There are a few essentials every traveller must pack when heading to Bellingen: a tie-dyed T-shirt, a pack of patchouli incense, a copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and a deck of tarot cards. They’ll help you ease into the mood of this dreamy hippie enclave, tucked halfway between Sydney and Brisbane on the mid-north coast of NSW.
You might also want to bring a spare bottle of deodorant. When you arrive the sight of all those rolling green hills, sustainable stores and blissed out locals will make you want to toss your existing bottle in the bin, learn how to crochet, enrol your future children in the local Steiner school and lose yourself in the good life.
Because this is exactly what you get in Bellingen: humble, natural living, thanks to the population of around 3,000 being mostly farmers or real deal bohemians who moved into town in the ’70s to help revitalise it after it had been depleted by cedar logging. Set on the banks of the Bellinger River and surrounded by lush farmland that attracts so much rainfall it’s like a little ecosystem in itself, it’s the perfect place for dropping out and communing with nature… and your inner eccentric.
The first thing you’ll notice as you float (and you will float) down Bellingen’s main drag Hyde Street is the abundance of good food. And we mean good in the ethical, just sense of the word. Organic and local are the words du jour, with the hippies and the farmers uniting to provide the town with the freshest and the best the land has to offer.
Culinary wanderings can begin at Kombu Wholefoods, a family owned organic grocer that sells good-quality, healthy food sans GMOs. Forget Twisties and Fanta, it’s hemp seeds and kombucha you’ll be picking up here. Unless you want to save yourself for Hearthfire wood-fired bakery, where organic, local ingredients and natural sourdough leaven create delicious breads and pastries.
Stop off at Bellingen Gelato (made with minimal sugar and natural ingredients, obv) for an afternoon cool down, then move on to more adult refreshments at No. 5 Church Street. Tasty burgers and pizzas fill the menu here, but they’re relatively guilt free since the chefs use – say it with us now – organic, local ingredients. If you come on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, you’ll probably be able to kick it to some pretty sweet live music.
If you want to treat yourself, head to Oak Street Food and Wine for white tablecloths, classy service and a grilled pork belly with saffron potato, spiced cabbage and apple puree that will make your knees wobble like Elvis after a six-pack. And if that ain’t enough for you, greedy guts, then the Bellingen Grower’s Markets are held on the second and fourth Saturday of the month, and community gardens are scattered through the town so you can stop by for a couple of lettuce leaves or cherry tomatoes if you’re peckish.
If you like your clothes as “good” as you like your food, then Bello (as the locals call it) is the stop for sustainable clothes. Check out the second-hand shops on Hyde Street (the LifeHouse Care Shop and Anglican Op Shop just might land you with a $2 silk fuchsia gown or a psychedelic ’60s shirt) on the way to The Vintage Nest, a coffee shop decorated with comfy chesterfields, vintage bikes and cameras out front, and an eclectic vintage store out back.
Also on Hyde Street is Dervish Gallery. Show us a person who has left this store without an armload of exotic Turkish mosaic lanterns, Indian mirrored ottomans and Moroccan hand-painted tiles, and we’ll show you a god-dang fool.
Drive ten minutes to the outskirts of Bellingen and you’ll find a tranquil sanctuary called the Promised Land, through which the Never Never River flows. This place does exist, and is every bit as enchanted as its name suggests. A quiet dollop of heaven surrounded by rolling pastures and lush, subtropical bushland you can pedal and prowl through. You can picnic by the river and frolic in the rock pools. Yes, frolic. Maybe you’ll even do it in the nude.
If you’re keen to chase some waterfalls you’ll have to spend a bit longer in the car, about 25 minutes, to get to the World Heritage-listed Dorrigo National Park. Rainforest walks here range from full day to half hour, but for bang for your buck take the short but impressive Crystal Shower Falls walk that involves a suspension bridge, a rocky cavern and a waterfall. Whichever route you take, along the way you’ll see gaggles of colourful birds (the lyrebird, the paradise riflebird and the wompoo fruit dove are all regulars, for the twitchers out there) and incredible Tim Burtonesque strangler figs.
Plan a visit to Alchemy where you can get tarot and psychic readings, flower therapy, energy healings… an entire smorgasbord of healing arts, in fact. If it’s more pampering than pondering you’re after, get a massage or facial at Skin Bliss Spa or Beachhouse Therapies. And if you leave Bello without having done a downward dog, either at Bellingen Yoga Studio, where the floor-to-ceiling studio windows look out over the trees, or at Spirit Rising Yoga where you can also do meditation classes and courses, you will have failed your flower child duties.
If open-plan timber cottages surrounded by rainforest-clad mountains sound like your cup of chai, then to Promised Land Retreat you go. Expect high, vaulted ceilings, spicy spa bathrooms, and spacious decks and lawns that are perfect locations for stuffing your face full of cheese and wine. You can work it off on the tennis court, or take one of the mountain bikes for a spin by the river, just a five-minute walk away.
The newly opened Cottonwood Farm, an airy Hamptons-style barn, is ideal for loverrrs. The botanical wallpaper and alfresco bath experience are worth the stay alone.NEED TO KNOW
Prepare thy flower crown, because Bello goes gaga for a good festival. The town hosts the Bellingen Jazz Festival (which hits its quarter century in August), Bello Winter Music (Bellingen’s answer to Byron Bay’s Bluesfest) with a lineup headed by Ash Grunwald in July, and the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival in June.