Darwin: Kicking back in the Northern Territory

By Leah McLennan

Sunset at Mindil Beach in Darwin. Every Thursday and Sunday night from April until October the beach plays host to sunset markets featuring more than 200 food, art and craft stalls. Photo / Thinkstock
Sunset at Mindil Beach in Darwin. Every Thursday and Sunday night from April until October the beach plays host to sunset markets featuring more than 200 food, art and craft stalls. Photo / Thinkstock

Darwin mixes crocodiles with cappuccinos, makeshift markets with sophisticated malls and natural water holes with man-made wave pools.

WHY DARWIN?

It's unique, laid back and diverse - at least 50 nationalities make up the city's population of more than 120,000, including its traditional landowners - the Larrakia Aboriginal people.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Darwin has some stunning natural surrounds and is the stepping off point for tours to Kakadu, Arnhem Land, Litchfield and the Tiwi islands. Located just 12 degrees south of the equator it has been described as Australia's gateway to south-east Asia. Flying time to Jakarta is less than that to Canberra, while Singapore and Manila are as close as Sydney or Melbourne.

WHERE TO SHOP

Darwin has an abundance of art galleries, markets and shopping arcades.

Mindil Beach Sunset Market: Here you'll find over 60 food stalls from more than 30 different countries and 200 art and craft stalls. The markets run from April to October on Thursday and Sunday nights.

Market food: If a Darwin local is looking for some good bread and a flat white they head to the inner city suburb of Parap. This village is home to a Saturday morning market, coffee shops, art galleries and a fancy food and wine store - Parap Fine Foods.

Aboriginal art: Try to avoid the mass-produced tourist art by heading to one of the reputable galleries that specialises in quality art. Try Nomad Art (Cnr Vickers St and Parap Place); Mason Gallery (21 Cavenagh St); Outstation (8 Parap Place); Maningrida Arts and Culture (32 Mitchell St) and any of the art centres in the Tiwi Islands.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO

There are oodles of things to do and see in Darwin, such as meeting the local wildlife at Crocodylus Park, handfeeding fish at Aquascene, chilling out at the Deckchair Cinema, watching the sun sink into a blood-red sea and so on.

Top new places to visit:

Defence of Darwin Experience: This new $10 million museum features audiovisual and interactive displays that tell the story of Darwin's role in World War II.

Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory: Most people visit this museum to see Sweetheart, the huge crocodile that terrorised boaties in the late 1970s. Besides the regular displays there's a new exhibition on - Gone Fishin', the Reel Top End Story. Here you can see Indigenous fishing technology sitting alongside a multitude of colourful lures and jars of weird and wonderful scientific specimens (until mid-September).

WHERE TO EAT

There are lots of restaurants, markets with food stalls that serve delicious cheap cuisine and cafes to try in Darwin.

Top picks:

Hanuman for dinner: Owner Jimmy Shu's menu features Thai, Nonya and Indian dishes that use tasty Darwin morsels like local mudcrab.

Four Birds for breakfast or lunch: A hip cafe tucked away off the mall, Four Birds serves terrific coffee and fresh bagels.

Darwin Ski Club for a sun-downer and nibble: This laid-back waterski club has a beer garden with one of the most beautiful views of the Darwin harbour.

WHERE TO STAY

Darwin caters well for all budgets. It's particularly accustomed to hosting backpackers and there are also plenty of large chain hotels, perfect for mid-range budgets. The city now has some very flash options for those looking for an ultra stylish tropical stay.

Budget: Backpackers find a friendly welcome at the Darwin City YHA, a hostel in the city centre with a large outdoor pool and a lively bar. Rates from $27 a night in a dorm room.

Mid-range: Vibe Hotel Darwin is a sassy hotel that overlooks the new Darwin waterfront precinct. The 121-room property has rooms the size of conventional hotel rooms but with jazzier finishes. A stone's throw from the hotel are two large lagoons - one with waves, one without. The palm-fringed pools have been a hit with the locals since they were opened three years ago. Rates from A$132 a night.

Splurge: Pour a gin and tonic and put on your panama hat - Mandalay Luxury Stay, a Darwin house once owned by Lord Alistair McAlpine, is reason enough to visit Darwin. The gorgeous three-bedroom villa sits on the Esplanade, which runs alongside the gardens of Bicentennial Park and the harbour. The villa exudes British Colonial style - rich dark woods, white walls, wide verandahs and exotic accessories. Chinese antiques and indigenous and non-indigenous art feature throughout, mixing surprisingly well together. Self-contained accommodation doesn't get much better than this. Rates around A$695 a night, sleeps six.

WHEN TO GO

The best time to visit is in the dry season (April to October). Most tourists visit in June and July when the days are warm, skies are clear blue and nights are balmy.

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia offer flights from New Zealand to Darwin, via other Australian centres.

The writer was a guest of Virgin Australia and Mandalay Luxury Stay.

Find out more at Australia.com

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