Everyone knows a place (or wants to find one) where life is easy. A place where it’s easy to feel at home, easy to lose track of time, and easy to focus on good living with family and friends. Bellingen is all that. It’s set in superb surrounds in the Bellinger River valley about 30 minutes south of Coffs Harbour and inland a bit along the iconic Waterfall Way. I thought very seriously about keeping it to myself, but in the end I decided to share with you one of the most amazing places on Earth. Just don’t all go at once, ok?
Slip your Ugg-boots on, make yourself a cup of herbal tea or something, and settle in for a comprehensive guide to some of the best bits of Bellingen.
The Bellinger valley has been worked by cedar cutters and farmers since the early 1840s and the town of Bellingen was established in 1864. It began as an administrative centre for the logging and dairying district and continued this way for many years until the 1970s brought an influx of people seeking alternative lifestyles. Fast forward to 2018 and the farmers, the old hippies, and now the east-coast elite, all mix happily together here in this special little village.
Things to see and do in Bellingen
Hyde Street is Bellingen’s ‘main street’ and guides the Waterfall Way through the heart of town. Here’s just some of the things to see and do:
Hammond and Wheatley Commercial Emporium
This imposing two-storey, state heritage listed building was completed in 1909 and was the first concrete block and rolled-steel beam building in NSW. Up until that time no other building in regional NSW had required such complicated engineering. Ornate pressed metal ceilings and intricate woodwork are hallmarks of the refined space now housing trendy clothing, art, housewares, and gift stores.
Opened in 1901 and now sharply updated inside and out, the Federal Hotel is a classic country pub. You can have a drink with the locals on the deck alongside the laneway, or soak in the cosy Bello vibe on the balmy back deck and enjoy meals from the award-winning bistro. It also hosts plenty of live music acts to enjoy.
Hearthfire Organic Woodfired Sourdough Bakery
Tucked away down its own little pedestrian laneway, Hearthfire is a local institution serving artisan bread, coffee and cake, light meals and amazing pies and pastries!
Bellingen Brewery and Co
Down the end of that same little laneway next to the Federal Hotel you’ll find a rustic vine covered shed which houses the Bellingen Brewery and Co. Their wood-fired pizza’s, eclectic atmosphere, live music, and the selection of beers and wines may, as some have said, have you feeling like you’ve found a new home.
Bellingen Gelato Bar
This surprising little village even has its own gelato bar, and for good reason. You need to try some of their crazier flavour combinations. When you visit they might have Stewed Plum with Cinnamon and Cloves sorbet or Thai Coconut and Pandan gelato to enjoy.
Seriously, this place even has a sweet shop! Handmade chocolate treats and truffles are the real star at Sweet Bellingen but there’s plenty of cheerful sweets from all over the world.
A huge space offering light meals and the best coffee I’ve tasted outside of Italy. Sit down with the locals (most of them are probably on their laptops) or wander around the store and check out the boutique clothing and other wares on sale. Hyde has an online store if you feel the need to inject some Bellingen style into your life when you get home. Is it a shop within a café, or the other way around? You should go and decide for yourself.
So much more on Hyde St
Bellingen Greengrocers on the corner of Hyde and Church Streets offers organic and all local fruit and veg. Just down the road, you’ll find a bright little shop of everything alternative. Soul Kindle is a jampacked little pocket-rocket of a store that’s all about eclectic gifts and recycled wares. There’s two more bakeries, a butcher, chemist, hardware, newsagent, a pizza shop, Chinese takeaway, art gallery, a bookshop, more cafes, more clothing stores and so much more to explore in this packed and vibrant main street community along Hyde Street.
Church Street has its intersection with Hyde Street right in the centre of town. The riverside cul-de-sac is the centre of a plaza-like space with a chilled vibe overlooking the Bellinger River. Here are the places you really need to check out on Church Street:
Kombu is run as a social enterprise and is all about considering the social and environmental impacts as much as the financial aspects of everything they sell. It really fits the vibe of the town and is a hub for the locals. Foodies will have a ball shopping at Kombu.
