A day of discovery in thriving but easy-going Darwin is topped off with a thrilling tropical thunderstorm, writes Caroline Berdon.

Fish and chips is always a winner with our three kids, and as the lithe, young Georgia jumps off our boat and runs up on to Darwin's Mindil Beach with two mammoth chilly bins hanging off each shoulder, they are even more excited than usual.

The delicious threadfins may not have been straight out of the water, but their freshness wasn't far off. The silvery-grey fishies - which locals believe trump barramundi in the taste stakes - had simply made a pit stop at the fish and chip shop to be battered.

A short while later, Georgia runs down the sand to the shore, and as she clambers back on board, the salty, fatty smell of dinner has everyone salivating.

And what a backdrop for our feast. We're floating in the calm seas of the city's harbour on a Sea Darwin cruise. The wet season is drawing to a close but the air remains thick with moisture as the sun dips below the gentle waves.

The Post modern Northern Territory Parliament House. Photo / Getty Images
The Post modern Northern Territory Parliament House. Photo / Getty Images

It's quiet out here; just a couple of fishing trawlers heading out to sea for the night's catch. And it looks sleepy on land, too. But then, Darwin always looks sleepy - in an enticing, if slightly perplexing way.

Darwin boasts a laid-back tropical lifestyle, relatively cheap housing and a thriving food and art scene. It's the perfect jumping-off point to Litchfield, Kakadu and the Kimberley as well as southeast Asia - yet only about 120,000 people have chosen to call it home.

"Sydney hasn't been like that since the mid-1800s," our skipper, Jim, says proudly.

From Darwin's harbour, which is about seven times the size of Sydney's, the city's thriving economy is on full show.

To our left is a huge, white gas tank as big as the MCG, which is the $47 billion INPEX gas plant, owned by the Japanese. This is just one of the major liquefied natural gas projects Darwin is developing to meet demand in Asia for cleaner energy sources.

Alongside the tank is the Ghan passenger terminal where the twice-weekly train comes to rest after its almost 3000km trek from Adelaide.

Behind us, gleaming like a beacon at the head of the port, is Darwin's Larrakeyah naval barracks, one of four naval bases in the city that are vital to the Northern Territory economy, as well as Australia's national security - heading east, there isn't another naval base until Cairns; heading south, until Fremantle.

In from the jutting headland stretches the Esplanade, which, with its string of prominent hotel chains, supports Darwin's other vital industry: tourism.

Many visitors to the Northern Territory capital are in transit to Asia or the Outback, although more are choosing to stay a while to soak up the history and culture of this fascinating, multicultural city.

Unfortunately, we are here for just one night, but getting on to the water is a brilliant way to see many of the city's sights in one backdrop. A highlight is probably Northern Territory Parliament House, Australia's newest parliament building and a magnificent example of tropical architecture that from the harbour looks stunning lit up.

As we dock at Darwin's Waterfront, the Friday night mayhem is in full swing at the strip's restaurants and bars.

But the Waterfront's highlight, for our family at least, has to be the Wave Lagoon, where we stopped for a cooling dip en route to the cruise terminal. The palm-fringed pool, which enables territorians and tourists to swim in surf without fear of crocs or stingers, is one floatie-spinning, body-boarding bucket of fun. There are breaks from the swell every 20 minutes and a kiddie pool at the back for the little ones.

Our girls' experience of Darwin would be topped off that night by a dramatic tropical thunderstorm.

At about 3am, as lightning flashed our eighth-floor hotel room white and the booms of thunder seemed to shake its walls, they piled into our bed quaking in thrilling fear.

The next morning, once the city had regained its clear skies and still, sticky composure, they told us that seeing the dramatic flashes over the ocean was even better than the fish and chips.

Getting there

Darwin is about a four-and-a-half-hour flight from Sydney and Melbourne, four-and-a-quarter hours from Brisbane, and about three-and-a-half hours from Perth and Adelaide.

Qantas flies from Auckland to Darwin, via Melbourne or Sydney, with one-way Economy Class fares starting from $471.


Sea Darwin's sunset cruises operate year round, allowing guests to explore the nature and the history of the city's harbour (fish and chips included). seadarwin.com
The Wave Lagoon at Darwin's Waterfront operates year round, every day of the week, from 10am-6pm.

Mantra on the Esplanade enjoys one of the best views in town of Darwin Harbour.