Ballina, in northern NSW, is not as fashionable as its neighbour, Byron Bay. It is better known as home to the world’s largest prawn than for its trendy boutiques and alternative lifestyle. But with its endless array of beaches and waterways, Ballina is a much more family-friendly option.
Located at the mouth of the Richmond River, Ballina itself is an island. In recent years it has become the gateway to the far north coast, with flights from all over Australia landing regularly at the local airport. If shopping is your thing, then there are numerous centres to choose from around town. But Ballina’s appeal doesn’t lie in the sprawling stores. Like the giant fibreglass prawn that welcomes you into town, these centres often detract from Ballina’s real beauty—the thirty-two kilometres of glorious beaches and bays that wrap their way around the area.
Beaches abound with something for everyone, but a sure-fire hit with the kids is Shelley Beach, which is always manned by lifesavers during the holidays. Older children enjoy wandering around the rocks, while young ones swim in the manmade rock pool. Overlooking the beach is Shelly’s, arguably one of the most scenically situated cafes on the coast.
The area around Missingham Bridge is a stunning array of swimming spots. The bridge crosses the tidal estuary of North Creek, with the Serpentine a great beach when the tide is low. Have lunch at the family friendly Shaws Bay Hotel, followed by a dip in the bay itself. And then follow the nearby walkway to North Wall and the mouth of the river. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins. They’re a regular sight in the afternoons.
The area has a rich maritime history. Ballina was once the third busiest port in NSW. The town’s greatest claim to fame was when in 1973 the Las Balsas raft blew off course during its 178-day journey from Ecuador to Mooloolaba, and landed in Ballina instead. The raft is now housed in the Maritime Museum.
The Ballina shire is rich in its diversity. Fifteen minutes north is Lennox Head and Seven Mile Beach, one of the top ten surfing beaches in the world. But what really appeals to kids is Lake Ainsworth, the tannin stained lake near the surf lifesaving club. There are small catamarans and canoes for hire, but most children are more than happy paddling their own boogie boards around the fresh water lake.
Further inland is the picture-perfect village of Alstonville. Set in lush hills, the rich volcanic soil produces some of the best coffee in Australia. You can sample a locally grown gourmet brew and entertain the kids at the same time at Amaze “n” Place, home of the Living Lattice Labyrinth, the only maze of its type in the world. This is multi-tasking at it’s best: have a coffee on the café veranda, soak in the view and still keep an eye on the kids as they find their way through the lattice maze. Amazing!
Ballina is an excellent holiday destination for families. It might not have the glamour of Byron Bay, but its beaches are less crowded and just as beautiful. And of course it lays claim to one thing its neighbour will never have—the world’s largest prawn.
Ballina is a 9-hour drive from Sydney and a 2-hour drive from Brisbane. Virgin Blue, Jetstar and Rex all fly into the Ballina/Byron Gateway Airport daily, from most major cities and many regional centres.
Ballina’s choice of accommodation caters for every budget. Try the Ramada Hotel on the Richmond River or, closer to the beach, Grandview Apartments offer self-catering apartments.
Ballina Lakeside Holiday Park is within walking distance of many of the town’s main beaches and waterways. The park itself contains excellent facilities. Located on Fenwick Drive, cabin rates start at S69 per night. Phone (02) 66863953
Amaze ‘n’ Place is on Wardell Rd, Alstonville. It’s open seven days during school holidays, from 9.00 a.m. – 4.30 p.m. (Closed Wednesdays all other times.) Contact 02-66287518 for more information.
Shelly’s On The Beach Café is on Shelly Beach Rd, overlooking the beach. Open daily from 7.30 am to 3 pm.