As the gateway to Asia and Aboriginal Arnhem Land on the northernmost tip of Australia, Darwin exudes a laid back tropical style and a fascinating multicultural mix. Closer to Jakarta than to Sydney and with vibrant Greek, Indonesian, Thai, Indian, Aboriginal, East Timorese, Malay and African communities, Darwin is no white bread movie set. Here is the definitive insider’s guide to make the most of your visit to the capital of the Northern Territory.
Darwin was founded in 1869, its harbor named after Charles Darwin by his one-time shipmate the surveyor John Wickham.
An obscure little township on the edge of nowhere, Darwin hit the world headlines in February 1942, when it bore the brunt of the largest attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australian shores. In what has been called the Pearl Harbour of Australia, 188 Japanese planes sank or damaged most of the 45 ships in the harbor and killed several hundred people.
No stranger to disasters, Darwin was then completely flattened by Cyclone Tracey, on Christmas Eve 1974. More than 30,000 people were evacuated in the biggest airlift in Australian history.
After endless makeovers, the silver lining is that Darwin is now Australia’s most modern capital city and is booming as a center for Liquified Natural Gas projects. Bright new cyclone-proof buildings are sprouting everywhere like Top End torrents after the Wet. Scratch their shiny surfaces, though, and you will find a rich lode of stories and eccentric characters.
What to do:
* Cool off at the hugely popular wave lagoon right on the waterfront. Don’t go swimming in the bay, however, as more than 260 crocodiles are removed from Darwin Harbour each year.
* Visit Crocosaurus Cove, which has the largest display of Australian reptiles in the world. You can swim in a pool right next to massive saltwater crocodiles, watch them being fed and even be lowered into their lair in an acrylic cage. There are also fascinating snake and lizard exhibits and a turtle sanctuary.
* Take a sunset cruise on Darwin Harbour (4 1/2 times the size of Sydney Harbour) aboard The Anniki, an historic pearl lugger.
* Visit Indo Pacific Marine with its fascinating collection of tropical saltwater eco-systems …including killer prawns, a unique black and white clown fish, and ferocious lion fish….all from Darwin Harbour.
* Visit The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory to see exhibits on Cyclone Tracey as well as some fabulous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Each year the museum hosts the annual Telstra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards offering a window into the best indigenous art in the country.
* World War II enthusiasts should check out the Aviation Heritage Centre, which houses a World War II B25 Mitchell bomber and Spitfire replica plus newspaper clippings and the only color film of the Darwin bombing, as well as the East Point Military Museum, located in the original concrete bunker where the Australian Army planned its northern defence strategy during the war, which has a massive collection of tanks, guns, and war photographs, as well as newsreel footage.
* Take a two-hour guided Darwin Heritage Walk where expert local guides give insights into Darwin’s interesting history as they show you the Overland Telegraph Line, Parliament House, the war memorial, monuments to past pioneers, the botanic gardens and much more.
* Enjoy a movie under the stars at the Deckchair Cinema, which offers a delightful outdoor setting under the stars for watching foreign films and family favorites on Darwin’s balmy evenings.
Where to shop:
The Paspaley Pearls Greek-Australian family are synonymous with the cultured pearl industry in these parts. Be sure and visit their exquisite shop.
di Croco’s crocodile leather accessories is the place to pick up a purse, belt or shoes courtesy of the Top End’s crocodiles.
The Mindil Street Sunset Markets serve up Indian and South-east Asian street food alongside hand-crafted jewelery and clothes, didgeridoos and bull whips.
Where to eat:
Alfresco dining with sensational water views has been raised to an art form here.
Enjoy Darwin’s best coffee at the Roma Bar where you will rub shoulders with construction workers, leftie lawyers and artists.
No visit to Darwin is complete without a meal at Jimmy Shu’s Hanuman restaurant, where exceptional local seafood is transformed into inspired Thai, Indian and Malaysian creations in a classy but unpretentious indoor/outdoor space.
The sleek-lined Pee Wee’s on the Point offers Mod Oz cuisine at outdoor tables under the palm trees overlooking Fannie Bay.
Cullens Bay Marina offers a kaleidoscope of outdoor dining options while at East Point Reserve.
Cornucopia at the Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory sports an eclectic brunch menu
The Ski Club couldn’t be a more relaxing spot on the grass for a cold one and a casual meal.
Right in the city, Char has groovy modern décor to complement its tantalizing grills.
At Stokes Hill Wharf, nibble on fish and chips and watch huge barramundi fighting over our scraps in the water
Foodies flock to the Saturday Parap market for its organic fruit and produce, laksa and sates.
Vibe Darwin Waterfront, (08) 8982 9998(08) 8982 9998, www.vibehotels.com.au;
Medina Grand Darwin Waterfront, (08) 8982 9999(08) 8982 9999, www.medina.com.au;
Mandalay Luxury Stay,(08) 8981-0422(08) 8981-0422, www.mandalayluxurystay.com.au
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