2020 saw the rise of Generation Exit: young professionals fleeing big cities for cool coastal hamlets and country towns. Journalist and author Alley Pascoe was one of them, swapping Sydney for the lush lands of Bellingen on the NSW mid-north coast. “I grew up in Bello and have recently returned there to live out my prodigal daughter dreams,” she says, before sharing her insider tips for the area (they’re personality-packed and better than any guidebook, trust us). The town – which sits almost smack-bang in the middle of Sydney and Brisbane – blends a bohemian vibe with bucolic landscapes. And when everyone else is flocking to Byron, Bello will be your own pastoral paradise.
“Alright, this is more of an ‘explore’ than a walk, but you can make up for lack of kilometres by working on your breaststroke in the Never Never Creek. Head out to the Promised Land and you’ll never never want to leave (see what I did there?). Pack your swimmers, a good book and watch out for bullrouts.”
Promised Land Road
“Go for the Will and Co coffee, stay for the hotcakes covered in shaved coconut and strawberries or the eggs benedict made with locally laid eggs, locally smoked ham and, you guessed it, locally baked organic sourdough bread. This cafe on the main drag is the perfect spot to sit in the shade and watch the world go by. Fair warning: don’t freak out and ask Xavier Rudd for a selfie. It’s probably not Xavier Rudd, just someone that looks a lot like him. Don’t worry, he gets it all the time.”
7F Church St
“This newly opened Mexican cantina is the place to be in Bello. Order a margarita and the ceviche and sit back for an afternoon of pure bliss. After your third margarita, don’t forget to duck (read: stumble) into Bellingen Gelato around the corner for a roadie on the way home.”
111 Hyde St
“Don’t be put off by this joint’s location (essentially in the pub carpark). Inside, it’s a secret oasis of indoor plants, recycled timber tables and disco balls. You can’t leave without trying the alcoholic ginger beer. Seriously, it’s the law.”
3/5 Church St
“I remember every time the river used to flood when I was growing up in Bellingen, the locals would return the canoes that were swept away in the current. Take a guided sunset tour down the river and toast your upper body strength at the end of the day with a glass of champagne.”
4 Tyson Street
Where to stay
“If you do decide you never never want to leave the Promised Land, don’t. Stay at the lush chalets of the Promised Land Retreat, under the peak of Dorrigo mountain. Alternatively, if you want to be in thick of it, the rooms at The Federal Hotel in town do the job.”
934 Promised Land Road
“This quaint quarter is a tourist’s dream. Pick up a local wood carving, a pair of leather sandals or a piece of art from the gallery. For a more ‘authentic’ experience, hit up one of the four op-shops on the main street in town for vintage treats, silk slip dresses and holiday skirts you’ll buy and never wear again.”
1 Doepel St
The fine print
How to get there
Drive from Sydney (five-and-a-half hours north) or Brisbane (five hours south). You can also fly to Coffs Harbour airport and drive 30 minutes to Bellingen; either way, having a car is recommended.
Make a road trip of it: from Sydney stop at the Central Coast, Newcastle, Port Stephens and Port Macquarie or Crescent Head. Urunga nearby is also well worth a visit. From Brisbane, meander through the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, then down to Byron Bay, Bangalow and Ballina, then Yamba.
Try to plan your stay around the third Saturday of the month. “That’s when the Bellingen Markets are held, and they’re well worth a visit on their own,” says Pascoe. “With over 200 stalls, live music on every corner and food stalls galore, the town is at its best on market day. When I was a kid, I’d dream about the pillow puff Dutch pancakes from the markets. Nothing has changed.”