I had one goal for my first surf lesson: to stand up on the board—just once. I’ve always been fascinated by surfers, who seem to be at home in the water and able to read the currents well enough to ride them with grace. So, last fall when I traveled to Australia, where surfing is the national pastime, I had to give it a try.
I decided to book a lesson on my first full day in the beach town of Byron Bay, but my companions tried to talk me out of it: The water looked too rough for a beginner, and the wind was pretty gusty, too. Maybe they were right. Even on land, I’m not the most graceful person. Most of the surfers I’d seen in Australia were buff, tanned guys with sun-bleached hair who’d probably advanced as babies straight from crawling to surfing; they weren’t pale, uncoordinated American girls like me. But, I didn’t fly 10,000 miles to sunbathe on some of the world’s top surf beaches.
When I called the Byron Bay Surf School, one of the surf instructors assured me I would be fine. Byron is surrounded by the Pacific on three sides, and the surfing is always good on at least one of the beaches. His confidence and cheerfulness made it easy for me say “yes” to a lesson. My instructor, Conor Duffy, outfitted me with a board and a wetsuit, and then we drove to Cosy Corner, a sheltered beach where the waves were big but manageable. Within 15 minutes I was standing on the board, in awe that my body was actually able to do what my mind had only imagined earlier. I was exhausted after two hours, but I had a massage and dinner at a local organic restaurant lined up to replenish myself for the next day.
The happiest place on earth
Although I’d never heard of Byron Bay before planning my trip, the town holds a prominent place in Australia’s national psyche. It’s the easternmost point in Australia, the first place in the country the sun’s rays hit each morning. It’s like the coast of California—minus 50 years of development, plus a subtropical rainforest. Wallabies and flying foxes inhabit its forests; whales, dolphins, and other marine animals live or migrate through its lucent waters. Locally dubbed an “ecotopia,” Byron Bay is a haven for adventure and eco-travelers, with surfing, sea kayaking, whale watching, horseback riding, and hang-gliding just a few of the options available.
But there’s more to it than that. There’s a general consensus among Australians that Byron is special—a positive, healing place with an almost magnetic pull. Earlier in Sydney, when I mentioned to a local tour guide that I was going to Byron, her eyes lit up. “Byron the happiest place on earth,” she said matter-of-factly. “The ground there is filled with volcanic obsidian rock that exudes a healing, supernatural energy that you can feel.” At first I thought she was a bit of a loopy New Ager, but nearly every Aussie I spoke with before I reached Byron agreed that the town possesses some kind of conductive energy that just makes you feel good.
My skepticism melted away when I arrived. Byron does have a New Age feel, for sure—the local paper is full of ads for services ranging from 100 different types of massage to “divine light” bodywork—but nearly all the locals, from teenage surfers to middle-aged ladies out shopping, seemed happy and calm. Many of the people I met had left high-stress city jobs to move there. Some had come for vacation and simply never left.
“People come here to change their lives, heal their bodies, minds, and spirits, drop out from corporate culture and get down with alternative living,” says Cheryl Styles, one of Byron’s long-term asylum-seekers. “I still remember the first time I saw Byron was 1975. The sun was rising, the hills were olive green, the ocean clear aqua blue, and the sun was a shimmering orange and pink vision on the horizon. Thirty two years on and Byron still takes my breath away.”
For active visitors, especially women, the locals’ friendliness, positive thinking, and holistic approach to living is contagious, making it easy to try new activities and then pamper yourself afterwards. Most everyone in Byron looks fit and athletic, but the overly competitive, intimidating atmosphere that exists in some adventure destinations is absent. I might never have tried surfing had it not been for my instructor’s unwavering belief that I could do it, even if the waves were big and I had no experience.
It’s normal for visitors to try something “extreme,” like hang-gliding, in the morning, eat lunch at an organic cafe in town, then take a yoga class or get acupuncture in the afternoon before hitting the pubs in the evening. And I met a lot of solo women travelers from all age groups who came just to try something new on their own.