No 5 Church St
This place is amazing. The standouts here are the drinks, all of them, and the Buffalo Burger. Get the hot chips too, they are hand-made and so fluffy, yet crispy! You won’t find better hot chips anywhere. A lazy lunch on a sunny day at No 5 is a super-sized slice of the good life.
Cedar Bar and Kitchen
Cedar Bar and Kitchen on Church Street is in a 110-year-old building which was formerly home to a church near the intersection of Hyde and Church Streets. The open plan dining, the fairy lights, and the tall trees all take the beauty of this space to another level. If you’re after a sophisticated and friendly dining experience in Bellingen then try Cedar Bar and Kitchen.
Old Butter Factory
Head just out of town towards Coffs and you’ll find the Old Butter Factory, a cool little craft complex housed in what was at different times a sawmill, a shipyard, a butter factory, and a car dealership. Click here for more details. There’s plenty of artisan traders in there and something for everyone, including a café which again, makes awesome coffee. Awesome coffee seems to be a thing in Bellingen wherever you choose to go! The Old Butter Factory is definitely a go-to if you want to buy holiday gifts for everyone back home.
Travellers Tip – The IGA supermarket in Bellingen has decent prices on its huge range and an excellent deli and takeaway section. It has everything (and more!) that city supermarkets provide. It’s next to the Hammond and Wheatley building on Hyde St. For the budget conscious there’s excellent lunch and dinner specials at Diggers Tavern and the Bellingen Golf Club bistro. They both make great meals and it feels like you’re getting locals’ prices.
That’s almost the food and retail side of Bellingen summed up (I haven’t forgotten the markets!) but Bellingen has plenty of other attractions in and around town to check out. Hopefully you’ll check them out or make time to visit when the events are on!
The area has a rich history. It’s the homeland of the Gumbaynggirr people who were sadly decimated during settlement, but some still live in the area. Generations of families have worked in logging and sawmilling, and farming and dairying throughout the district. Bellingen wasn’t always the alternative idyll it is now and the museum is an interesting place to reflect on how history has led to the Bellingen we have today.
There’s a lot of events in Bellingen but a few are such standouts that they need to be mentioned separately:
Bellingen Community Markets
The Bellingen Community Markets have been around since 1980 and I’ve only been lucky enough to be in town to visit them a couple times over the decades. The markets are held on the third Saturday of the month, every month, from 8am-2.30pm. With a whopping 260 stalls there is a ridiculous amount of stuff going on here. Crafts, second-hand, food, buskers, furniture, books, and fashion. Why I drove from Adelaide to Bellingen and back to pick up a handmade table we ordered from a guy at the Bellingen Markets is another story.
Writers Festival and Jazz Festival
Held on the June long weekend each year. This year the festival featured famous writers Peter Greste and Michael Leunig. It’s an in-depth exploration of the inspiration Bellingen can bring to writers and is very popular. The annual Bellingen Jazz Festival has also developed a reputation as being one of the best in NSW.
Bellingen is a beautiful town but the bucolic scenery that surrounds it invokes a sense of peace and plenty like few other places in the world. Here are some of them:
The Bellinger River flows from just below the escarpment at Ebor to its mouth near Urunga. It flows clean and clear most of the year and is tidal up until the nearby settlement of Fernmount where you’ll find Bellinger River Canoe Adventures. They’ll pick you up before sunrise to enjoy a lazy drift down the river and pick you up again wherever you choose to finish your paddle. For a half day paddle, try starting at Bellingen, and finish your paddle at Fernmount. That way there’s no chance of having to fight an incoming tide and going with the river’s flow makes for an easy paddle.
