Come rain or shine

El­iz­a­beth Mery­ment en­joys the sim­ple fam­ily plea­sures of north­ern NSW’s Len­nox Head

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

MUST be the god of rain. Or at least the god­dess of rain, if I weren’t al­ready a do­mes­tic god­dess. Be­cause when­ever I go on hol­i­days, it rains. Whole weeks might pass in which I’m stuck at some beau­ti­ful re­sort town lan­guish­ing in­side play­ing round af­ter round of canasta or sit­ting through sec­ond-rate Jen­nifer Anis­ton films over a can­is­ter of soggy pop­corn.

At Len­nox Head, just south of By­ron Bay in far north­ern NSW, how­ever, it hasn’t been rain­ing. As we drive into this sea­side town that has long been a sleepy sec­ond-comer to its fa­mous neigh­bour, the sun is beat­ing down with re­lent­less ur­gency.

The aca­cias on the me­dian strip are singed, the frangipani trees droop fra­grant petals to the earth and on the play­ing field be­side our ho­tel, the grass has turned into what looks like crunchy brown wrap­ping pa­per. But two days af­ter we ar­rive, the chil­dren hav­ing ex­hausted them­selves in the swim­ming pool, the heav­ens open. It rains, and rains. The tem­per­a­ture plunges and the chil­dren are stuck on the ho­tel bal­cony lick­ing drips off the ends of palm fronds.

Panic sets in. We load the fam­ily into the car for a drive to nearby Bal­lina to check out the Big Prawn. Through the down­pour, this un­for­tu­nate, over­sized crus­tacean looks ut­terly be­lea­guered and we de­cide not to pull in, turn­ing around in­stead to stop at the North­ern Rivers Seafood fish shop for a kilo of fresh lo­cal king prawns.

It’s amaz­ing how a good feed can re­store spir­its. As we sit on our sod­den bal­cony peel­ing th­ese de­li­cious lit­tle crea­tures, caught overnight in the clean wa­ters straight off the coast, and as fresh, sweet and deca­dently salty as any­thing I’ve eaten, we some­how find the rain restora­tive.

By late af­ter­noon, the clouds be­gin to clear and we tramp down to the beach, where the sand has turned hard and the tide has washed in an abun­dance of seal­ife: sea­weeds gi­ant and tiny, in pinks, browns, greens and yel­lows, crabs in­hab­it­ing curly shells, bar­na­cles cling­ing to drift­wood, tan­gles of blue­bot­tles, blobs of translu­cent jel­ly­fish and, most in­cred­i­bly, hun­dreds of starfish in var­i­ous shades of dusty red, aqua, olive and brown.

Along with a cou­ple of hardy fish­er­men and some enor­mous and el­e­gant pel­i­cans, we stay at the wa­ter’s edge un­til the breeze fresh­ens up, col­lect­ing shells, de­light­ing at the tin­gling sen­sa­tion of starfish suck­ers on our fin­gers and chas­ing seag­ulls.

For fam­i­lies, we re­alise, there could hardly be a bet­ter beach than this. Not only is it safe and al­most har­bour­like, it’s teem­ing with seal­ife. Surfers in wet­suits swim along­side dol­phins off the point, fish­er­men pull bream, flat­head and glis­ten­ing lit­tle whit­ing from the sea, chil­dren play along­side seabirds on the sand dunes.

On the south­ern end of the beach, in a spot known lo­cally as the Moat, a mini-reef pro­vides shel­ter for thou­sands of semi-trop­i­cal fish. On a sunny day af­ter the rain clears, we don snorkelling gear. Less than 20m off­shore, in 1m-deep wa­ter, we wit­ness an in­cred­i­ble ar­ray of marine crea­tures, in­clud­ing two small, sand­coloured st­ingrays, a re­luc­tant oc­to­pus and a huge school of whit­ing. Tiny black-and-white striped fish flash and dart in the rock­pools while her­mit crabs peep out of their shells.

The town­ship of Len­nox has other plea­sures, too. It’s the sort of quiet haven that hol­i­day­mak­ers used to seek at By­ron Bay. Un­like By­ron, though, which sprawls ever out­wards and is in­creas­ingly over­run with chain stores, Len­nox is eas­ily tra­versed in about 15 min­utes.

