Come rain or shine
Elizabeth Meryment enjoys the simple family pleasures of northern NSW’s Lennox Head
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.
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.
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