Closer to Bali than it is to Brisbane, Australia’s smallest capital blends 56 nationalities, a perky pulse and a laid-back tropical air. Top End, indeed. Words by Jennifer Pinkerton
Why come here?
Imagine stepping off the plane and straight into a Spiegeltent. That’s what entering Darwin is like. It’s another world. Not a glitzy one – though it has its moments, owing to the natural resources boom. It’s a parallel universe: Australia, but not as most know it.
From the tropical weather (those ceiling fans rarely turn off) right down to the faces you’ll see in its streets, this northern capital is exotic. Thirty per cent of Darwinians were born overseas and ten per cent are Aboriginal, which brings depth, buzz and a slew of sensory benefits for visitors. The city hosts incredible Asian food markets, galleries and museums walled with beautiful Indigenous art, and in the dry season (May to October), a continuous line-up of bumping cultural festivals.
And let’s not forget what lies just beyond these tent doors. A measly three-and-a-half-hour drive lands you in Kakadu National Park. A two-hour drive gets you to the feet of Litchfield National Park’s waterfalls. And just 45-minutes on the road takes you to Berry Springs Nature Reserve, where you can duck dive through a chain of waterholes and surface underneath some surprised black cockatoos.
What it’s known for
Crocs, heat and tabloid journalism. Embrace all three. Get up close with a croc – it’s tragically touristy, but there are few other places in Australia where you can experience the same thing.
Shield your coat from the sun, but revel in the humidity’s power to silken up skin from colder climes.
And roll the dice on a copy of the NT News to peruse over your morning coffee. The paper’s larrikin headlines are so revered – and outrageous – that late last year the publisher opened an online shop to fuel demand for merchandise bearing NT News wordplay.
What you didn’t know
Darwin originally went by the name of Palmerston until it was renamed after the naturalist Charles Darwin in 1911 by his former shipmate Captain John Stokes. Stokes sailed here in 1839 and found the plethora of wildlife, specifically that of the feathered variety, would have amazed his scientist friend. One hundred years after the renaming, there’s still immense diversity among Darwin fauna. Ocean swimming is out of the question with lethal bull sharks and box jellyfish patrolling the harbour.
On a more relaxing note, the city’s trees house over 400 species of birds, and a stroll through the Casuarina Coastal Reserve or George Brown Botanic Gardens will put you on deck with Red-headed honeyeaters, Azure kingfishers and a bevy of eagles and kites.
But this cornucopia of natural history has an intriguing white settlement story, too. Take Channel Island for instance. Forty-four kilometres from Darwin CBD, the Territory’s first quarantine facility was built here, and in 1930 it added a leprosarium. Lepers, many of whom were Indigenous, were subsequently isolated from society and island-interned until the mid-1950s.
Particularly intrepid travellers can hunt down what little remains of the Channel Island leper colony, but it’s well off the beaten track and you may encounter a rogue croc among the mangroves near the ruined jetty and bed frame skeletons. (Ignore our advice if you fancy becoming an NT News headline yourself.)
More cheerily, the place names of many of Darwin’s regions are the source of much national head-scratching – or appreciative nods, depending on your taste. Let’s start, and maybe end, with Humpty Doo, Fannie Bay and Rum Jungle.
How to get there
Darwin is almost 4000 kilometres north-west of Sydney, a flight that takes around four hours. Air North, Jetstar, Qantas and Virgin Australia all fly to Darwin International Airport. You can also roll up by bus with Greyhound Australia, or take the Ghan train to Darwin from Port Augusta (SA) or Alice Springs (NT) with Great Southern Rail.
What to do
There’s a saying among locals: “If you don’t like markets and sunsets, you won’t like Darwin.” But who among us – excepting those with an iron heart – does not go weak at the knees for a beachfront market laksa, or a sunset tinged with every shade of pink imaginable? Either way, Darwin trumps both categories.
Mindil Beach Sunset Markets is the biggest bi-weekly event on Darwin’s dry season market calendar. Each Thursday and Sunday night, nearby parking space becomes highly coveted as locals and tourists pile in to sip fresh juices and deliberate over dinner and dessert options from the seemingly endless stretch of stalls, most offering South East Asian cuisine. If you’d rather sample more local fare, keep an eye out for the ‘Aussie Burgers and Hotdogs’ stall. It sells Barramundi, Crocodile and Buffalo burgers.
As well as its edible gems, Mindil markets feature rides for kids, street entertainers and large open-air corridors of art, craft and gift stalls. (Mindil Beach Sunset Markets: 25 April to 31 October 2013, Mindil Beach, between SKYCITY Casino and Darwin High School, Maria Liveris Dr, The Gardens, mindil.com.au).
Parap Markets is unbeatable for Saturday breakfast, brunch or lunch. These are Darwin’s longest-running markets and like Nightcliff Markets (below) they’re open all year round. The Cambodian pancake stall, set up opposite gift store ‘Paraphernalia’, is a savoury breakfast winner; as is the Lebanese food stall, ‘The Cedar Tree’, tucked inside the main square. Try the latter’s sambousik (savoury lamb puffs) and riz bi halib, (slow-cooked rice pudding with rose water and orange blossom). (Parap Markets: Saturdays 8am-2pm. Parap Village Shopping Precinct, Parap Rd, Parap, parapvillage.com.au).
