served at Baylato—think classic flavours next to award-winning pumpkin spice, macadamia, and stout gelatos—while prim flora is for sale at The Garden Shed.
After a bit of nosh and shopping, roam around the farm, peering into the sizable paddocks of portly heritage-breed pigs, fluffy Scottish Highland cattle, and Bond Brown chickens, traipsing past macadamia and pecan orchards, flower beds, and rotating crops. There’s a large playground for the kiddos, who may also be keen on participating in the morning feeding of the livestock, a behind-the-scenes guided tour on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and the horseback tour on weekdays.
THE STAY (foodie stop): Halcyon House (halcyonhouse.com.au) sits right off Cabarita Beach, a classic surfing motel converted into a specialty spa hotel. Step inside and walk into the award-winning restaurant, Paper Daisy, which sits across from the sparkling pool. Clusters of curated paintings cover the walls in a colourful salon-style hanging, sourced by the owners at flea markets across the world. The decor is swimming in soothing blue tones and beaut bistro chairs, the clean-cut atmosphere signaling the simple yet standout courses to come. Whether it’s the fresh mineral notes of Wallis Lake rock oysters, amped up with fennel and finger lime mignonette, or the Goldband snapper, served with a salad of sorrel, grilled fennel, and an herbaceous, citrus-centric salmoriglio, the mantra of the menu is uncomplicated style with complex substance: sustained by a swirl of quality, local ingredients.
Finish up with a round of French-style, Australian-made cheeses, which are superb, served with rye crackers and a dainty shard of honeycomb. Paper Daisy puts forward a fine selection of wine, but remember the Halcyon House Bar features the largest selection of Australian-made gin in the nation. A staggering collection of over 120 gins from 40 distilleries find themselves in house cocktails so sapidly convincing it’s hard not to contemplate snapping up their House of Gin Book, which provides hand-drawn illustrations and tasting notes for 200 gins that curvet off the page. Spa packages can be paired with lunch at Paper Daisy.
THE DAY (foodie stop): Flower-adorned tasting platters of elegantly-placed exotic fruits, which almost look like an exercise in ikebana, garner attention as the guide rattles off fun factoids. “Try the black sapote, which we call chocolate pudding fruit when it’s ripe. Unlike chocolate, unlike pudding, it has four times the vitamin C of an orange, virtually no fat or sugar, full of potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron.” Lo and behold, it actually looks and tastes like chocolate pudding, and it’s impossible not to take another bite—that’s Tropical Fruit World (tropicalfruitworld.com.au) in a nutshell, a 200-acre farm that makes you feel like you know nothing about fruit in the most refreshing way. Tropical Fruit World is a three-generation, family-run business, started by Robert and Valorie Brinsmead in the 1970s. They wanted to preserve the natural beauty and rainforest of the red soil hills in the caldera that surrounds Mount Warning (Wollumbin) by planting lots of avocado orchards along with the likes of custard apples, guavas, macadamias, and papaya–all while sowing other flora that would sustain the local fauna.
In 1983 Avocadoland opened—showcasing over a dozen varieties of Avocado—and today, as Tropical Fruit World, they nurture over five hundred types of fruit on the farm. In addition to sampling fruits in tasting sessions, jump on a tractor train and enjoy a Plantation Safari tour of the farm, hit their waterways on their Wildlife Boat Cruise, and meet kangaroos and emus at the Fauna Park. Also located on the property is Fins at Plantation House, an award-winning restaurant where diners revel in the culinary results of the fertile farmland, and Plantation Market, a sizeable brick-and-mortar selection of Tropical Fruit World’s products, from lemon myrtle dukkah, Davidson plum jam, and zestful papaya salt to their Tropocology line of Avocado-based moisturizers, serums, and oils.
THE STAY: Peppers Salt Resort & Spa (peppers.com.au/salt) is the go-to family get-away on Salt Beach, much larger than the other hotels listed, this Accor Group accommodation offers a wide range of rooms and apartments, along with the separate Bale Rooms, accommodating more space than the standard section. While its difference in size puts it in an alternative category from the other petite properties recommended, this hotel chain-take on boutique lodging puts forward a salubrious salt water lagoon and sizable swimming pool, as well as a luxury day spa with a wide array of treatments and facilities—including a salt room, infrared saunas, and LED light therapy.
THE DAY (foodie stop): Tweed Escapes (tweedescapes.com.au) is an experienced outfit at running river cruises and road tours throughout the Tweed. Their Tweed River experiences highlight the biodiversity and aboriginal heritage of the Tweed Valley, including private charters, self-drive pontoon boats, and Australia’s number one outdoor dining experience on the water, in collaboration with award-winning Blue Ginger Picnics—where every experience is a celebration over 30 local farmers, suppliers, and producers. Their newest offering is Fresh Water Yarning, an aboriginal-guided tour of the World Heritage Gondwana Rainforest Region, a must for those who yearn to learn the traditions and stories of the landscape and its indigenous peoples. For those who prefer to travel by land, opt for the Half-Day Craft Beer Discovery Tour of the Tweed or Treasures of the Tweed Hinterland–Food and Farm Tour.
