Byron Bay is a special kind of special. A quaint seaside town that wanted the world to leave it alone. This changed when Australian actor Chris Hemsworth (Thor in the Marvel movies) built himself a mansion in the town. The “Hemsworth Effect” turned the hamlet into mogul haven.
We’ve profiled twenty marginal seaside towns around the world that share features with Byron Bay, bridging the extremes between obscurity and megarich magnet. Ten of them are US towns, drawing on the charms of both oceans. The other half span Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia.
To get a handle on these towns, we’ll start with the benchmark – looking at the factors that define the feel of Byron Bay.
Byron Bay – also known as Cawanbah (“The meeting place”), is an Australian seaside town that has risen to prominence for a variety of reasons. To understand the town, we will outline its geography, history, economy, and culture. This unique combination of factors will provide us with an impression of the town’s distinctive signature.
Byron Bay sits on the North-East corner of Australia’s state of New South Wales. It is located in Bundjalung County and Byron Shire (in spite of the name, the shire’s administrative center is elsewhere.) The town lies 103 miles to the south of Brisbane and 480 miles north of Sydney.
The adjacent headland – Cape Byron – marks the Easternmost extremity of mainland Australia. 9,300 Australians call the townhome. Outside of the town lies a hinterland that is lush and green.
The sandy white beaches edge against rolling hills, with rainforest lining the coastal fringe.
The rivers Wilson and Brunswick course through the town, providing the main inland irrigation sources of the shire and providing a backbone for hunting and fishing. Their scenic charm adds to the tourist appeal. Brunswick Heads marks the mouth of the Brunswick River, which flows west to Main Arm and Mullumbimby.
Both rivers, including their various tributaries and streams, flood during seasons of heavy rain. Wilson Creek and Main Arm are the areas most affected by flooding, with twenty-five creek crossings between them. During times of flood, the upper creeks can be isolated.
Byon Bay’s subtropical climate creates a backdrop for its charm. To the north lies the National Park escarpment. Varied flora occupies the south with green hills rolling over the red volcanic soil, a reminder of the tectonic eruption that formed the area twenty-three million years ago.
This mud nurtures the lush and varied vegetation.
Byron Bay has the highest regional rainfall, averaging 2 yards each year. Overall the climate is subtropical, with most of the rain falling in the summer when Pacific breezes moderate the temperature. Winters are mild and warm, with frost falling lightly on some inland valleys.
On account of its shallow curvature, Byron Bay is misnamed and might properly have been rechristened Byron Bight.
The movement of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate over the East Australian hotpot formed the shallow Tweed Volcano. Its eruption formed a caldera twenty-three million years ago. Byron Bay forms part of this ancient formation.
The area was settled by ancestors of the Bundjalung Nation more than twenty-two thousand years ago. The Minjungbal and Arakwal are descendants who continue to inhabit the area. Since 2001, the Arakwul and New South Wales Government have entered into three Traditional Owner arrangements spanning the land and water surrounding.
Vice-Admiral John Byron, a grandfather to the English poet, sailed with Lieutenant James Cook in 1770, when the pair landed for the first time at Cawanbah. Cook renamed the place after his colleague. Sixty years later, the first wave of European settlers arrived.
In 1860, the Bay was formally established as a timber port. Thirty-six years later, it was declared a town, and ten years later, a shire. It was the principal port between Brisbane and Newcastle (respectively ninety miles north-northwest and three hundred and ninety miles south).
For twenty years, from 1870, there was an eruption of artisanal mining following the discovery of gold on the beach. Forty years later, it was discovered that the discarded sand was rich in minerals.
This activity led to a sand-mining boom, following which the Zircon Rutile Limited company, incorporated in Byron Bay, established as the world’s largest producer of zircon and rutile.
Byron Bay has had mixed results as a commercial fishing center. In 1954 the town’s fishing fleet and jetty were demolished by a cyclone. Attempts to offset this loss by establishing a whaling port led to extensive overfishing as the antipodean humpback whale population was hunted near the point of extinction.
Dairy cow and beef farming in the surrounding areas have established Byron Bay as a sustained agricultural processing center. This sector was diversified and strengthened by fruit farming based on pineapples, bananas, and avocados. Further diversification was led by coffee, macadamia nuts, and flowers.
The current status as a holiday destination started in the 1960s when longboard surfers discovered and fancied the area for its currents. Tourism has thrived and continues to be the primary economic sector of the area. This has led to a surge in property prices, with Byron Bay now housing Australia’s most expensive real estate.
The town’s bland industrial façade was transformed in the 1960s when hippies identified Byron Bay as a site conducive to a rustic, alternative lifestyle. This was emphasized by the subsequent surfer wave of the 1970s.
True to its rustic roots, locals campaigned in the 1990s to keep multinational fast-food chains out of their town. The “No Mackin Way!” movement has stopped McDonald’s from opening a branch until now, although a few other franchises managed to evade the net.