Come Sunday morning, Nightcliff Markets host local musicians, food stalls and sellers of clothes, flowers, books and jewellery. ‘Ken’s Crepes’ is well-heeled among locals. By 8:30am thick queues of feet await its delicate folds of Nutella, banana and honey, among other délicieux combinations. (Nightcliff Markets: Sundays 6am-2pm. Nightcliff Village Shops, Progress Dr, Nightcliff. nightcliffmarkets.com.au).
To drink up a slow Darwin sunset, claim a picnic spot at East Point Reserve in Fannie Bay. The reserve covers 2000 hectares of land, including Darwin Military Museum, making it the city’s largest park. Dudley Point is a particularly excellent place in which to perch. (East Point Reserve: Alec Fong Lim Dr, East Point Reserve).
Alternately, meander along the Bicentennial Park paths parallel to the CBD’s Esplanade. Along the way stop at the viewing platforms that look out across Darwin Harbour – perfect for an evening walk or run. (Bicentennial Park: opposite Holiday Inn Darwin, 122 The Esplanade).
Each night during dry season, and twice on Friday and Saturdays, Darwin’s Deckchair Cinema projects films under indigo skies. Sure, you can do this in other cities, but this is the best open-air movie venue we’ve ever visited, owing to its back wall of tall trees, its comfortable temperatures and waterfront location.
The films are a mix of art-house and mainstream releases and local eateries take turns catering from Wednesdays to Sundays. Keep an eye out for nights opened with screenings of Northern Territory short films, and if you’re visiting during the wet season, Deckchair Cinema runs weekend film sessions ‘Flix in the Wet’ until 24 March 2013 at Birch Carroll & Coyle Cinema on Mitchell Street. (Deckchair Cinema: 17 April to 17 November 2013. Adults $15 Kids $7. Jervois Rd, 08 8981 0700, deckchaircinema.com.au).
If you’re travelling with kids or teenagers, venture to Crocosaurus Cove. Right in the middle of Mitchell St – hardly the city’s crown jewel (it’s brash, loud and touristy) – this aquarium keeps six enormous crocs in pools, while other tanks house stingrays, barramundi and turtles. If you’re game, ride the ‘Cage of Death’ ($150 for one person, $110 each for two people), which lowers brave souls into croc-prowled waters. (Crocosaurus Cove: Adults $30 Kids $18. 58 Mitchell Street, 08 8981 7522, crocosauruscove.com).
On the tamer side, opt for a turtle-spotting tour of Darwin Harbour. Sea Darwin tours depart just before sunset from Stokes Wharf, and if you visit late in the dry season, you might be lucky and catch baby turtle hatching season. (Sea Darwin Turtle Tracks Tour: April to October 2013. Adults $230 Kids $155. Stokes Hill Wharf, 1300 065 022, seadarwin.com).
Where the locals buy coffee
Follow the scent of perfectly brewed beans to Ducks Nuts on Mitchell Street (next to the cinema), or the Melbourne laneway-esque Four Birds in Star Village Arcade, Smith Street Mall. (Ducks Nuts Bar & Grill: 76 Mitchell St, 08 8942 2122, ducksnuts.com.au; Four Birds: 2/32 Smith St, 0408 729 708).
Where to eat
Darwin isn’t known for its high-calibre cuisine, but there are a few hidden gems, plus some top-end (pardon the pun) dining experiences to seek out.
At tucked-away treasure Sari Rasa, in the tail end of Cavenagh Street Arcade (look out for the ground-level sign, just down from the Cav’ Hotel), Indonesian nannas serve up Buncis (beans in coconut milk sauce) and Terong Pedas (spicy eggplant) among other delights. (Sari Rasa: small plate $11, large plate $12. 6/24 Cavenagh St, 08 8941 9980).
Then there’s the Greek taverna, Manoli’s, run by young Darwin-born Manoli Papathomas, whose father taught him to cook. The fit-out is charmingly kitsch. Think plastic vines and wall-sized prints of Santorini. Don’t pass up the entrée of pureed potato and garlic dip, and aim to dine on Friday and Saturday nights when two musicians strum melodically on Bouzoukis (Greek mandolins). (Manoli’s Greek Taverna: E $7-12.50 M $14.50-22.50, 64 Smith St, 08 8981 9120, manolisgreektaverna.com.au).
A sparrow’s flight away in Parap, you’ll find Bogart’s, an atmosphere-laden den of cinema memorabilia, vintage furniture, beautifully-presented food and quirky collector’s items (including the shisha pipe that appeared in Casablanca and a 16th-century French mirror). Run by affable manager Lynne Merrall, Bogart’s combines the cosiness of an English pub with an expansive, creative menu. (Bogart’s Bar & Grill: E $16-20 M: $32-40. 52 Gregory St, Parap, 08 8981 3561).
