By Simon Haslam
Despite having lived around Byron for nearly 30 years, I am still in love with it. Although I spend most of my time on the wide, long beaches, the area near the lighthouse has ‘character’. I love the rocks coming down to the ocean, a towering headland looking across a vast ocean, secluded coves and white-sand beaches beneath the cliffs, with trees to shade you.
The Rae’s building itself, constructed of stone with little twists and turns, staircases and rounded walls, archways and shutters in the rooms and balconies with views of the ocean, has a decidedly un-modern feel, quite unlike most contemporary resorts.
Having a quick tour around Rae’s recently, and sitting in its restaurant looking out over the beach from the secluded corner of Wategos, I was reminded of the thrill of traveling overseas and finding a place like this. Of course you have to pay $600+ per night to actually stay at Rae’s, but it’s nice to be able to come and eat, relatively cheaply, somewhere that makes you feel like you’re travelling somewhere special for a while.
Attending Rae’s with longtime Echo photographer Jeff ‘Faulty memory card’ Dawson was a trip back in time. Jeff arrived in Byron from Sydney’s northern beaches in the early 80s with his surfboard and not much money. One of his first Byron jobs was washing dishes in the restaurant, then known as the Argentine Ant Cantina. The restaurant, which later became known as La Belle Epoque, was located under Ruth Harris’s 1960s house, with its white curved walls and movie-star looks – that is now Rae’s.
‘Ruth was quite eccentric,’ said Jeff. ‘Elements of the house design were apparently inspired by Salvador Dali, and Liberace once played the piano there. Ruth was like Byron Bay’s resident queen.’
Vincent Rae bought Ruth’s house in 1984 for $1.375m and turned it into Rae’s, the luxury boutique retreat that was dramatically withdrawn from sale on auction day in 2013 after being sold for a price rumoured to be in excess of $20m to a purchaser, reported to be London trader William Morris, who failed to complete.
Vinnie out of the picture
The property’s recent history then began when it went back on the market and a half-share was purchased in 2013 for about $7m by Antony Catalano, CEO of the hugely profitable real estate advertising vehicle the Domain Group, with a planned $1m of renovations in the pipeline, including a 10-car underground garage.
However, it was not until Catalano bought out the share of the colourful Vincent in 2014 that the overdue renovations were finally set in motion. Now ‘Vinnie’, as he was known around town, is completely out of the picture, locals will have to rely on their memories for the telling and retelling of their favourite stories about him.
Overseeing the ongoing transformations is the relaxed and affable Jordan (Jordy) Catalano, Antony’s 26-year-old entrepreneurial son, founder of the ApartmentDevelopments.com.au guide to apartment sales, and Rae’s managing director. ‘The construction of a 10-car underground garage beneath the existing building will be quite a logistical challenge,’ said Jordy, who expects the carpark to be completed by 2018. In the 1950s locals considered that the banana farm that is now Wategos could not be safely built upon at all.
Jordy has also other less onerous duties such as ensuring that all is ship-shape with Sea Rae’s; a 26.6-metre super yacht, which will be available to charter, as well as offering ‘The Rae’s Experience’, which will pick up guests from their city, take them to Rae’s in Byron Bay, and then onto the Rae’s super yacht.
The Rae’s Experience will also include Air Rae’s; a private jet, which will be offered to charter and fly guests to and from Rae’s.
Current look minimalistic
The luxe boutique resort, spa and restaurant has just been given a makeover by well-known Sydney-based interior designer Tamsin Johnson.
‘Rae’s is already a very special place to stay or visit, but it hasn’t been renovated since its original owners so we felt it was only time to refurbish the building and rooms to take it to the next level,’ said Jordy.
Rae’s engaged Tamsin, who has breathed new life into the building and rooms, using a minimalistic and unpretentious coastal approach that feels more like a home than a hotel.
Using natural fabrics and a monochrome muted palette, Tamsin has incorporated custom joinery, rattan woven furniture in one-off designs, Sisal rugs, obscure pieces and pops of greenery throughout the rooms and building.
‘The overall intention was to pull it right back and start a fresh with a natural and beachy palette,’ said Tamsin of the refurbishment.
Tamsin and her team chased every wall in Rae’s to install 63 wall lights that have been designed and custom made in a plaster finish and sculpture design for all the internal fittings and throughout the façade, and all common areas the lights have been replaced with giant sculptural concrete white shells.
She sourced and imported a few items from an antique fair in Parma, Italy, including the wrought-iron chandelier and the carved concrete face that sits above a sea of agave plants in the entry.
Rattan chairs have been hand woven and custom made to match the cane newspaper holders that will bring the news each morning.
Rae’s Restaurant, a 50-seat alfresco dining room that overlooks Wategos Beach and offers a predominately seafood driven menu. Head chef Guy Skinner and his team work with local fishermen to source the best seafood each day with signature dishes such as the Moreton Bay Bug Raviolo and Daily Sashimi.
From now until the end of November, Rae’s welcomes locals to come and toast the revitalisation of Rae’s with a complementary glass of sparkling on arrival for bookings from Monday–Thursday. Mention the Locals’ Special when booking your table.
More info: Rae’s Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, and bookings are essential. The spa is also available to non-guests and open daily by appointment.
Room bookings can be made via www.raes.com.au or call 6685 5366.