Blissed-out beach break

Surfing the nostalgia wave at Halcyon House

Words: Lee Tulloch, Photography: Tony Amos
Prosecco on balcony at sunset, late surf
pigface, Halcyon House pool
Parko and local birds
fun little waves at dawn
uncrowded fun
Parko desalinating and juicing
passionfruit, banksia
Halcyon House, bottlebrush
bicycles at Halcyon, bike track through bush
Halcyon House, Ben Devlin
carpark and pool Halcyon House
balconies from suites
suite 208
suite 208
down to Cabarita
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Cabarita Beach

is a long sweep of platinum-sanded beach on the northern NSW coast, backed by a tangle of coastal bushland – banksias, casuarina trees and pigface – and punctuated by a headland with heart-stopping views north and south. Even with all the development along the shore, it’s astonishing how many beautiful beaches curve down the coast, for fifty, one hundred kilometres, and how empty of people they are. In this respect, nothing much has changed for decades.

I’m visiting Cabarita for the first time since I was child, when our family packed up the car and drove the coastal route from Melbourne to Noosa in search of sun and surf for the Christmas holidays. In recent years, whenever I’ve headed north it’s been to Byron Bay, where there’s been significant suburban sprawl.

Not so Cabarita (‘Cabbo’ to the locals). It’s that rare, almost mythical place – a seaside village that’s still sleepy, a holdout against the rash of housing estates south of Coolangatta, yet only 15 minutes drive from it. Apart from a few modern houses and shops, it has an old fashioned air. Children run wild and barefoot, like little banshees, along the grassy foreshore, grommets (young surfers) walk the sandy paths to the beach, carrying boards and trailing leg ropes, fishermen stand in the shallows throwing long lines into the sea.

I’m in Cabarita wanting a classic beach holiday, lounging with a book by the pool and taking therapeutic walks along a long beach. Mr Amos, who has surfed since he was ten, is keen to catch a few waves. I like lazy, he likes active. Often it’s tough to find a place to stay that suits us both, especially if we want a dash of luxe thrown in.

But now there’s Halcyon House. Australia’s game-changing boutique hotel sits behind Cabarita’s sand dunes and scrub, framed by spiky pandanus trees, a whitewashed, besser-brick 1960s era motel that has been transformed into a resort that’s more Palm Springs than Gold Coast in style. It’s a little spot of heaven that caters for the sybarite in me while being only steps away from a beach that suits all levels of surfers.

Halcyon House’s ‘Joel Parkinson Experience’ sounds like a 1970s rock band.

Halcyon House’s creators, Brisbane-based sisters Elisha and Siobhan Bickle, aptly named their new hotel for the ‘halcyon days’ of classic Australian holidays on the beach. They discovered the dilapidated 1960s Hideaway motel when looking for a holiday retreat for their families (including the nine children they share between them.) Gradually, the idea of sharing their great find with others took hold and the building underwent an extensive renovation by architect Virginia Kerridge and interior designer Anna Spiro, including adding an extra storey to make 21 rooms, opening up the kitchen and dining areas, and extending the pool. A crack team of hoteliers was imported from Italy and Halcyon House opened in May.

At its heart the hotel is still the daggy, much-adored beachside motel Australians treasure, albeit glammed-up and with a 21st Century price tag. Guests are welcomed with home made ice cream rather than champagne; the acclaimed restaurant, Paper Daisy, helmed by chef Jason Barratt, offers a wonderfully nostalgic prawn and avocado sandwich for lunch; there are stand-up bicycles on hand for free-wheeling along the boardwalk that runs for kilometres along the shore, and Eskies and umbrellas for the beach; local fisherman pull up to the bar for coffee on their way back from the surf. There’s even a kookaburra on tap to wake you up in the morning.

While I stake my claim to one of the striped sun lounges by the pool, which is heated in winter, Mr Amos is naturally keen to check out the surf. There’s a view of the beach break from the terrace of our suite and the swell is deemed small but ‘fun.’ As it turns out, the north coast beaches have been closed that morning because a massive pod of whales frolicking out to sea and a migrating school of fish mean there’s likely to be sharks out there. Not that this deters the surfer at all.

Coming along to surf with Mr Amos is Joel Parkinson, 34, winner of eleven elite surfing world title events and World Champion in 2012, who has been recruited as the hotel’s surfing ambassador. Whenever he’s not competing on the World Surf League tour, he’s on hand to give surfing lessons to guests keen to learn to stand up on a board, improve their surfing skills, or just hang out with one of the world’s great sporting champions.

Halcyon House’s ‘Joel Parkinson Experience’ sounds like a 1970s rock band. Parko, as he is affectionately known, grew up in the district, went to school at Palm Beach Currumbin high school, was mentored after school by local surfing heroes such as Mark Occhilupo, and now raises three young children on these shores. The morning he arrives at Halcyon House to surf, he’s just dropped his two daughters, 11 and 7, at school. The eldest girl is already taking after dad and discovering the ‘addictive thrill’ of surfing. As they say, there’s obviously something in the water.

‘There’s usually no one on the beach and when the waves are good, you’ve got it all to yourself.’

Parkinson derives genuine joy from sharing his love of the surf. ‘I get a kick out of teaching people to surf, making someone’s surfing experience a little better,’ he says. His sister, Bianca Richards, and her husband Mark Richards, himself a four-time world champion, have a surf school at Currumbin, Surfing Service Australia, and he sometimes drops in to give impromptu lessons to ‘surprise’ the students. The best buzz is when someone learns to stand up on the board for the first time. The thrill is ‘amazing’ he says.

Mr Amos, an experienced surfer who’d like some tips on improving his technique, is game for the lesson, despite lurking sharks. Who wouldn’t be ‘stoked’ to have the amiable and charming Parko as a surfing buddy?

There’s not much swell and the waves are small. An hour later, the surfers return to jump into Halcyon’s heated pool.  Over the course of the hour, Mr. Amos has been impressed by Parkinson’s ability to ‘really carve’ even a very small wave. ‘As someone to learn from, he has such an easy, gentle manner and a way of imparting information without any ego or dogma. If the surf was a bit more challenging, I could have really learnt some things from him.’

‘He’s the supreme stylist. Some surfers push it really hard and their style is ugly but Joel has to be the smoothest surfer on the planet.’

Parkinson offers advice to anyone thinking of tackling the district’s beaches, which vary in suitability for beginners: ‘Unless you’re ocean-savvy, you should think about having a lesson. You’ll learn the basics and get better so much quicker. A lot of it is about knowing where to be in the ocean.’

Like all surfers, Parkinson is cagey about giving away all of his favourite breaks along the coast. His advice is to ‘just pull up’ along any one of the dozens of unmarked access tracks that lead to the beaches. ‘There’s usually no one on the beach and when the waves are good, you’ve got it all to yourself. The tracks are goldmines.’

As for me, I’m just happy to leave it to the surfers, with a glass of prosecco by the pool, where there’s no such thing as sharks.

Halcyon House Reservations.

Mr and Mrs Amos were guests of Halcyon House.


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