If “Welcome to Byron Bay! Cheer Up. Slow down. Chill out” sounds like the kind of mantra you fancy adopting on your next vacation, and your Australian holiday plans include Melbourne, Sydney or a Gold Coast road trip, then be sure to add a long weekend stay in Byron Bay to the itinerary. Five minutes from Byron, Nicholas Chrisostomou enjoys a unique barefoot break at Rae’s boutique hotel, on legendary Wategos Beach.
Long thought of as the peace and love capital of Australia, Byron Bay has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Striking an enchanting, cutesy balance between cruisy beach town, hipster surfer hangout and bijou cultural hub, whilst New South Wales’ dreamy seaside town is best known for its stunning beaches, excellent surf breaks and warm hippie character, one of the best things about Byron is its subtropical climate. Usually warm and rarely unbearably hot, when it rains in Byron it really pours, which brings out the sheer natural beauty of the lush greenery, hinterland and rainforest surrounding the place, lending another dimension to one’s Gold Coast beach experience.
A typical day in Byron could consist of a morning walk up to the lighthouse followed by a swim in the gently rolling turquoise waves of Wategos Beach; lunch sprawled out on a patch of grass in front of Top Shop café; a trip to a local market or some whale watching; sunset cocktails and finger food at The Mez Club, and dinner at Harvest in nearby Newrybar village, which showcases the diversity of this wonderful part of NSW, including seasonal foods sourced from artisan producers. Byron Bay’s relaxed and unpretentious lifestyle – with its colourful mix of wealthy entrepreneurs, health fanatics, musicians, artists and creative types, living side-by-side in harmony – unsurprisingly draws celebrities from around the world, many of whom stay at Rae’s on Wategos Beach.
One of Byron’s most iconic hotels, just five minutes’ drive from town and effortlessly oozing the perfect mix of Greek island simplicity married with Italian style, Rae’s is one of those places where once you have set foot inside you will almost certainly never want to leave. Perfectly positioned just a few metres back from legendary Wategos Beach, in the protective shadow of Cape Byron Lighthouse, Rae’s’ setting is so relaxing and calming that, like me, you probably won’t want to move your car, or indeed move at all from Rae’s until check-out time.
Once name-checked as one of the world’s top 25 hotels, it doesn’t take long to see why this handsome 7-room Mediterranean-style villa ranks amongst the best places on the planet to rest one’s head and take a load off. Rae’s is a genuinely blissful place to pause, de-stress and relax, and I literally had my shoes off within moments of parking-up. The aura and feel of the place is addictively chilled. Within an hour of being shown to my suite, I had nodded off on a sprawling day bed while gazing at the surfers’ beach in front of me, Hendrick’s and tonic in hand, to a backdrop of gently crashing waves. I almost certainly could have stayed in that position for a good week. I’m calling it the “Rae’s Effect”, because I simply cannot articulate the words to describe it. Yes I, the eternal globetrotter, with countless countries under my belt and an ornately descriptive vocabulary to match, simply cannot find the words to appropriately describe the overwhelmingly soothing effect Rae’s had on me so soon after checking-in, on a slightly overcast afternoon, having made the one-hour flight from Sydney and 100km drive from Gold Coast Airport to spend a few precious days on the beach. And precious days they really were.
Originally a 1960s house built as a residence by Byron Bay local Ruth Harris, the building operated as a kiosk called “Argentine Ant Cantina” before a stint as “La Belle Époque” restaurant and private home in the 1970s. Legend has it that Salvador Dalí designed the tropical garden and pool as it was owned by a relative. Rae’s was the brainchild of Helen Patterson and hotelier and restaurateur Vincent Rae, who bought the property in 1994, added a spa, filled it with an eclectic collection of antiques and artworks and began to welcome guests. Rae’s’ trademark Greek villa esque curvaceous facade and whitewashed walls, by now set among subtropical rainforest and bangalow palms, and offset by louvered timber shutters and a lush green lawn rolling down to the beach, were, for almost two decades, a veritable magnet to discerning international travellers seeking a secluded and exclusive place to stay, including Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe and Keith Richards. In 2012, a mystery buyer, later revealed to be London financier William Morris, bought Rae’s for AU$20million, but the sale was never finalised. By now, Rae had moved to Paris to marry the actress and Chanel muse Anna Mouglalis.
A year later, Melbourne-based publisher Antony Catalano bought the property and ushered in a renaissance for Rae’s, together with an injection of new creative blood. This included a complete makeover of the renowned beachfront retreat by Sydney-based interior designer Tamsin Johnson, who introduced a minimalistic, uncluttered and unpretentious coastal feel throughout, using natural fabrics and a monochrome muted palette to update the villa, two penthouses and four suites. Unique pieces were added to the interior to complement the already beautiful bones of the property, whilst the widespread introduction of limestone, timber, sandstone planters, sculptural concrete shell lights, handwoven rattan furniture, and loose cotton and linen upholstery re-engaged Rae’s with Wategos Beach, and made the charming retreat sit more in sync within its peaceful, beachside surroundings. Works by Byron Bay artist Todd Hunter, photographer Tom Riley and a few other contemporary Australian abstract artists completed the top-to-toe refreshment of Rae’s last year.
My home for the weekend was Rae’s largest accommodation – a sumptuous and generously-proportioned two-bedroom two-bathroom penthouse, complete with bar-cum-kitchenette, sunken dining room, open-plan lounge with fireplace and two private balconies overlooking Wategos Beach. Rugs, gorgeous objets d’art, colourful artworks hanging on the walls, Moroccan alcoves, daybeds and wrought iron patio furniture, together with teak doors and floor tiles from a Javanese palace, gave the spacious apartment an utterly unique feel and intensely warm aura. Difficult to leave, I spent as much time as possible within the penthouse’s beautiful, cosseting portals.
Whilst I fail to see how the team could possibly improve Rae’s intimate and tailored personal service, future plans for the brand include the introduction of upscale boat and private air operations, with a luxury yacht refurbishment already completed by interior designer Tamsin Johnson.
Staying at Rae’s is akin to lodging within the warm heart of a well-travelled relative’s beautiful, sprawling home. Indulging in a spa treatment, lounging around the secluded private pool, relaxing on your own terrace, munching on beautifully-presented fresh and tasty fare, and sipping a glass of chilled Sauv Blanc while watching the world go by, are all part of a normal day at Rae’s. Here every guest is treated as family and the staff soon become friends. Privacy and peace abound, nothing is routine, nothing is cast in tablets of stone and nothing is too much travel for Rae’s affable team. During my stay I didn’t encounter one person who wasn’t naturally happy and helpful. It must have been something in the air around Wategos Beach. Or perhaps it was just the Rae’s Effect.