The waterways, coastal sanctuaries and pretty, flower-laden towns of the serene Clarence Valley make for an ideal place to slip off the radar awhile.
Many people are yet to discover Clarence Valley, a beautiful region usually bypassed by the humdrum Pacific Highway that connects Australia’s East Coast. We urge you to take a detour and make this your new destination – a blissful valley of quiet villages, pristine beaches and verdant hinterland.
And while you could spend endless moments in this secret valley, we’ve rounded up the absolute must dos when here. Indeed, you’ll wonder why you never stopped in the first place.
The locals will be the first to admit it, Grafton’s charm isn’t immediately apparent from the Pacific Highway that skirts the city, but scratch the surface and you’ll find charm, beauty and soul. Sure, there’s the Jacarandas that make this city a coveted destination, but these beautiful blooms are only part of a rich backstory of culture, architecture and town planning – before the term ‘town planning’ was invented.
With the Clarence River curving through the city like a big grin (check it out on a map to see what we mean), Grafton isn’t just the commercial hub of the Clarence Valley, it’s home to the arts – both visual (Grafton Regional Gallery) and performing (Saraton Theatre); it’s home to festivals both traditional and new; it’s home to cafés and restaurants of ridiculously good quality; its home to proud Indigenous people and traditions, and it’s home for more than a third of the Clarence Valley’s population. It’s the beating heart of the Clarence Valley.
Highlight: In late October and early November, the streets and parks of Grafton are transformed as the Jacaranda’s explode in all their purple glory.
Yamba is one of those magical places that evokes nostalgia. This sleepy town is a vision of beauty with myriad waterways, soaring headlands and uncrowded beaches.
Surfers will love the epic surf breaks at Angourie Beach and Yuraygir National Park, which is the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in NSW (not a pro? You can learn to surf!), while anglers flock here for the excellent estuary, rock and beach fishing. Home to a century-old lighthouse; a marina full with bobbing pleasure craft; pelicans, ospreys, dolphins and whales; and a bustling weekly farmers’ market, Yamba is what holiday’s past were made of.
Must try: Savour locally caught seafood, in particular famous Yamba prawns. Try popular Wato’s Little Fish Bistro & Takeaway and Clarence River Fisherman’s Cooperative.
While Yamba is all about the beach, and Grafton is the beating heart of the Clarence Valley, Maclean has an entirely unique identity. Conspicuously known as ‘The Scottish Town’, Maclean is home to more than 200 power poles painted in family tartans, the annual Highland Gathering, and other nods to a history populated by settlers of the ‘och aye’ persuasion. On a still winter’s morning, when mist cloaks the town in a soft shroud, the Loch Ness monster could pop up next to the pelicans and upriver dolphins, and you wouldn’t be too surprised.
But Maclean’s more than the clichés found in its Scottish souvenir shops. Maclean is part river village, part coastal town – close enough to the Pacific to feel the salt on the sea breeze, and country enough that your groceries will be carried out to your car if you require. The town also serves as a junction: it connects people to the beachside jewels of Red Cliff, Brooms Head and Sandon River, and to the inland valley gems of Ashby, Woodford Island and Lawrence.
Fitting then, that they’re all visible from ‘The Pinnacle’, Maclean’s commanding 360-degree vantage point and an important Aboriginal site.
A get-away-from-it-all destination, the beautiful coastal town of Iluka is the perfect escape from the daily grind; a small village famous for its World Heritage-listed Iluka Nature Reserve, which is a pocket of natural wonders with excellent surfing, whale watching, walking tracks and panoramic views from Iluka Bluff.
Iluka is the ideal place to take your family and relive your childhood memories – think hot chips, choccy milk, a bag of lollies and sausage rolls after a morning running around the beach. But Iluka is not all about the kids, mum and dad will appreciate the cafes, galleries and boutique stores, as well as great surf and fishing spots – if you love your seafood, you can’t go wrong in Iluka. Bring your bikes, boards, rods and enjoy all that Iluka has to offer.
Surf or river? Your choice is a simple one in Wooli because thanks to its natural landscape you can do both! This beautiful seaside town is located on a narrow peninsula that has Wooli River to its west and the Pacific Ocean to its east, and is encircled by the Yuraygir National Park.
Explore the Wooli River by stand up paddleboard, canoe or boat and see kangaroos and wildlife on its shores. Wooli is the gateway to the Solitary Islands Marine Park, an area protected for its estuaries, beaches, islands and marine life. Go deep-sea diving and explore the natural underwater beauty of this region.
Highlight: Explore some of the vast 100 kilometres of coast and 36 idyllic beaches, on the multi-day Yuraygir Coastal Walk. Whether you choose to walk for a day or four, you’re likely to have close encounters with kangaroos and wallabies, whale-watching (during the winter months), snorkelling and swimming, with overnight stops at beach campgrounds and villages (Angourie, Brooms Head, Sandon, Minnie Water, Wooli) along the way.
Don’t miss these other highlights of the region
Take some time out of your trip, go and do a bit of #exploring – you’ll never know what gems you might find outside of the major towns in the Clarence Valley.
*The Clarence River – Winding from the Clarence Valley hinterland to holiday mecca Yamba, this is the longest river on the east coast of Australia, perfect for yachting, canoeing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, fishing, rowing, house-boating and more.
*Clarence Canoe & Kayak Trail – Covering more than 195 kilometres of river, this exhilarating trail – which happens to be the longest whitewater trail in Australia – offers spectacular scenery including the Clarence Valley Gorge, and an abundance of wildlife (such as the platypus).
*Ulmarra – A visit to Ulmarra is like stepping back in time as the village remains one of the finest examples of a 19th-century Australian river port. The entire village is classified by the National Trust.
*Go camping – With national and state parks making up 51 per cent of its area, the Clarence Valley is a camping and campervanning wonderland and the perfect place to connect with nature. Get out in the wild; your kids will love you for it.
*Convict Tunnel – The Old Glen Innes Road is, as the name suggests, the Old Road that used to connect Grafton and Glen Innes. Tracing the majority of the Mann River upstream, this road takes you through some of the most rugged and beautiful terrain in our area.
Located around 90 minutes from Grafton (just past Dalmorton) is the historic hand-carved tunnel. A common misconception of this tunnel is that it was picked away by convict labour, however it was, in fact, constructed by paid contractors working for Cobb & Co.
12 May – Grafton to Inverell Cycle Classic
5 July to 15 July – July Racing Carnival
October to early November – Jacaranda Season, Grafton
7 October to 4 November – Jacaranda Festival
22 to 28 October – Clarence Valley Country Music Muster
9 to 11 November – Yamba Rod Run