Grafton is the most boring place in the entire world, EVER. Well, that was the deeply considered view of 16-year-old me.
Like most people who grew up in the country and then moved to the big city, and like most people in general, I did not appreciate what I had when I had it. I have a big family back in the town I still consider home and on my fairly frequent trips I am still amazed at times by how beautiful it is. I couldn’t see the forest for the jacaranda trees when I grew up there.
Grafton is spread across both sides of the Clarence River and although it is one of the bigger towns on the north coast of New South Wales, it’s still very much a place where a stranger in the supermarket can look at me and say, “You must be a Jabour.” (It’s the nose.)
Travellers on the Pacific Highway will know it for its two-storey McDonald’s (iconic when I was a teenager), but venture past the Maccas and across the bridge and you will find a charming town with great bars and restaurants, as well as some surprising shopping finds.
Jacaranda season (last week of October/first week of November) is when it really shines and when non-locals should try to visit. Grafton hosts its annual Jacaranda festival with a float parade, a markets day and fireworks. The week begins with the crowning of the Jacaranda Queen. There’s plenty to do and a real carnival vibe about the place – school kids are given a day off on “Jacaranda Thursday”.
Spend a weekend walking the streets, visiting the gloriously old-school Saraton Cinema and eating and drinking in the various cafes and pubs.
It’s also only 20 minutes-ish from some of the most gorgeous beaches on the north coast, including Minnie Water and Wooli (suck it, Byron Bay). If you’re scared of waves, Grafton also has one of the best local pools I’ve encountered, with lots of grassy space, a huge water slide and separate pool for little kids.
Ulmarra, a village about 15 minutes away, is worth an afternoon trip. There you can have lunch on the river at the local pub. Afterwards explore the eccentric book shop, whose phenomenal range of books is stacked so precariously, you feel you could be buried at any minute. It’s all part of the charm.
Grafton also has a shopping centre, which you don’t really need to go to, but if you have a spare 45 minutes to chat and you meet a woman with a Northern Irish accent in there, please say hello to my mum.
This is a place where you will need a car. To get to the pool, to get to some of the places to eat, to get to the beaches and to get to Grafton itself.
Don’t leave without: Visiting Jacaranda Avenue, which is lined with trees and magnificent when they are in full bloom. Have a drink at the Crown, which has the best views of the river.
Where to sleep: You’re not going to get the luxury hotel experience in Grafton, but I enjoy the Quality Inn for its convenient location and lovely rooms. There are also some cute rental homes around. The nicest ones are on the north side of the river, which is usually just referred to as Grafton.
Where to eat: The Emporium at South Grafton has the best lunches and will also mean you can have a look around Skinner Street which has some truly original clothing shops. I have found a lot of gems there. The best steak is cooked by my cousin Brad Pye at the Grafton Hotel. I give him no extra points for being family. Annola Thai Restaurant on Prince Street is deadset one of my favourite Thai places in Australia. Big River Pizza IS my favourite pizza in Australia.
When to go: October/November when the jacarandas are in bloom and it’s perfect swimming weather.