More than lawn bowls and retirement homes, this hidden gem just 25 minutes from Byron Bay embodies the laidback lifestyle of far northern NSW.
The setting sun has cast the Richmond River ablaze in golden light; the last fishing trawler makes its way out to sea. As I grab my camera to capture the fleeting moment, a rogue seagull snatches the last morsel of fish from my dinner.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack for a moment.
I’m in Ballina, a coastal town which has had a long connection to the fishing industry. It was once even the third-busiest port in New South Wales. Somewhere over the years though, it’s garnered a reputation as the home of a different kind of community: retirees.
Lawn bowls and retirement homes are what most of us associate with the Ballina of today, yet there’s a lot more to this town than mobility scooters and freshly ironed whites.
Ballina is, in my new opinion, the hidden jewel of the far north coast.
Though I’ve visited many times in the past, it’s never been longer than a few hours at best. Mostly just passing through. Wanting to change that, I decided to book a spontaneous long weekend getting to know the real Ballina.
Checking into the The Cubana, Ballina
My motel of choice, The Cubana, instantly caught my attention as a fan of accommodation that breaks out of the cookie-cutter mould. Its bold colour scheme and vintage styling, like a roadside motel in Palm Springs, is kitsch, quirky and would have been criminal not to book.
After a scan of the room and mental note to grab a drink from the pop-up bar caravan by the pool at some point over the weekend, I venture out to get the show on the road.
One of the first things that hits you about Ballina is its natural beauty. It’s breathtaking, and it’s not just focused on the mangrove-lined Richmond River. The beaches here are equally stunning – and they’re almost completely deserted!
A smoothie pit-stop at The Belle General later, I head over to Lighthouse Beach for a walk along the breakwall. While admiring the skill of the local surfers, a talent I sadly don’t possess, I strike up a chat with a couple who suggest taking the ferry to South Ballina and four-wheel driving down the beach to Evans Head on an outgoing tide. Unsure if my rental agreement would allow it, I thank them for the tip, but the idea spins in my mind like wheels stuck in too-soft sand. Something to investigate tomorrow, maybe?
Whale watching off the coast of Ballina
Checking my watch, I realise it’s almost time to meet the team from Out of the Blue Adventures at the Lance Ferris Wharf – right down the other end of town.
Making it with literally minutes to spare (sorry for the parking job, inspector) I climb aboard the purpose-built 20-seater boat and we soon set off for our two-hour whale watching exploration.
From this angle, bobbing over the wake of passing tinnies, the scale of the Richmond is clear – this is no mere creek. Twelve tributaries flow into the mighty river as it weaves for 394 kilometres from the McPherson Range in South East Queensland’s Scenic Rim.
Ballina’s location and proximity to the East Australian Current (EAC) running along the coast make it prime whale watching territory. Witnessing these gentle giants of the deep up close, seeing their power as they thrust out of the water, is a moment I’ve waited a lifetime for.
Our captain, Dean, has lived in the Northern Rivers for years. You can feel his passion and respect for the area as he points out local landmarks, idles the engine as curious dolphins surface nearby, and when his eagle eyes spot the fine spray of approaching humpbacks.
He laughs in understanding when I mention the town’s reputation for retirement but says that’s slowly starting to change. People are now catching on to how good Ballina is; the lifestyle, the accessibility and the natural beauty. I think I’m becoming one of them.
Sampling the local seafood
Mooring back at the wharf, delicious smells wafting from Wharf Bar & Restaurant directly in front of us, I suddenly feel very hungry. Never one to pass up an opportunity to try seafood caught fresh that day, I order some takeaway fish’n’chips to enjoy down on the edge of the wharf.
Watching the fishing fleet pass by like salmon migrating upstream, the now-setting sun casting its golden light across the river, I’m struck by how perfect the moment is. Perhaps I’ve been too hard on Ballina – it’s not all retirees and lawn bowlers.
As the last of the trawlers putter towards me, I can see the perfect photo coming into alignment. Removing my lens cap, I quickly line up the shot, the click of the shutter giving me a sense of relief I didn’t miss it.
And then it happens.
A swift breeze whips my arm, taking my eye off the camera to see the last of my dinner flying across the river in the beak of a plucky seagull. My stomach sinks with devastation… but I hope he enjoys it as much I was about to.
Though this is just the first of my two nights, I can already see how this visit is going to end. There will be beaches, there will be cafés and, when in Rome, I’m pretty sure there will be barefoot bowls and a few pints, too.
Needless to say, I’m already bowled over by Ballina – and will be back.