Why you should care

Free massages and barbecues, hot surfers and easy weed: Ready to pack your bags?

It sounds like heaven: a gorgeous, small seaside town where people are kind and you can do yoga while watching the sunrise. An authentic little bubble of tranquility — the type that barely seems to exist anymore. Byron Bay, a small town on the coast of New South Wales, Australia, comes pretty close to utopia. Endless white beaches? Check. Turquoise waters? Check. Music? Check. Friendly dolphins? Check. Hot surfers? Double check.

But what makes Byron Bay unique is it chilled-out vibe. “It really feels like a bubble,” explains Jon Serrano, a 31-year-old Spanish backpacker who was “just passing by” for a night or two and ended up staying for weeks. “It’s such a positive atmosphere and the people are so great, it’s almost addictive,” he says. Hostel owners have been known to offer jobs to backpackers who run out of money, and there’s often a free massage on offer. As the sun sets, locals gather at the beach. Picture guitars, wine and barefoot dancing.

With everyone smiling so much, it can seem slightly eerie at first. Maybe it’s the weed.

It all seems a bit too good to be true. With everyone smiling so much, it can seem slightly eerie at first. Maybe it’s the weed. Byron Bay is close to Nimbin, an Australian Amsterdam of sorts, where, even though it’s technically illegal, cannabis is bought and sold openly. Police turn a blind eye. Surfers come from all corners of the world to enjoy the Pacific waves; boards can be rented at most hostels, and schools offer courses for newbies. It’s only for those who don’t mind sharks, of course. The far North Coast can be a dangerous place to surf; there have been two recent shark attacks, and one of them was fatal.

Still, the distant threat of a violent watery death is not enough to keep young backpackers away. And it’s not only surf vagabonds or roving hippies that fall prey to Byron’s charm. The small town is also a popular destination for young creatives from Melbourne and retired multimillionaires. Before long, Byron Bay could turn into a trendy commercial hot spot, with higher real estate costs and more people who actually wear shoes. Next thing you know, dance music will replace reggae.

“Prices have really gone up,” says Michael Murray, who’s been a real estate agent at Byron Property Search for 30 years. Buyers are concerned that things might change for the worse in terms of culture, he adds: “There are already more Land Rovers and less Kombi vans.” Byron Bay has now the second-highest median house price in Australia after Sydney: An ordinary three-bedroom, two-bath house in the town center nudges $780,000.

Luckily for broke backpackers, more than a dozen hostels offer cheap rooms and free outdoor barbecues. So, at least for now, this corner of Australia is maintaining the delicate balance between authenticity and popularity. Will Byron Bay avoid being loved to death? Maybe — as long as journalists don’t start telling everyone about it.

Oh, darn it.

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