Japan has its world-famous Sakura cherry blossom festival, but here in NSW on the far north coast we have something even better.
While the Japanese go crazy for blossoms that last only a few days at best, Grafton’s jacaranda season paints the town purple for the best part of a month. Even better, the locals – who, since 1934, have been celebrating the lusciously lilac-coloured blooms every year in spring with a whimsical and delightfully retro festival – know how to have fun. If you’re looking for a sure-fire way to banish the lockdown blues, go mauve.
Why Grafton’s jacaranda season is unique
One of the things that makes the Grafton Jacaranda season such a special event is that it’s all about the trees, which means they decide when the show begins (although all the signs this year seem to indicate that the official season will be from 21 October to 11 November).
Mother Nature has the final say, of course, but usually the first blossoms start to show in early to mid-October and are in full bloom in the second half of the month. By November, Grafton’s streets are carpeted in fallen purple flowers. The brand new Illuminate event in See Park runs after dark on various evenings between Friday 22 October and Friday 12 November, lighting up the trees from 7.30pm.
If renowned painter Claude Monet had a bucket list you can bet Grafton would have been on it. Walking through the tunnels of purple-painted trees is the closest thing you’ll ever experience to stepping inside one of his beautiful impressionist paintings, and it’s all just crying out to be captured with a camera. If you’re lucky enough to be under a jacaranda when there’s a breeze blowing it’s like being showered with purple rain. Whatever time of day, you’re guaranteed to get some pretty awesome shots.
How to catch the purple haze
You’ll find jacarandas on almost every corner in Grafton – there are more than 1700 of the trees in town – but for maximum purple exposure, and perfect photo spots, stroll along Pound St, past Market Square, the Clock Tower (you can’t miss it, it’s decorated with a huge crown of lights to celebrate the coming of the flowers, a tradition that dates back to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II) and the giant fig trees, a splash of green amongst the mauve.
The regional art gallery in heritage-listed Prentice House is on Fitzroy Street, which is worth a look (snap a selfie on the famous giant purple Grafton Chair, one of the gallery’s most popular works of art), as is the Schaeffer House Museum, full of fascinating local history. Turn right when you get to Turf Street and follow the violet carpet until you hit Dobie St, then keep going until you hit Prince Street (if you’re not humming his Purple Rain already you soon will be) and follow the flowers back to the Clock Tower. Don’t worry about trying to memorise directions because there’s a handy jacaranda map that pinpoints the best photo ops along the way.
2021 is the year to tick it off your bucket list
While the city shimmers in a purple haze for the best part of a month, things really get colourful during the 10 days of the Jacaranda Festival. The frivolities kick off with dancing in Market Square on Friday 29 October, and keep going until Sunday 7 November. Highlights include the Grand Parade and crowning of the Jacaranda Queen on Saturday 6 November, but there are also markets, concerts, musicals, comedy shows, long lunches, afternoon teas, cocktail parties, special dinners, art exhibitions, garden tours, a thrill ride and carnival, hot air balloon flights, and all sorts of cultural events.
Everyone in town, including all the shops, gets into the spirit of things by dressing up in their finest purple gear, particularly on Jacaranda Thursday, where the donning of purple leis is a thing. Even the food puts on a purple show: special treats to try include plum-tinted ice cream and the Festival Punch Purple Lemonade.
Green beyond the mauve
Should you be looking to expand your coloured horizons, take a stroll down Breimba Street beneath an arch of giant fig trees so special they are listed by the National Trust, or head a little further afield into the World Heritage-listed rainforest of Iluka. See the shipwreck of Australia’s only train ferry on the Grafton Bridge Walk, paddle a kayak to Susan Island in the middle of the Clarence River for more rainforest, or hit the surf in Yamba and tuck into some of the world’s best prawns while you’re there. Back in Grafton, take a trip down memory lane walking (or cycling) the heritage trail – check out the marvellous cathedral and the imposing gaol – and stroll down South Grafton’s charmingly retro main street. Historic hotels, all iron lace and deep shady verandas, offer the perfect vantage point for an hour or two of people watching, which beats a Netflix binge for entertainment any day.
It’s all about slowing down, taking time to smell the flowers, relaxing with a cool drink – or a good book – in the shade, and soaking up the sunshine with a picnic lunch. Spring time in Grafton is a dreamy reminder that the world really is still a wonderful place.
- Fun purple facts: The first jacaranda was planted in Grafton back in 1879. Native to Central and South America, the first seeds were thought to have been brought to Australia by sea captains. The trees can live for more than 200 years, and as well as the iconic blue-mauve flowers they can also sport blossoms in maroon and white. The leaves, flowers and bark have a range of health benefits: hot jacaranda leaf baths are said to do wonderful things for your skin.
- Where to stay: For family fun, try the Blue Dolphin Holiday Resort in Yamba, or opt for a classic pub stay in the centre of Grafton at the Crown Hotel Motel or the historic Ulmarra Hotel just down the road. Enjoy Federation-style comfort (and a pool) at The Rosary Bed and Breakfast, a slice of fine country life at Clarence River B&B, or live the coastal vanlife at Wooli’s Solitary Island Marine Park Resort. For details, and suggestions on other places to stay, check out Clarence Valley’s comprehensive list of accommodation.