Far North Coast - Ballina beyond the prawn
Straddling the mouth of the Richmond River, punctuating coastal stretches of national park to the south and a famous string of surf towns including Lennox Head and Suffolk Park, leading to Byron Bay in the north, Ballina has been shaped by the sea as well as by the bush.
There's an authenticity about Ballina that really appeals. You can enjoy all the advantages of bigger centres without the intense tourist vibe or backpacker culture that typifies other towns in the region.
Be road trip ready: get NRMA roadside assistance
Orienting yourself in town is great fun by bicycle. Ballina is flat enough for easy riding and offers stunning water views. An easy trip along Regatta Avenue allows you to explore the Ballina Naval and Maritime Museum, home of the famous Las Balsas Raft which survived the oceans between us and South America.
From there, follow the Richmond River in the footsteps of Olympic walker and Ballina local, Kerry Saxby. The walkway named after her skirts parts of the harbour where you'd be unlucky not see dolphins and pelicans.
Photo: Lydia Thorpe
You'd be even unluckier to miss the aforementioned giant prawn on the southern edge of Ballina, about 3 km from the post office. It's not every day you can photograph the family in the clutches of a 20-metre high crustacean which is an icon of the town.
There are plenty of other great sites to ride or stroll to in town, including the Pioneer Memorial Park, where a fascinating collection of old graves tells the stories of the region's long-gone sea captains.
Don't miss the chance to take in the fishing trawlers that still work off the North Break Wall facing Ballina's picturesque harbour. It's a great spot at dawn or sunset. You might even be able to do a deal on the catch of the day.
If you haven't been waylaid by pods of dolphins or coffee stops, it's worth ending your day with a trip to Shaws Bay, at the southern tip of town, where there are great views as well as remote spots for swimming and picnics.
A short way out of town, on the southern tip of Richmond Harbour, is Ballina Lighthouse, which has been warning ships off the rocky coast for more than 100 years. There's a wading pool built into the rocks below, which is a great spot for children to swim. If you're lucky enough to find yourself here between June and October keep your eyes peeled for whales.
Also on the must-see list is the Thursday Plantation tea-tree complex. In 1976 Christopher and Lynda Dean began introducing the world to the healing properties of tea-tree oil and their lovely property produces a large range of products - from ointments and balms to pain relievers and skin treatments.
You can explore the plantation and factory, take garden walks, enjoy on-site sculpture exhibitions and have lunch at the verandah café while the kids tackle the tea-tree maze. The best thing you'll find at Thursday Plantation is an opportunity to learn how business and the environment can mix - it's a balance that seems to come naturally in Ballina.
Photo: Ballina Visitor Information Centre
Once you know your way around town it makes sense to use a car to get the best out of the Ballina region. You can find a koala in the wild at Tucki Tucki, about 40 km inland, or find waterholes, waterfalls and pockets of forest at Boat Harbour rainforest just north of there.
Head off with your packed lunch, a road map and swimming costumes to find small waterways that riddle the inland area - some spots are so untouched you could believe you'd discovered them first.
If you base yourself in Ballina for a few days, you'll not be short of things to do.
Images courtesy of NSW Tourism
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