A "TASTE" OF FAMILY ATTRACTIONS
IN THE NORTHERN RIVERS
Debbie Kruger 1995
Does the word "bananas" make you think of pyjamas? Maybe it's time to put aside the trappings of modern technology and media mayhem, and get back in touch with the environment, educate yourself a little in ecological pursuits, while still giving the family great and inexpensive entertainment.
Bypass the hi-tech theme parks of the Gold Coast one weekend and travel further south, across the NSW border, for an array of aromas and taste sensations in plantations and environment centres that have recognised the value of hopping onto the eco-tourism bandwagon and refocussed their businesses around daily interaction with the general public.
From the Tweed Valley down to the Clarence region, you can take in a plantation with the widest range of tropical and rare fruit grown in Australia, the world's first commercial Tea Tree plantation, and others specialising in coffee, macadamia nuts or you've got it bananas.
In fact, there's a whole festival centred around the banana the Tweed Valley Banana Festival, running in and around Murwillumbah from August 25 to September 3. In its 40th year, and the recipient of several NSW tourism awards, the Banana Festival is your basic country festival event with animal shows, street parades, fireworks and obligatory crowning of the Festival Queen.
The Tweed Art Prize coincides with the Festival, held at the Tweed River Art Gallery, the Northern Rivers' best equipped and most attractively located regional gallery, and the Festival's characters, "Banana Jim" and "Sugar Sue" bring a touch of eco-Disneyland to the proceedings.
At heart, though, is a consciousness about the land and the environment which drives the tourism operators throughout the region. Pioneer Plantation, an 85 ha property at Mooball, south of Murwillumbah, has belonged to the Marshall family since the 1860s, and throughout the 20th century has primarily grown bananas. While bananas are still a mainstay, with 28,000 banana plants covering 16 ha, the Marshalls have now recognised a more lucrative market in tourism.
The Marshalls pioneered the region in the days of the cedar-getters and that pioneering spirit is the central theme at this very family-oriented attraction. An adventure tour in four-wheel drive vehicles takes you through the banana growing section while offering some breathtaking views of the Tweed coast. Pioneer Plantation's native gardens and rainforest have won a Greening Australia award, and the kids will always enjoy the farm animals. The fully licensed restaurant with seating on comfortable wide verandahs offers a selection of country-style meals and afternoon teas and yes, bananas feature predominantly on the dessert menu.
Further north of Murwillumbah at Duranbah is the evocatively named Avocado Adventureland. Another family business, it was established by the Brinsmeads around 21 years ago as an idyllic place to raise a young family, and over the years the younger generation realised the value making their private sanctuary accessible to the public.
You can't miss the giant avocado on the Pacific Highway, but don't let kitsch put you off; this is perhaps the most enjoyable and distinctive environmental attraction in northern NSW. Its enticing 50 ha tropical fruit orchard grows over 300 varieties of tropical and rare fruit some of which are very new and still in the research stage such as ice cream trees, chocolate pudding fruit, chewing gum trees and miracle fruit, which completely changes your taste buds to make sour foods taste sweet. After you've explored the orchards in vehicle or on foot, you can purchase your own selection of fruits from the fruit market on site.
There is also an expansive recreational nature reserve with walks, canal cruises, train rides, an animal park, magic garden show and playground facilities. Avocado Adventureland deserves a day-trip all of its own, and make sure you're hungry because the restaurant has an impressive menu featuring avocado in every possible application, and the gift shop offers a wide range of natural avocado health and beauty products.
Still in the Tweed, Tree Tops Environment Centres at Condong produces handcrafted furniture from Australian wood, has an art and craft gallery, yet another excellent restaurant, the Verandah Restaurant, offering one of the regions premier dining experiences, and an agro-forestry component.
Founded by Jill Griffith and now managed by her son Gervase, the switch in focus over the past two years from furniture gallery to environment centre has included an extensive reforestation program providing an educational experience for visitors who can take in the life cycle of a tree from growth and fall to creation of functional piece.
The philosophy of the Griffiths is to stress the balance between man and nature, to live in harmony with the environment. The international export successes of Griffith Furniture now go hand in hand with a conscious attempt to give back locally by creating a lifestyle experience, with cabins being built on site for tourists to stay and immerse themselves in the milieu.
For a less intellectual experience but an entertaining diversion while travelling further south down the Pacific Highway, Macadamia Land at Knockrow Castle has native flora and fauna picnic parks, mini golf, playground, and the kind of gift shop you'll be hard pressed to tear the kids away from. There are hot macadamia nuts to taste and buy, but it's not a processing facility, more a tourist park for the road-weary.
For a closer rendezvous with that indigenous Australian nut, Macadamia Magic at Alphadale, east of Lismore, offers hourly tours of the factory, which processes 45 tonnes of nuts a day. Owned and operated by local macadamia growers, Macadamia Magic is the largest processing plant of the nut in the country, and 90% of its produce is exported, most to the United States.
The factory is set on a plantation which grows many tropical fruits alongside the macadamia trees, and a tourist annexe and café offers light meals with a focus on macadamia nuts, of course. Try the ice-cream, which is delicious.
One of the greatest small business success stories of northern NSW is Christopher and Lynda Dean's Thursday Plantation, the "home" of tea tree oil not only in Australia but in the world. The Deans call it nature's own factory, and Thursday Plantation, just north of Ballina, is unique and absolutely captivating.
Research and development, manufacture and export are into six figures and more, but the tourist centre is proving to be an absolute boon to the Deans at a time when visitors are seeking information and edification.
The history of tea tree is set out in an elaborate display section, but just surveying the enormous range of products available in the shop is instructive enough. The range of uses for tea tree oil is mind-boggling, and the setting, amidst over one million tea trees and a regenerating rainforest, is magical. Lunch and snacks are available in the tea house with its tranquil garden setting, but don't be surprised if you can't sit still amidst the array of information and produce.
Finally, if you're heading further south stop off at Woombah in the Clarence Valley before you get to Grafton, and visit the world's southern-most coffee plantation. Wombah Coffee is made by a pair of charming long-time companions, Joy Phelps and Joan Dibden, who started the plantation in 1982 after successful inroads in coffee growing. Although they no longer pick the coffee berries themselves, due to time constraints, they still carry through the entire production process from pulping and fermenting to hulling and roasting just the two of them.
The small plantation is open for inspection, but if time is limited, at least a visit to the coffee house and a sample of their distinctive blend is essential. Try their "cappu-latte," a special recipe the ladies claim only works with Wombah Coffee, where the coffee and milk are blended and then frothed together.
And if you're not yet suffering from sensory overload, you could always continue south and check out Coffs Harbour's Big Banana...