Before turning into a hotelier, Julia Ashwood was a globetrotter, documenting her travel finds and adventures on Instagram. “I was always looking for that special touch, that individualism that was like no other,” Ashwood tells Broadsheet. “You go to a lot of properties that feel like they’re lacking a little bit of soul, or feel like you’ve seen them before.”

When Ashwood and her husband, Matt Rabbidge, bought the Eltham Hotel in the Byron Bay hinterland in 2019 (with business partner Luke Sullivan), she vowed to create the singular property she had been looking for. “I set out to create a unique experience and tell a story people could lean into, feel a part of and explore for themselves,” she says.

The result is a loving restoration of the 118-year-old pub and guest rooms 35 minutes’ drive from Byron that pays tribute to the bohemian women who have lived and loved at the historic Northern Rivers building.

“I started talking to the locals at the bar about all the old stories,” she says. “Once upon a time it was a brothel upstairs, and there was also a woman who used to sell booze out the back. I settled on the stories of five women who used to live and work there, as I felt I connected with them and eventually knew them like friends.”

Each of Ashwood’s “friends” has inspired a different room above the pub. Room one is devoted to Margaret, a station master who dreamed of escaping on one of the trains passing through. Room two celebrates Delilah, a star of the silver screen who retired to Byron’s hinterland when the bright lights led to burnout.

Room three honours Rhonda, a glamorous courtesan who worked out of the Eltham in the ’70s, and room four is for Patsy, a genteel local with an award-winning rose garden. The last of the rooms pays homage to Estelle, a botanist who travelled extensively, sketching exotic flora around the world. “The pub is such a boys’ scene downstairs so I wanted to give it a feminine touch upstairs,” says Ashwood, who grew up nearby in Lennox Head.

In addition to scouring online vintage stores – “as soon as I started searching Facebook Marketplace I thought, ‘That’s Margaret’s bedhead, there are Patsy’s chandeliers” – she called on brands including In Bed, Mukti and Porter’s Paints to support her vision.

The sensitive update to the property included ditching the pokies and bringing on chef Greg Andren to run the kitchen with a menu that respects pub gold standards while offering a rotating selection of more inventive specials.

After a meal that might span smoked whipped fish fingers and fried guindilla peppers as well as classic schnitties and steak sandwiches, guests and locals can choose from an extensive selection of regional beer and wine, then settle in for an evening of great live music downstairs. “I always say if you’re looking for a quiet night, this is not for you,” says Ashwood.

If you’re into live music, the line-up is impressive and is worth a visit alone.

Eltham Hotel
441 Eltham Road, Eltham