The establishment of the town as a celebrity magnet might owe something to the Australian antihero, Crocodile Dundee. His alter-ego, the actor Paul Hogan, lived in an obscure mansion not far from the Bay. In 1990 his producer acquired and renovated the town’s iconic drinking hole, now known as The Beach Hotel.
- Beaches: Byron Bay has seven go-to beaches. These are Main, Clarkes, Wategos, Little Wategos, Belongil, The Pass, and Tallow Beach (the latter of which was named after unfortunate flooding of processed whale fat.) They offer stretching sandy shores, winter surf, and snorkeling.
- Bluesfest: The Byron Bay Bluesfest is Australia’s greatest Blues Music Festival and has been nominated (with Glastonbury and Montreaux) as the world’s best. Since its 1990 inception, the 5-day festival has attracted more than 100,000 visitors per season.
- Bohemia: Known as Australia’s Hippie Capital, the town offers New Age lifestyle drawcards like the Crystal Palace – a monument of larger-than-life crystals, the hemp embassy, and the adjacent town of Nimbin – transformed in 1973 as an alternative lifestyle town.
- Bush: The shire is large and offers natural attractions. There are bush walks and natural parks with wildlife. They feature lookouts, waterfalls, and mountain walks. There are aboriginal tours covering the long history of the place.
10 Similar US Towns
Armed with a sketch of the bay, we find ten US towns that echo the theme in their own way. The Pacific and Atlantic oceans serve up their own varieties of the small, alternative beach town. These locales Americanise the Oz rendition of Cawanbah.
Each with an increasing tourist appeal. Let’s dive in.
|Surface Area||8.65 sq m|
|Main Beach||Lovers’ Point|
|Key Attraction||Big Sur|
This city is tucked into Monterey Bay, on the Californian central coast. It functioned as a provincial capital under the Spanish and Mexican administration and has been a haven of artistic activity since the mid 19th century when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Amateur Immigrant while based there.
The town’s beachscape offers varied terrain, with choice locations for swimmers, casual visitors, and surfers. A diverse marine life makes for compelling snorkeling amongst sea otters, bat rays, harbor seals, dolphins, and whales.
There are more than thirty parks and City gardens, with the main outdoor attraction being Big Sur, sprawling to the south. The historic Cannery Row is a pre-modern industrial seafood packing center that has now become a significant tourist magnet.
|Surface Area||9.6 sq m|
|Main Beach||Lifeguard Beach|
|Key Attraction||Okracoke Island Lighthouse|
This strip-shaped barrier island forms a part of the North Carolina outer banks. Its subtropical climate makes for hot, humid weather, with perennial rain that peaks in the summer. Near the confluence of the cold Labrador Current and warm Gulf Stream current, the water makes for pleasant swimming.
The National Park Center runs tours for all, showing local attractions, including the island’s famed banker ponies. By permit, some beaches are accessible by off-road car on-ramps that veer off the N12 highway.
Locals speak the unique High Tider dialect, part of the charm of the town’s Village area. This signature sound has been diluted by the recent upsurge of mainlanders and other immigration.
3. Port Aransas
|Surface Area||14.426 sq|
|Main Beach||IB Magee|
“Texas Fishing Capital” was first inhabited and developed by the Karankwa. Its waters are home to more than six hundred species of marine life, which has made it a center of sea turtle export, as well as a harvesting center for spotted seatrout and redfish.
Numerous birding and surfing sites round out the leisure options, with pirates cruises, parasailing, and beach carting. With speeds of 132mph, Hurricane Harvey devastated significant parts of the island in 2017.
The not-for-profit Texas Sand Sculpture Competition draws more than one hundred thousand visitors annually and hosts international sand sculptors as well as children and enthusiastic amateurs, creating masterworks from the Texas beach sand.
|Surface Area||15.25 sq m|
|Key Attraction||Marginal Way|
The Algonquin translation of the town’s name means “beautiful place by the sea.” Its coastal beauty has not been lost, as it still is regarded as Maine’s premier beach town. The Marginal Way clifftop provides sweeping Atlantic ocean vistas and is accessible by foot.
Perkins Cove is a small fishing village well preserved from the turn of the century. It houses the galleries, boutiques, and antique shops that characterize Maine’s classy retro charm.
The Ogunquit Playhouse is regarded as the foremost American summer theatre, attracting Broadway plays and actors, continuing the town’s status as an artistic enclave. Events include the annual Christmas By The Sea celebration.
5. Cannon Beach
|Surface Area||1.57 sq m|
|Key Attraction||Haystack Rock|
Ranked by National Geographic as one of the 100 most beautiful places in the world, Cannon Beach is the long-term home to the Tillamook and was incorporated as a city in 1956.
