Nature comes at its most humbling and inspiring form in the Clarence Valley, a landscape shaped by rivers, dotted with beaches and enveloped by World Heritage-listed rainforest reserves. Part of the Northern Rivers region on the North Coast of NSW, it’s characterised by sleepy fishing villages and coastal hamlets where surfing, swimming and salty hair dominate daily routines. The lush countryside nurtures a creative population, who host everything from forward-thinking galleries and history-celebrating festivals, to markets showcasing the local bounty.
The valley’s main town, historic Grafton (founded 1851) sits on the banks of the Clarence River, Australia’s largest east-coast river system. It’s a lush landscape for 2,000 jacaranda trees along broad avenues, inspiring the country’s oldest floral fete, the Jacaranda Festival, held each year in late October/early November.
Grafton’s well-preserved colonial buildings can be explored on the self-guided Heritage Trail, linking National Trust buildings and attractions including the 1915 Bendy Bridge. You’ll also pass the Grafton Regional Gallery, a cultural hub home to 3,000 works from the likes of Ken Done and Doris O’Grady, as well as Market Square, the site of Thursday eve’s Twilight Farmers Market.
Clarence River rambles
Whether you’re based in Grafton or Maclean, the wilds of the Clarence River await. Take on Australia’s longest whitewater trail in the upper Clarence Valley. The canoe and kayak route flows 195 kilometres along the Clarence, Mann and Nymboida rivers, with varied conditions offering everything from a calm paddle to some of some of the country’s most challenging Grade Five rapids.
If you prefer to navigate the waterway at a more leisurely pace, hire a houseboat and spend days swimming and sailing, perhaps going ashore to discover Maclean’s Scottish attractions or enjoy a picnic on the banks.
At the mouth of the mighty Clarence, where the river finally tumbles into the sea, lie the sun-kissed coastal towns of Iluka and Yamba. The former sits on its northern bank of the estuary, surrounded by the immense Iluka Nature Reserve, part of the UNESCO-listed Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. To get to Yamba on the southern bank, catch a ride with Clarence River Ferries.
Avid anglers come here to fish, but Yamba’s prawns are just as tasty – the perfect way to refuel after a morning riding the waves at nearby Angourie Point, one of Australia’s National Surfing Reserves. Then explore the coast here on a multi-day hike through the Yuraygir National Park, uniting striking cliffs with rocky headlands, remote beaches and quiet lakes wrapped in forests, heaths and wetlands. The national park continues south to Wooli, a fishing village on a narrow peninsula with the Wooli Wooli River on one side and the Solitary Islands Marine Park on the other.
Getting there & where to stay
The Clarence Valley is a 7.5hr drive north from Sydney, or a five-hour commute south from Brisbane. By train or bus, the journey from Sydney takes between nine and 10 hours. Depending on your choice of base, accommodation around the valley ranges from waterfront holiday parks and resorts to hinterland retreats, heritage pubs, motels, hostels and campgrounds within national parks. You can even hire a houseboat and sleep right on the river while you explore the region.
Fly into Clarence Valley Airport
Clarence Valley Regional Airport is located 12km from Grafton’s town centre. Use the taxi services available at the terminal to make the short trip northwest. Alternatively, rent a car from the hire services available at the airport and explore the region at your own pace.
Regional Express flies direct between Sydney and Clarence Valley Regional Airport three days a week. For other major Australian cities, connect via Sydney for travel into Grafton.