This is the bridge (built and rebuilt many times, and finally rebuilt as it is now in 1999) over the Bellinger River that connects the northern side of Bellingen to its southern side. Usually this is a part of the river that is a beautiful town swimming hole amid a park setting, but due to the high rainfall events that happen sometimes upstream it is prone to severe and rapid flooding. Flooding is so much a part of life in Bellingen that there’s even a webcam overlooking the bridge here.
Promised Land and Never Never Creek
Cross Lavenders Bridge and find your way out of Bellingen into the country around Gleniffer and Never Never Creek and a pristine and pure slice of lush country awaits. Follow the course of Never Never Creek through what’s known locally as ‘The Promised Land’ as it winds its way from the mountains to the Bellinger River. It’s sunny at times but according to north coast locals, it rains a lot up there, and it always rains in the promised land first.
Thora – Rosewood Creek
This is where the Waterfall Way begins the short but abrupt climb up to the Dorrigo plateau. Roses Park next to the General Store is good for RV’s, campervans and camping. It’s free and beautiful and run by volunteers, so do the right thing, and give them a donation. Thora is more of a locality than a town. Just up the hill out of town you’ll find Gordonville Road which will take you across Rosewood Creek back towards Gleniffer and the promised land if you like. The Gordonville road bridge over Rosewood Creek is usually a peaceful setting in an area that has long been favoured as a swimming hole by locals.
The Waterfall Way is an exceptionally scenic drive from the Pacific Highway near Urunga and runs west to Bellingen and Dorrigo, and beyond to Armidale. From the Pacific Highway to Thora it’s a placid and beautiful little road trip. Shortly after that the road becomes a tight and twisting route perched on the escarpment amongst towering old growth rainforest. The section from Thora to Dorrigo features two remarkable single lane bridges across waterfalls that plunge from high above to the valley below.
Dorrigo Rainforest Centre. Skywalk and waterfalls
Before you reach Dorrigo on your way ‘up’ the Waterfall Way you’ll reach the turnoff to Dorrigo Rainforest Centre and its iconic skywalk. It’s very accessible and anyone can have a coffee and a cake or light meal, browse the shop and head out onto the skywalk. The boardwalk reaches out over the forest canopy of the escarpment and commands a wide view across the Never Never and Bellinger Valley toward the Pacific Ocean. The short walks that begin at the visitor centre are worth investigating if you have the time. Some walks require considerable ability and others are moderate. The Crystal Showers Falls track takes you down to where you can stand behind an awe inspiring jungle waterfall! It’s an easy track to walk but pace yourself and allow a few hours return. Always check the maps and notices at the centre before walking for details.
Where to stay in Bellingen
If you want to stick around for a while, there are plenty of accommodation options, but book early for the best! The area is getting very popular with all sorts of tourists, all year round. There’s backpacker style accommodation overlooking the river at the YHA in the centre of town. The Federal Hotel has excellent boutique style rooms. Diggers has great motel style rooms. The Bellingen Valley Lodge is located out of town and is a nice motel style resort. The area has plenty of Bed and Breakfast accommodation. You can camp and park an RV or caravan at Bellingen Showgrounds. I mentioned an RV parking option upstream at the park in Thora while the Bellinger River Tourist Park at Repton is closer to the mouth of the river. It has camping and van sites and units, most of them on the water front and is an excellent family-friendly park featuring the best caravan park amenity block I’ve ever seen (individual bathrooms!). We recently found a farm stay on the Kalang River and you can find all the other options through the Coffs Coast website here. Farm stays are an affordable option for families and I think they’re in the spirit of having plenty of room to breathe around Bellingen.
That’s what you’ll get in beautiful Bellingen. You’ll get the room to breathe.
How to get to Bellingen
It’s less than a day’s drive from Sydney or Brisbane and two days drive from Melbourne and Adelaide. You can also fly (often with transfers in Sydney) from most cities in Australia to Coffs Harbour and hire a car or book a transfer to Bellingen from there.
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