The iconic Haystack Rock is the world’s third-larges monolith, the crystallization of seventeen-million-year-old lava. It hosts a variety of nesting birds, including bald eagles, tufted puffins, and gulls. Crabs and urchins feature in marine life.
As in Byron Bay, McDonald’s and fast-food chains have been discouraged from establishing a presence, leaving a locally flavored culinary experience. Tillamook Lighthouse (established 1851) presents a stunning sight from adjacent Ecola State Park.
|Surface Area||25.25 sq m|
|Key Attraction||Northern Lights|
Originally inhabited by the Innuit and later the Tanaina, the city was established in 1889 around a vibrant coal mining sector. It was named after the prospector Homer Pennock, who left as mining was replaced by fishing, in a town that now styles itself “The Halibut Capital of the World.”
Key events include the annual May Shorebird Festival, marking the migration of one hundred thousand birds. There is a famous Winter Carnival. The city gateways are the State Wilderness Park and Kachemak Bay State Park.
It offers a quiet, rustic lifestyle – for many more than literally “The End of the Road.”
7. St. Augustine
|Surface Area||12.85 sq m|
|Main Beach||Ponte Vedra|
|Key Attraction||Castillo de San Marco|
Established by Spanish conquistadors in 1536, San Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States. Consequently, it maintains an unrivaled old-world charm derived from medieval architecture set upon a cobbled street maze.
This town features a wealth of attractions, like the twenty-thousand square foot original Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Museum, The Fountain of You established by Ponce de Leon (and with guest books that go back to 1868), the hundred and sixty five-foot-tall lighthouses (established 1874) and the seminal Cathedral Basilica.
A humid, hot subtropical climate is affected by Bermuda High, which lashes the town with daily thundershowers in the hot summers. The inlet of the Matanzas river provides access to the Atlantic Ocean.
|Surface Area||11.38 sq m|
|Key Attraction||Cliff Walk|
Much earlier than Byron Bay, this New England seaport became a getaway for the rich when Gilded Era elites established the town as their preferred getaway. Mansions erected by the Astor, Vanderbilt, and Widener families mark the city’s façade. John and Jacqueline Kennedy married and established their “Summer White House” here.
The Newport Folk Festival and Newport Jazz Festival are hosted at Fort Adams, which dates back to the War of 1812. The town has been designated a Bronze Bicycle Friendly Community and hosts the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships each year in the week following Wimbledon.
Tourism is the major economic driver of the city, with 90% of jobs created in the service sector. Strong naval ties create defense and technology as significant minor subsectors.
9. Block Island
|Surface Area||9.73 sq m|
|Main Beach||Crescent Beach|
|Key Attraction||4th July Themed Parade|
Also named Manisses, after the American spirit gods, this island was formed by glacial shifts over a millennium ago. It may have been peopled as early as five hundred years ago. The area’s unusual ocean climate sees it cool during the summer months.
Block Island has seventeen miles of beach, all of which are accessible by bike or moped. The 200ft cliffs which line Mohegan Bluff offer stunning Atlantic Ocean views. Snorkeling off Surf Beach is a popular attraction.
The South and North lighthouses are landmark attractions, and the island sports the first offshore wind farm constructed by the US. Most of the town’s forty eateries close outside of the tourist season when the population soars above its general level.
Block Island has been named by The Nature Conservancy as one of the Western Hemisphere’s top twelve sites, and it maintains a local office, protecting the large swathe of the island demarcated for conservation.
10. Friday Harbour
|Surface Area||1.174,15 sq p|
|Main Beach||Jackson Beach|
|Key Attraction||San Juan Islands|
Another island to round our list is the county seat and economic center of the San Juan archipelago. Named after the Hawaiian Joseph Friday, the town became an economic center when the Hudson’s Bay Company established mid-nineteenth-century salmon curing and sheep farming operations.
Friday Harbour has a Mediterranean climate, with cool winters and warm, dry summers – weather that veers well away from the extremes. The ferry and floatplane are the main transportation veins with the mainland the rest of the archipelago.
The main port, Jackson Beach, provides picnicking facilities, a free boat launch, and recreational amenities like basketball.
10 Similar International Towns
Casting outside the USA and allowing for the slightest translation slack, we find further gems that illustrate the Byron theme.
|Surface Area||3.125 sq m|
|Main Beach||Batu Belig|
|Key Attraction||Tanah Lot Temple|
Long neglected by tourists, Canggu is a gem recently uncovered by longboard surfers. It has a rich Hindu culture, with ancient lava temples dotting the island. Its long history of concealment has led to a leisure sector that still is quiet, by comparison to the archipelago’s characteristic bustle.
The rustic country feel has drawn comparisons with Northern Sydney in the 1960s. The surrounding countryside features rice paddies, tended by farmer families in traditional attire.