And al­though it’s small, the num­ber of qual­ity venues is cer­tainly on the rise, with new bou­tiques such as swimwear shop SeaPop­pies, and spas, in­clud­ing In­ner Beauty, of­fer­ing a touch of coastal glam­our. A plethora of good eat­ing op­tions are also spring­ing up. There are some great fam­ily eater­ies and our favourite soon be­comes Pan­cho Villa Mex­i­can (1/62 Bal­lina St), which has some top fam­ily food. There is also a pleas­ant, if small, din­ing scene. Provi­dore (6/90 Bal­lina St) is a good-qual­ity deli out­let sell­ing lo­cal and im­ported cheeses, meats, olive oils, pas­tas, fresh cakes and, ac­cord­ing to lo­cals, the best cof­fee in town.

O-pes (7/90 Bal­lina St) is a funky space with an ad­ven­tur­ous ta­pas-in­spired menu. The food ranges from

Chic venue with a view: Qu­at­tro restau­rant

Pretty in pink: Play­time on Seven Mile Beach Thai-style eggnet sal­ads to eye-fil­let steaks. Prices are about $15 for ta­pas plates, or $30 for mains, and the cook­ing, ser­vice and cock­tails are all good.

For a lazy, scenic break­fast by the sea, Qu­at­tro (90-92 Bal­lina St) is the pick. Along with O-pes, this chic venue is in a lovely new build­ing that boasts an as­pect of the beach, across the road and past the pan­danus trees. With an eclec­tic fitout that suc­cess­fully melds green vel­veteen so­fas, wooden ta­bles, white din­ing chairs, huge bunches of lilies and shiny wall­pa­per, it has a breezy, fash­ion­able feel. The menu, which turns Ital­ian af­ter dark, is ap­peal­ing. A brunch of French toast with ba­nana and berries, home­made bub­ble and squeak, cof­fee and freshly squeezed wa­ter­melon and pineap­ple juice is balm for the soul.

It’s true that Len­nox can­not boast By­ron’s spec­tac­u­lar phys­i­cal beauty, but it does have its own nat­u­ral charms, in­clud­ing the thick, chunky head­land that gives the place its name. It’s a sur­pris­ingly easy walk down a coastal track to the point and up the head for a beau­ti­ful view of the sea and the lush North­ern Rivers hin­ter­land for which this area is famed.

There are plenty of in­ter­est­ing drives to un­der­take from here, too. The thriv­ing vil­lage of Ban­ga­low, about 20 min­utes north­west, has an abun­dance of hip cafes, bou­tiques, kids’ shops and home­wares stores, as well as a nat­u­ral rain­for­est walk. It’s also charm­ingly scenic.

By­ron, of course, is about the same dis­tance north, and Kingscliff, with its enor­mous and trendy hous­ing and ho­tel de­vel­op­ments (Salt and Ca­sua­r­ina among them), is a fur­ther 20 min­utes north along the coast road from there. Bal­lina, to the south of Len­nox, is a nice re­gional hub, as is Lis­more to the west.

But the drives are only a plus, for it’s enough to stay put and en­joy the wa­tery ac­tiv­i­ties right here. On one of our last days in Len­nox, the wind comes bear­ing down on us from the north, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to en­joy the beach. At a loss, we de­cide to check out Lake Ainsworth, a large, fresh­wa­ter body of wa­ter po­si­tioned just north of the town­ship.

Here, away from the windy beach, the af­ter­noon is glo­ri­ous, with golden light sparkling on the lake. Cour­tesy of the tea trees that line the shore, the fresh wa­ter is stained black, so much so that we can’t see our feet in the shal­lows. As we’re pad­dling knee deep, a group of lo­cal teenagers turns up to fool around on a long piece of rope hang­ing from the branch of a huge gum tree dan­gling over the wa­ter.

We linger as the teens push off the rope, hoot­ing and yelp­ing as they splash into the lake. Their laugh­ter ric­o­chets across the golden ex­panse of the af­ter­noon as we cheer and pass out scores on their per­for­mance. As far as good, clean fam­ily en­ter­tain­ment goes, it doesn’t get bet­ter than this, rain or shine.

Check­list

Len­nox Head is 10 min­utes from Bal­lina in far north­ern NSW. Bal­lina is served by Vir­gin Blue and Jet­star from Syd­ney and in­ter­state ports. More: www.vis­itnsw.com; www.tourism­bal­lina.com.au.

Pic­ture: El­iz­a­beth Mery­ment

Nat­u­ral charms: The head­land that gives Len­nox Head its name; an easy walk to the top re­wards with a splen­did view of the sea and the lush North­ern Rivers hin­ter­land

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