Watersports Guru (watersportsguru.com) is the darling of guided water-based activities in Kingscliff, NSW. Be it paddle boarding and kayaking down Cudgen Creek or Cabarita Lake, the Wetlands offer a gorgeous glimpse into the biodiversity of the Tweed, while the snorkeling outing to Cook Island reveals Green, Hawksbill, and Loggerhead Turtles, as well as a rainbow of tropical and subtropical fish. The Big Three of the Sea offers a chance to see humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, and mongo sea turtles all in one go.
THE STAY (foodie stop): In Northern NSW majestic sea-facing manors are par for the course, but they all look a little different from the hilltop home of architecture-and-history-lovers Cliff and Susan Peiffer. The life-size replica of Fatehpur Sikri’s Jodha Bai Mahal, the famed palace of Akbar’s Rajput wife, doubles as an award-winning boutique hotel, Jodha Bai Retreat (jodhabairetreat.com). And this is no half-hearted homage, the eye-catching structure is a triumph of over 300 tonnes of hand-carved Indian red Sandstone, a testament to 13 years of execution and planning. The project was made possible by a colossal collaboration with Indian craftsmen–all the way down to small brass accents–help from the Peiffers’ four children, and the couple’s constant determination. And it’s no mere folly, for the undertaking began after Cliff was diagnosed with a rare illness, giving him six months to live; not only is the palace a project that motivated him to keep fighting, it was originally conceived as a representation of his love for his wife of Indian heritage.
The lavish setting holds two luxury suites with living room areas adjoining the bedrooms–the decor decked out in recherché rugs and masterfully-refurbished Indian woodwork, the porchside private Jacuzzis a terrific touch. Breakfast will be waiting for you whatever time you desire, best followed up by taking advantage of their spa amenities, which includes Champissage, known as the “Indian Head Massage.” However, the true treat is sipping on fine wine with Cliff and Susan over one of their Gourmet or Seafood Feasting Boards, the princely platters laden with the likes of gourmet cheeses and charcuterie along with garlic sautéed bay bugs (slipper lobster) and prawns. Though the must-have are tender grilled meats best paired with any of Cliff’s chilli sauces, for his understanding and appreciation of spice is only rivalled by his obsession with Mughal architecture.
THE DAY (foodie stop): In the verdant caldera surrounding the inactive volcano Mount Warning (Wollumbin) stands Husk Farm Distillery (huskdistillers.com), a family-run producer of the first Cultivated Australian Rum and the colour-changing Ink Gin: both made start to finish on the Messengers’ 150-acre farm. This distillery takes advantage of the lush sugar cane fields that have been growing in the region for well over a century, making small-batch, farm-to-bottle rums inspired by the agricole sipping rums of the Caribbean–that use fresh sugarcane juice instead of molasses. The high-quality sugar cane juice is immediately fermented, distilled in a custom Forsyth still (the only one in Australia), aged in oak, and bottled on the single estate where the sugar cane is grown, a tricky process that pays off on taste. All the sugar cane waste is eaten by the cattle on the farm.
The production of such single estate rum can only take place during the harvest season, from August to November, which is why the distillery diversified, trying their hand at a gin that would mirror the passion they pour into their rum. And they delivered. While the rum matures in the oak barrels that line the Viking hall of a barrel room, they craft their Ink Gin, an instant favourite, with notes of juniper along with the likes of locally grown lemon myrtle leaf, angelica root, Tasmanian pepper berry, and sun-dried orange peel. In the post distillation process, the gin is infused with sustainably grown pea flowers from a single source in Thailand for 24 hours, which gives the gin its deep blue hue. The flowers’ sensitive pH means the gin changes colour when mixed with tonic or water—the hue mellowing to the gentle tones of orchid flowers.
To truly take advantage of Husk Distillers, make a day of it, book a table or a lawn umbrella and stretch out in the lovely green lawn in front of the Cellar Door, Husk Distillers’ outlet for good-looking grazing boards and craft cocktails. After soaking up the sun, opt for any one of their tours, full of experiences like a guided tasting of Ink Gin, a rum tasting flight in the Barrel House, a behind-the-scenes tour of the distillery where you’ll see Australia’s only Forsyth still, learn how to make the Caribbean’s Ti-Punch or signature cocktails like their Ink Sloe Fizz.
Also Read | 48 Hours: Sydney Springs to Life
Travel direct on Qantas Airlines’ new daily connection between Bengaluru and Sydney. The NSW capital is well-connected to the Tweed Coast’s Ballina-Byron Gateway Airport, operating multiple daily flights. Outfits such as Byron Bay Luxury Transfers (byronbayluxurytransfers.com.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.