2. Puerto Escondido
|Surface Area||1.56 sq m|
|Key Attraction||Laguna de Manialtepec|
“The Hidden Port” is home to the sought-after Mexican Pipeline. Surfers prefer the area from May to September. The best weather is from December to April, with hot, dry weather.
There are storms in the rainy months and possible hurricanes in November.
Much of the city has been priced for budget travelers, and it remains relatively safe, having escaped the drug violence plaguing other parts of Mexico.
|Surface Area||107 sq m|
|Main Beach||Seven Mile|
|Key Attraction||Negril Lighthouse|
The low population density of this distributed beach accents the tranquility of the place. While contemporary resort development has eroded the charm of some sections, it is easy to break away and find the trademark laid-back solace.
The coral reef ecosystem provides snorkeling and diving activities—the Great Morass – an inland swamp – and Royal Palm Reserve open to a protected wetland.
|Surface Area||2.32 sq m|
|Key Attraction||Taghazout-Argana Bay|
Morocco’s surf mecca sports sought-after right-hand waves spread over a number of Atlantic-facing beaches. The prohibition on public alcohol consumption shields the local cuisine from invasive bar culture.
The Berber culture is on show at local souks (markets), with mint tea being the social lubricant of choice. Bahia Palace and Paradise Valley provide scenic excursions. The High Atlas fills the hinterland with its western foothills.
|Surface Area||13.67 sq m|
|Main Beach||Te Kopua|
|Key Attraction||Manu Bay|
Known for the world’s longest, most consistent, and accessible left-hand break, surfers are drawn to this wave-rider mecca for the prospect of a mile-long swell cruise. Body-boarding, swimming, and kayaking are favorite activities on the beaches.
The town has a reputation for artisanal cuisine. Organic seafood and local cheese are core offerings, and overall the Maori culture colors the life of the town.
6. Santa Teresa
|Surface Area||19.17 sq m|
|Main Beach||Playa Hermosa|
|Key Attraction||Mal Pais Village|
As with most Nicoya peninsula villages, Santa Teresa started life as a fishing community, with agriculture and cattle ranching supplementing the economic mainstay. Today tourism drives the town and provides income to most inhabitants.
The town’s infrastructure still is nascent, with dusty unpaved roads cementing the alternative getaway feel. Yoga retreats and surf lodges complete the picture, with snorkeling and rainforest hiking providing sources of adventure.
7. Pipa Village
|Surface Area||13.87 sq m|
|Main Beach||Praia de Madeiro|
|Key Attraction||Santuario Ecologico|
Like Byron Bay, Pipa was a fishing backwater until surfers discovered and showcased it in the 1970s. Since then, it has grown a reputation as a hipster haven, featuring beach-based party life throughout the year. Day-trippers from the adjacent city of Natal are ubiquitous visitors.
The beaches are backed by tall cliffs, abutting lagoons. Turtles and dolphins swim beneath the surf. Natural beauty makes for a laid-back ecological lifestyle.
|Surface Area||8.03 sq m|
|Main Beach||Jeffreys Bay|
|Key Attraction||Noorsekloof Reserve|
Nestled between the estuaries of the Seekoei and Kabeljous rivers, J-Bay attracts surfers from around the world, billing itself the best global right-hand surf break. Warm Indian Ocean currents whip the waves, which surfers share with dolphins in the mildly warm weather of the Eastern Cape.
The town has a laid-back feel, with craft shops and artisanal diners lining its small streets. Natural parks in its hinterland provide scenic walks, with game farms adding to the accommodation experience.
|Surface Area||0.19 sq m|
|Key Attraction||Lundy Island|
This seaside resort town is a serial winner of Best Beach awards in the United Kingdom. It faces the Atlantic, near the Bristol Channel’s western limit. The two-mile beach is part of the North Devon Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and sees the population swell during the holiday months of summer.
The beach is framed by low coastal cliffs which bear unique vegetation. Sea splurge and marram grass line the cliff tops.
10. Arugam Bay
|Surface Area||3.86 sq m**|
|Main Beach||Arugam Bay|
|Key Attraction||Kumana National Park|
We end with an Indian Ocean microcosm. Arugam Kudah occupies a single street parallel to the Indian Ocean shoreline. Away from the beaches, there is an extremely pastoral lifestyle—quiet pathways open to the lush hinterland, ripe for walks.
The main beach is sought-after by pro surfers and hosts many competitions. Whiskey Point beach has a gentler swell and hosts lessons for beginner surfers.
The 139.4 square miles Kumana National Park sports a variety of fauna, including white cobra, elephants, turtles, and birds. A clutch of elusive bears roams too.
Cawanbah is inimitable. It marks Australia’s easternmost extremity as a one-of-a-kind piece of the planet. But by casting about, the adventure-seeking traveler can find other places that blend a well-preserved rustic way with a dash of excess.