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Filling hearts and stomachs with joy over the border

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Filling hearts and stomachs with joy over the border

SHIRLEY SINCLAIR reconnects with fond memories of her youth while on a relaxing farmstay in the Byron hinterland of NSW.

My bleary eyes catch the distant glow streaming through the glass sliding doors and I move forward to investigate.

The vision of the golden orb kissing the horizon hits me like a splash of cold water on my face. Together with the foggy veil laying low near the thick treeline and light dew glistening on the soft, thick carpet of  grass, this ethereal beauty is like a scene from a movie, or perhaps a country music video clip.

For any urbanite, embracing country comforts is always good for the soul. And now I am awake to the charms of the Byron Bay hinterland of NSW.

Craig and Nicole Spencer’s 41 ha Heartwood Farm (heartwoodfarmbyron bay.com) in Federal proves to be just the tonic I need to relax, recharge and reset.

And the circular plunge pool on the deck beside the back patio calls our names from the moment we step out of the car on a scorching-hot day.

We immerse up to our necks for a good half-hour until, with wrinkly fingers, the comfortable outdoor lounge beckons and I oblige – curling up with a historical romance novel in between throwing the ball to our new best friends and resident kelpies: Levi and Rippa.

Every now and then, I put down the book and look out over this idyllic setting … big skies, undulating hillsides with cows grazing in paddocks, and the occasional warbling magpie and far-off kookaburra.

As if to punctuate the quintessential rural setting, a couple of chooks  appear around the corner for a brief  scratch around.

It would be enough to spend our entire two-night farmstay here without venturing anywhere else.

The Spencers, who run their own renovation business, saw something special in the rundown main house on the hill and old farm cottage with majestic views when they bought the property in 2018.

The land was selected by John Fowler (after whom nearby Fowlers Lane, Bangalow, was named) in 1905.

His great granddaughter dropped by a while back to share stories of her family and a little of the farm’s history with Craig and Nicole.

“A lot of white and red cedar was milled at Bangalow from this property,” Nicole says on her brief welcome visit.

Our humble abode here was little more than a shed before the Spencers created the light and airy interior by putting in the gabled roof, then stripping the interior back to its bare bones, installing a floating timber floor and undertaking a full renovation.

Covered and uncovered patios  were added at the front and back to  make the most of sunrise breakfasts and sunset drinks.

There’s even a firepit, with marshmallows supplied in the pantry.

Nicole has plundered local secondhand and vintage shops for special finds, and sourced quality furnishings from around Australia and the world to carefully  curate the interior of the renovated two-bedroom country cottage that embraces the style of yesteryear but with all the modern conveniences.

A highlight is the locally handmade glass tile splashback wall in the kitchen, and I definitely wanted to take home  the blue-and-white floral ottoman in  the lounge.

Everything you could need for a serene and relaxing getaway is provided, including Maxima ground bean sachets (Maxima Roasters is owned and run by Nicole’s brother Luke and his wife Judy) and a French press to delight any coffee snob.

The microwave, dishwasher, free wifi, ceiling fans and Weber Q barbecue mean guests can truly unwind, while a basket, rug and Marshall Bluetooth speaker are ideal for picnics by the Wilson River, which forms the property’s northeastern boundary. The river also opens up opportunities for kayaking, fishing and dips in the secluded swimming hole.

And the clawfoot bath or rainhead shower in the cottage bathroom will welcome you back with open arms for a good soak afterwards.

At the end of the day, we could luxuriate in air-conditioned comfort while we watched the 55″ LCD Smart TV with Netflix before sliding under the Cultiver Linen sheets on our choice of two queen-size bedrooms.

And if we so desired, there also is a host of services ready, willing and able to meet our needs – from a private chef to cook us dinner or lunch, to a yoga and physical training instructor or beautician and massage therapists.

We have taken advantage of a Platter Me Beautiful charcuterie grazing box (with cured meats, cheeses, hummus, fruit, nuts, lollies, chocolate and crackers), ordered and delivered straight to our fridge. That has our stomachs sorted for dinner on the first night – with enough leftover nibbles to last the weekend.

But our adventurous nature makes us want to explore roads less travelled.

Our mid-week retreat is only a hop, skip and jump away from memories of long weekends in our youth spent in  Brunswick Heads, New Brighton, Ocean Shores and Lennox Head.

As we pass stone entry statements covered in bougainvillea and opening to palm-lined driveways, I wonder just how many tree-changers – with myriad skills and creative bents – in recent years have joined the long-time farming families who put down roots in the rich volcanic soils.

Certainly, visitors can observe a smattering of new restaurants, galleries, boutiques and homeware stores in just about every village, town and hamlet that lie behind Byron Bay’s world-renowned beach mecca.

We soon discover that while this luxe farmstay is far from the madding crowd,  it is a short drive to all the fresh food  and beverage experiences of this cosmopolitan region.

A paddock-to-plate indulgent lunch at The Farm Byron Bay (thefarm.com.au) in Ewingsdale certainly lives up to all the hype and expectations. Apart from the open spaces, feelgood vibe and rustic charm, the working farm houses several micro businesses that live and breathe its mantra of “grow, feed and educate”, including the celebrated Three Blue Ducks restaurant (threeblueducks.com).

The Feed Me set shared menu is ideal for two hungry adults wanting to try a selection of dishes offering flavour explosions and the dynamite freshness of locally sourced ingredients.

From sweet potato hummus plus kingfish ceviche (a mix of candied macadamia and coconut balanced by a kick from sriracha flakes), we move on to the hero dish: 12-hour slow-cooked beef brisket that falls away with the touch of a fork, teamed with perfect jacket potatoes.

While this is the highlight of our foodie tour de force, hitting the country roads delivers many support acts.

The quaint village of Federal, just four minutes away from Heartwood Farm, is home to the Japanese-inspired Doma Café (facebook.com/people/Federal-Doma-Cafe/100028131327304/), where we share a deliciously fresh and tasty seafood Chirashi bowl, next to the historically quirky Federal General Store.

Harvest Café, Deli and Bakery (harvest.com.au), inside a converted Queenslander in nearby Newrybar, grows many of its kitchen ingredients and serves up a welcome espresso and cinnamon doughnut for morning tea. Its shelves display a range of the best artisanal and local products from the region, while breads and baked goods cooked in the 120-year-old wood-fired oven are bestsellers.

Slow drives on country roads shaded by arbours of camphor laurels and the like bring us to the business hub of Bangalow.

We are too early for the Bangalow Markets, held on the fourth Sunday of each month and raising funds for local community groups. But we meander on foot, up and down the main street, admiring the historic architecture and public artscape on the Bangalore Heritage Walk, before dropping by popular Café Woods: a vegetarian and plant-based cafe just off the main street in Bangalow’s Arts Precinct where conversation under the leafy pergola flows as easily as the coffee.

The Eltham Hotel

Meanwhile, the friendly Eltham Hotel’s popular beer garden (elthampub.com.au), ‘no dickhead policy’ sign on the public bar wall and ‘Middle of nowhere, centre of everything’ slogan on its T-shirts endear it to locals and visitors alike. The menu also proves this is no ordinary country pub, with Wild Boar Ragu (paccheri pasta and pecorino), Pig’s Head Sausage (Yorkshire pudding and onion gravy), Fried Silken Tofu (mushroom broth, torch ginger and chilli) and Smoked Eel Dip (potato gems, pickles) among the varied offerings.

So much to see, do and eat. So little time. And not a beach in sight.

*The writer was a guest of Heartwood Farm but paid for all other expenses.

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