Romance-seekers might try dessert at Pee Wee’s at the Point on East Point Reserve – ‘Chocolate Slut’, perhaps? The restaurant boasts Darwin’s only true waterfront dining experience and its building, designed by local architecture stars Troppo Architects, catches the breeze on heritage-listed terrain. (Pee Wee’s at the Point: E $9.50-22 M $38-48 D $16-24. Alec Fong Lim Dr, East Point Reserve, 08 8981 6868, peewees.com.au).
For fine dining, you can’t go past exquisite EVOO at SKYCITY Casino. Fitted out with 1970s-style hanging green lights and neutral furniture, its seven-course degustation is quite the indulgence. (EVOO: E $19-20 M $32-45 Degustation $148 per head. SKYCITY Darwin, Gilruth Ave, The Gardens, 08 8943 8940, SKYCITYdarwin.com.au).
Where to drink
Darwin is rich in a certain kind of drinking hole: the harbour side open-air club that makes you feel like you’ve just stumbled into someone’s Sunday BBQ. Outdoor chairs litter the grass and the dress code is ultra casual. Views stretch all the way to the neighbouring peninsula Mandorah, so time your visit for late afternoon or sunset.
Take your pick of the Darwin Ski Club, the Darwin Sailing Club or the Darwin Trailer Boat Club (the Ski Club is our first choice). They’re all neighbours that share the beachfront linking Mindil with Fannie Bay. (Darwin Ski Club: 20 Conacher St, Fannie Bay, 08 8981 6630, darwinskiclub.com.au; Darwin Sailing Club: Atkins Dr, Fannie Bay, 08 8981 1700, dwnsail.com.au; Darwin Trailer Boat Club, 8 Atkins Dr, Fannie Bay, 08 8981 6749, dtbc.com.au).
Beer lovers welcome a pit stop at the freshly corked Precinct Tavern in the waterfront complex. This newest player on Darwin’s drinking scene serves 44 beers (including ciders) on tap, evidenced by the maze of kegs visible through the main bar’s transparent wall. If you’re feeling indecisive, select the $12 tasty tray. (The Precinct Tavern: 7 Kitchener Dr, Darwin Waterfront, 08 8941 9000, theprecincttavern.com.au).
Alternatively, the beer garden at Parap’s Railway Club is an intimate space adored by local hipsters and artsy folk. It feels like a 1960s lodge. The garden’s adjoining room stages indie bands from all over Australia, and its interior is strewn with fairy lights, low couches and wine barrel high tables. (Darwin Railway Sports and Social Club: Somerville Gardens, Parap, 08 8981 4171, darwinrailwayclub.com).
Bright prints on Marimekko-style fabrics teamed with Funkis clogs is the look du jour among fashion-conscious women of the tropics. You’ll find both at The Corner Store in Parap Village Shops, as well as carefully curated racks of artful fabric at Raw Cloth in Nightcliff – here ladies hum away on sewing machines at the back of the store, creating quite the homely vibe. (The Corner Store: 4/1 Vickers St, Parap, 08 8941 8943, thecornerstore.com.au; Raw Cloth: 3/60 Aralia St, Nightcliff, 08 8985 2305).
Sweet gifts – such as Moroccan tea cups, whimsical jewellery and clothes with a bohemian feel – abound at tiny Star Village Arcade store Frond and at Elevated on Cavanagh Street. (Frond: Shop 4 Star Village, 32 Smith St, 08 8981 9754, frondstore.wordpress.com; Elevated: upstairs cnr Knuckey and Cavenagh Sts, 08 8942 2858).
For Aboriginal art, take in the art precinct at Parap Village shops. Here you’ll find Nomad Art, Outstation and small gallery Tiwi Art. (Nomad Art Project Space: 1/3 Vickers St, Parap, 08 8981 6382, nomadart.com.au; Outstation Gallery: 8 Parap Pl, Parap, 08 8981 4822, outstation.com.au; Tiwi Art: 3/3 Vickers St, Parap, 08 8941 3593, tiwiart.com).
Where to stay
The ‘great value’ badge with accompanying silk frill goes to Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront. Its location is a superb jumping-off point for travelling around the city, provided you don’t mind the man-made surrounds (the hotel’s located in the centre of a newish development of shops and bars).
The Vibe’s front yard boasts a public wave pool; its rooms feature fresh, modern designs and supremely comfy beds; and the downstairs Curve Café – decorated with bright Aboriginal art and traditional fishing nets – is an ideal spot to catch up on your travel journal and re-energise. (Vibe Hotel Darwin: from $145. 7 Kitchener Dr, Darwin City Waterfront, 08 8982 9998, vibehotels.com.au).
Groups of two to six people will spend their first 10 minutes at Mandalay Luxury Stay roaming rooms with jaws agape. This three-bedroom self-contained house treats guests to an inspired, diverse display of artwork and furnishings from the Territory and South East Asia (brother-sister owners Phil and Glenda Grice used to run an art gallery).
The property’s stone cottage was designed by Lord Alistair McAlpine, a former treasurer of the UK’s Thatcher Government. (Mandalay Luxury Stay: from $395 a night. 4/78 The Esplanade, 08 8942 3012 mandalayluxurystay.com.au).
For more options, see travelnt.com.