A scenic river runs through it – and during the recent floods, overran it – but the Clarence Valley and its residents are nothing if not resilient. Located on the NSW North Coast between Coffs Harbour and Byron Bay, this sub-tropical valley and its communities exude an old-fashioned, step-back-in-time vibe. It’s famous for showy flora (Grafton’s jacarandas are celebrated with a festival in late spring and its flame trees are immortalised in a Cold Chisel song), ocean and river beaches at Yamba, world-class surfing at Angourie and very delicious prawns. We discover how to make the most of a trip there.
Main image: Yamba Main Beach, with local watering hole the Pacific Hotel overlooking.
In 2020, a seismic change hit the Clarence Valley when the Pacific Highway was realigned to bypass the “big smoke” of Grafton and what is arguably the valley’s cutest village, Ulmarra. Motorists must exit onto the former highway – now called Big River Way – to reach these two gems.
For beach time, head further north to Yamba and neighbouring Angourie, home to one of Australia’s best and most consistent point breaks. Surfers will recognise its perfect peeling waves, breaking in a variety of directions around the headland, that were originally made famous by idyllic 1970s surf flick Morning of the Earth. On the doorstep of town, an ocean pool overlooks Yamba Beach but it’s more lovely to laze at tranquil Whiting Beach on the river.
On Wednesday mornings, the adjacent car park hosts the Yamba Farmers and Producers Market where 40 stalls showcase the valley’s growers and makers.
Travel back over some of the Clarence River’s 53 islands (you might not realise you’re driving over these low-lying islands), passing Australia’s southernmost sugarcane fields, to reach Maclean. Billed as Australia’s most Scottish town, Maclean is home to the volunteer-run Scottish Shop where you can learn more about your Scottish ancestry or if your family was adopted by a clan under the sept system. Dotted around Maclean are about 230 tartan-painted power poles. It’s quite the wee thrill to track down your ancestral tartans using a map from the shop.
Nothing says “holiday” like hot battered fish and chips, and the Clarence River Fishermen’s Co-operative, with more than 130 members, can help via five outlets in Yamba, Maclean, Iluka and Grafton. Thanks to the commercial fishing fleet that chugs in and out from the Clarence, the counters will likely be filled with freshly caught Yamba king prawns, ocean bugs, mullet, flathead and crab.
Seafood is also on the menu at the Pacific Hotel – dubbed affectionately as the “drinking fountain on the mountain” for its supreme position overlooking Yamba beach. Book early to snag a sought-after window table boasting ocean-meets-sky views. The menu offers standard pub fare with a few surprises such as jackfruit curry or quinoa burgers, as well as reliable fish of the day specials.
Swing into Grafton ice-creamery and retro diner, I Scream, on the main drag of Prince Street during jacaranda season for a scoop that matches the purple blooms (it’s berry-flavoured, if you’re curious). During the 2021 floods, the business also showed its humorous side by offering a flavour called Flood Mud. Otherwise, look for ice-cream incorporating local produce such as fruit from The Peach Farm at Mororo and macadamias from Woodford Island.
Caffeine addicts can source a cold-brew, cold-drip, pour-over or mere cappuccino at Maclean’s Botero Roastery Café, where the menu also includes Yamba prawns in a crunchy Vietnamese salad.
In Townsend, just off the highway near Maclean, is Sanctus Brewing Company. Drop in to see what’s on the taps, order a wood-fired pizza (the Clarence naturally features local king prawns and smoked salmon) and, on weekends, kick back to live music.
Base yourself in Yamba. It offers holiday homes, apartments and retro motels aplenty but, if you’re seeking a luxe option, check into a one-bedroom apartment or two-bedroom villa at Angourie Resort. Nestled into bushland between Yamba and Angourie, the resort also houses a day spa. Book in for a signature white flannel flower anti-ageing facial, a lemon myrtle body scrub or a hot-stone massage.
Hightail it over the soaring new Harwood Bridge (part of the Pacific Highway upgrade), turn right and cross the koala grids to reach Iluka at the mouth of the Clarence, opposite Yamba. The community is not only home to koalas but precious rainforest. You can also ditch the wheels and take a 30-minute ferry ride from Yamba across to Iluka. Once there, hike out along the breakwall to look for frolicking dolphins, climb the amusingly low “Hill of Knowledge”, and dive into the Iluka Nature Reserve’s cool greenness. Follow an easy walking trail through the salt-tolerant coastal rainforest to see strangler figs, pigeons, doves, lizards and more.
On another day, head to Ulmarra. This charming village, where some residents struggled to sleep following the highway diversion because it had become too quiet, is a great spot to go antiquing, gallery-hopping and fossicking for treasures. The Federation-era Ulmarra Hotel boasts a popular beer garden with drawcard river views. South Grafton is another place to unearth curiosities and bric-a-brac. Cruise along Skinner Street and its heritage shopfronts then take a moment at the northern end to admire the view of Susan Island, home to a remnant of floodplain rainforest and a roosting and breeding area for thousands of flying foxes.
If one of the North Coast’s storms blows in to wreck the day-tripping plans, head into the Yamba Bowling Club. Surprisingly, it contains a four-lane tenpin bowling alley.
Grafton’s jacarandas turn city streets into a purple haze from mid-October to mid-November. Download the “Jaca Map” to find the most photogenic stretches. It’s not the city’s only horticultural attraction: just east of the New Grafton Bridge (next to the heritage double-deck road-rail bridge with its tyre-scraping corners) is the National Trust-listed “Fig Tree Avenue”. This is a block of Breimba Street shaded by 30-metre-high figs that form a dramatic arch. While near the bridges examine their underbellies – they’ve become canvases for eye-catching murals (including a recent one by four-time Archibald Prize finalist Blak Douglas).
For a bird’s-eye view of the valley, head to Maclean Lookout. Its views stretch all the way to the coast. You can also read Dreaming stories, including one about a giant serpent that cruised up the Clarence, shaking off barnacle-like creatures that became the different tribal groups along the mighty river.