Just Shy of Paradise: My Working Holiday in Byron Bay, Australia
Before I got there, I’d heard nothing but good things about Byron Bay. After three years of scraping by on minimum wage in New Zealand’s cold and windy capital, it was an easy sell: those subtropical beaches, laid-back surfer types, and big (well, comparatively) paychecks were calling me over.
So I applied for a working holiday visa from New Zealand, quit my job, and, with two of my closest Kiwi friends by my side, flew to Australia. I ended up living in Byron for seven months, and I loved it—but it wasn’t quite the relaxed seaside paradise I was promised.
Like most newcomers to the area, my friends and I started out living in a hostel.
Byron Bay is a small surf town on Australia’s idyllic east coast. Or at least, it’s small in winter—in summer the town swells with thousands of visitors of all ages and nationalities, packing the place full of tourists but also giving it a worldliness and diversity rare in rural Australia. Many of these visitors find themselves falling in love with the town and wanting to stay. Going from backpacker to local is hard work, but it can be done! This is how I managed it.
Like most newcomers to the area, my friends and I started out living in a hostel. The most popular hostels in town are boisterous affairs like the famous Arts Factory, but we chose somewhere a little mellower: Byron Beach Resort, a friendly little place half a mile from town. We were removed from the crowds, right on the beach, and quiet time was strictly enforced after eleven.
The hostel life in Byron is good fun and a great way to make friends, but, as summer approached, rooms filled and prices rose. When I found myself spending the night in a friend’s van because all the beds in town were full, I knew it was time for something more permanent. Houses in town got snapped up as soon as they were advertised, but if you’re flexible and persistent something will come along. I didn’t get to live with my friends, but I found a nice room in a sharehouse right next to the lush forests and secluded beaches of Arakwal Nature Reserve.
I didn’t commit to a house, however, until I was sure I’d have work. With so many travelers looking to stay in the area, Byron Bay has an extremely competitive job market. I spent my first few weeks in town walking around with a stack of CVs, asking everyone for a job. My personal rule was that if my savings dipped below a certain amount, I would leave and try a big city where work would be more easily available.
Luckily, my persistence paid off. I walked into a café the day a waitress quit, and I got hired. (In a place like Byron, timing is everything.) Two months later I was managing the place. This was a boon for me, but not so great for my predecessor, who was fired without warning over the phone. The transient nature of the town can bring out the worst in business owners—there’s little job security when your employer knows she can always find another backpacker to take your place.
Byron is an easy place to be healthy but also an easy place to go overboard.
This all may sound like more trouble than it’s worth, but there truly is something special about Byron. For one, it has a flourishing music and art scene, with regular artists’ markets and annual film and writers’ festivals. The streets in summer are full of busking musicians, and great blues and folk acts perform every night in town.
Then there’s the hippie side. Byron is home to a dozen yoga studios, an Ayurveda college, and healers specializing in everything from Craniosacral to hypnotherapy. There are vegetarian restaurants, co-ops and communes, and meditation retreats. Whatever alternative lifestyle you’re after, you can find it in Byron.
I, however, was there for the beaches, and they did not disappoint. I went to the beach every day—and I don’t even surf. In fact, was more than happy swimming in the cool water, sunbathing on the fine white sand, and watching out for whales and dolphins.
Because ultimately, Byron is all about the beach life. For many, life revolves around the best time and place to go surfing. That spirit carries into town as well: bare feet are common everywhere, as are bare shoulders, legs, midriffs…anything not covered by a swimsuit or the definition of public indecency.
With that image-obsessed culture, the crowds, and the ruthlessness of the job and housing markets, Byron Bay falls short of paradise.
I liked that about Byron: it’s an environment where bodies are free and celebrated. Unfortunately, all that skin does encourage a widespread fixation on physical perfection. Juice cleanses were popular and at the yoga studio I joined, teachers would regularly rave about how many calories we were burning and how skinny all this yoga was going to make us. (I stopped going.) Byron is an easy place to be healthy but also an easy place to go overboard.
With that image-obsessed culture, the crowds, and the ruthlessness of the job and housing markets, Byron Bay falls short of paradise. Still, my time as a local was wonderful. Once I made my way into the community, I found the vast majority of people generous, open, and free-spirited. Top-notch live music, great food and drink, and stunning beaches were never more than a bike ride away. And while I chose to spend the second half of my visa elsewhere, the friends I moved with are still in Byron, and show no signs of wanting to leave.
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Just Shy of Paradise: My Working Holiday in Byron Bay, Australia photo by Unsplash.