“There’s no instinct like that of the heart” – Lord Byron
Some places just have something about them that compels you to go. You can tell before you visit by the way people talk about them with with nostalgia and heart. Byron is definitely one of those places for many and draws people there for the chilled surf vibe, focus on wellness and spirituality. It’s a great place to unwind and look inwards.
Years ago when I lived in England I heard of this special place, Byron Bay in Australia. While planning to move to Australia my sister enthusiastically told me about an episode of Grand Designs where a couple built a house in Byron, and how great it looked.
When you actually visit the ‘hyped’ place, the high expectation can either lead to disappointment, or compel you to make extra effort to seek out the detail, find the heart of the place, go off the beaten track. After all, everyone experiences a place differently through their own filter.
With Byron, it was clearly once different, perhaps more authentic and less commercial. It’s now a world-renowned destination. But I don’t think it’s lost its magic. From the first time I visited in winter 2014 to my recent trip this summer, I felt something special about it. I think it’s a combination of the gorgeous tropical nature and the people who are drawn there to live and visit. The beaches are sandy and long, surrounded by lush green tropical bush. There’s a real community spirit in Byron and the surrounding towns and hinterland. A culture for sustainability, wellness, consciousness, mindfulness, spirituality and self-development.
I was drawn to Byron again this year for a change from city life. I hoped the chilled Byron vibe would rub off on me after a stressful few weeks. I’d been working hard without much time off, spending most free time furnishing and decorating the new apartment, and adapting to living with a partner again after moving in with Bobby unearthed some tensions. We had got into a negative mode with each other and started projecting our shit onto one another.
I needed time away from the city, I craved more green, some time and space to be alone and reflect. I’m often compelled to travel when I’m contemplating things deeply, especially with relationships. I felt Byron was the tonic I needed to reconnect with myself. The nature, the feeling, the focus on healing and reflection, wellness and adventure. There’s yoga, meditation, massage, and all sorts of wellness and health classes, workshops and retreats all over Byron. Health food shops, hippies, celeb mansions…
Driving through lush green bushland on the way from the airport I started to relax. The place is so beautiful. I was excited about 5 days in new surroundings after looking forward to it for weeks.
However, on arriving at my Air BnB it wasn’t the tranquil retreat I’d hoped for. The studio was just off a busy road. The place felt oppressive and I became anxious as soon as I got there. I am very noise-sensitive. I contacted the owner who assured me it was quiet at night and I felt better.
But at night loud motorbikes and trucks kept me awake and I slept terribly. Despite my best efforts at seeing the positives, I started feeling stressed and misled as I’d been told it was quiet. Maybe by some people’s standards it would be, but the road was clearly audible and my frustration built. They had provided bicycles but when I used them I found they were dangerous – one was missing a seat and the other had breaks that barely worked. The care and attention to detail wasn’t there.
It was such a shame that despite my beautiful surroundings I just couldn’t relax at the Air BnB. It was probably a reflection of the stress I’d felt recently and my hopes that it would just dissolve on arrival were naive. I realised I need to do a lot more work on dealing with anxiety when it arises.
Byron really is like paradise. Cycling round the pretty streets with beautiful houses and exotic gardens in glorious summer sun I felt so lucky. I filled my days with activities – walking up to the lighthouse, cycling, healthy brunches, swimming, yoga (at the wonderful Byron Yoga Centre), massage, joining a huge human yoga mandala at the launch party of Byron spirit fest… Hoping the activity would relax me, help find answers and clarify things in my mind. Yet as is often the case when travelling, the joy at my surroundings at times clashed with internal turmoil and over-thinking about relationship issues.
After a couple of terrible night’s sleep I negotiated a refund for the remaining few days with the owner. I moved to a new Air BnB which was FAR nicer. It was an annexe next to a pool in a quiet cul-de-sac and had a lovely feel to it. Lots of thoughtful little touches made me feel welcome. It was amazing what a difference changing location made to my happiness.
Wherever you go, there you are
I couldn’t help reflecting though that moving accomodation was like the easy option. Perhaps I could have resolved my attitude towards the original place, meditated, changed my mindset from one of being on edge, feeling misled and anxious to seeing the best in it.
To a large extent your external experience is a reflection of how you process and filter the world. I found myself comparing the Air BnB experience to relationships. While changing the external situation might temporarily make things easier, the core issues remain unless you address them.
I went to Byron to relax and reflect yet wanted to see and do everything. I find that unless I’m on an island without much to see and do, it’s very hard to kick back and relax. A change of scene is a great way to shift your mindset though, even if it’s not the rest and relaxation craved. Perhaps really the best time to deeply contemplate things is at home with stillness, acceptance and avoiding overthinking. You can’t force yourself into a mindset by changing location.
“Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”
– Neil Gaiman
Surfing through my fear of waves
Byron is the place to surf, so I did a half day surfing lesson with Byron Soul Surf School. 14 years after the first and only time I tried surfing at Bondi Beach long before I ever knew I’d live here.
A combination of swimming experiences in recent years lead me to develop a fear of waves. Notably being unexpectedly engulfed in a wave in Goa in 2012. Then at sunrise on Bondi Beach, New Year’s Day 2015 swimming out beyond the breakers and beyond my ability. But I’ve worked through the fear a lot in recent weeks thanks to Bobby coaxing me into the sea most days this summer.
There are many analogies that can be drawn between waves and a spiritual journey; diving under a wave is like overcoming fear and trusting you’ll come through the other side ok. I often linked my fear of waves to my need to become more accepting of life’s ups and downs. I had a feeling that once I finally faced the fear and surfed it would be a breakthrough in my emotional and spiritual journey. It was a great thing to do and I’m proud of myself. But I know it’s the start of a longer journey.
Often places with a surf culture have ‘hippyish’ traits such as spirituality and wellness which seem to go hand in hand with surfing. I guess because surfers need to be present and appreciative of nature, respect the force of the ocean, their own fragility and be entirely present and focussed to avoid being pummelled by the waves. So this spills over to all aspects of life.
Anyway, I wanted to share a taster of my experience of Byron this time round, and hopefully inspire you to follow that feeling to travel when you need to shift perspective and reflect. I’ve rarely regretted a trip anywhere. But remember it might not be what you expected, so be open to what it brings. Philosopher Alain De Botton describes what I’m trying to say much more eloquently:
“The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”
― Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
Read my top must-see places to eat and things to do here 5 Days in Byron.