Darwin Australia's waterfront. photos by Kathleen Broadhurst.
Destination Darwin: Gateway to the Outback, Doorway to Asia
“Hurry! Get here before everyone else does." I’m talking with Mary a long time resident of Darwin, Australia, originally from the U.S, about her impressions of her adopted city. “People don’t realize all that’s here, it’s Australia’s unearthed gem.”
With beautiful weather, especially during the dry season months of March to October, easy access to national parks and heaps of exciting festivals, markets and cultural events Darwin is earning its stripes a top global destination.
Darwin sits far to the north, just clinging to the edge of the Australian continent, the gateway to Asia. It’s not a large city, just over 100,000 people call it home, but it packs a cultural punch that is far larger than its population would suggest. Influenced by the melting of Aboriginal, Anglo and Asian cultures Darwin is a fascinating place to explore the new Australia.
While at first glance Darwin may seem like strange and sleepy backwater look a little deeper and you’ll find that there is heaps of things to entertain, excite and explore. So many in fact I can’t fit them all in this article!
To really explore Darwin you’ll have to rent a car, the city’s CBD is small town and not too captivating for more than a night but the sprawling suburbs and towns that make up Greater Darwin hold true Australian treasures.
Fireworks at a Darwin celebration.
While all of Australia is a melting pot of different European, Asian and Aboriginal influences Darwin manages to blend these together more smoothly than the southern cities. With its small population people just don’t seem to have as much time to clump together and being so near the outback with nothing else around means that the city has become a meeting point.
To get oriented in Darwin’s unique history try a visit to the Museum and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory .Their displays of Aboriginal art are as striking as they are informative, giving visitors a window into a whole different way of life and sharing the stories of the original people of this land. The exhibit on cyclone Tracy is as informative as it is moving. This cyclone, which devastated Darwin in 1976, laid waste to the city and left a lasting impression on the people and the architecture.
For World War Two buffs there are sites a plenty. Darwin was the only Australian city bombed during WWII and has a fascinating and under-told story. The Defense of Darwin Experience ,which opened earlier this year, is set in a lovely park. Their interactive displays are informative and engaging. For Americans it’s especially interesting to see this side of WWII history that so mirrors our experience of Pearl Harbor.
Australia has an astounding amount of natural wonders and biodiversity. The plants and animals here, not to mention the geographical formations are unlike any other on the planet. It truly is another world down-under and this is a major reason for many people to visit.
Feeding salties with Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Tours
Darwin is ideally located as a hub for many beautiful, and free, national parks. From small kid friendly stops like Howard Springs, where you can stroll through a monsoon forest and dip your toes in a crocodile free rock pool to the Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks, true wonders of the natural world. This is Darwin’s secret drawing power.
While Kakadu is a day’s drive Litchfield is within a day-tripping distance to the city, though you can spend the night at there with a tent or in park bungalows.
At Litchfield National Park there are the spectacular and curious magnetic termite mounds, seductive waterfalls and relaxing rock-pools (don’t worry they are patrolled to make sure nobody gets made into a crocodile snack). Jump in your car and drive the 90km out to Litchfield, it’s an easy drive straight down the incredibly well signed Stuart Highway. From the entrance you can venture to the different sites in the park.
To really make it worth you’re while you’ll need to spend at least four hours and to see everything make it an overnight trip. Especially recommended are the magnetic termite mounds that are built
The utes are lined up for outback excursions.
by millions of industrious insects. These giant mounds all line up on a North to South axis making the most of their alignment to keep cool in the day and warm at night. This is one of the parks most famous sights and worth a stop. Florence Falls is a lovely hike through the forest where travelers are rewarded with crystal clear cool water and spectacular views.
Right in the center of Darwin, so inconspicuous you may take it for a shop front, is the Crocosaurus Cove. Home to dozens of exotic outback species and most famously 2 of the 3 largest saltwater crocodiles in captivity in the world Crocosuarus Cove is a pleasant way to pass a morning learning more about the reptilian inhabitants of the Northern Territory.
“The crocodiles all have their own personality,” says Charli Chaplin (and yes that is her real name) as she points out the ones who are known as bad boys or a loving couple(named William and Kate in honor of the Royal wedding). “ These two are really unusual, they’ve been together since 1991 which is a long time for crocodiles not to kill each other, we’ve even seen them cuddling.”
Darwin is a family friendly city and this is an attraction sure to delight the kids. Here they can not only see but also hold all manner of interesting Australian creatures, from snakes to blue tongued lizards and even a baby crocodile.
Guests can help feed adolescent crocodiles and the truly adventures can try a dive in the “ Cage of Death”. This clear, safety plexi-glas tank submerges directly into the crocodile’s lagoons and allows the brave a chance for a once in a lifetime encounter.
If you like what you see in the confines of the Crocosaurus Cove then head out to see crocodiles in their natural habitat at Spectacular Jumping Crocodile. Stop for a moment at the free and informative Windows on the Wetlands, where you can catch panoramic views of the surrounding area and then head out on the river to see crocs in the wild.
The friendly crew will show you a good time, explaining how to avoid being eaten and you’ll leave with some great photos to bring home.
Perhaps it’s Darwin’s Asian influence but there are several markets around the city and surrounding suburbs that give the city a special vibe. Here people gather on the weekends to celebrate the weather, life am family. Two of the most interesting are Parap Market and Mindil Beach Sunset Markets.
The Mindil Beach Market in Darwin.
Parap Weekend Market is filled on Saturday mornings with stalls selling local arts wares, Asian Imports and foods from all corners of the world. Families with children fill the square and couple stroll hand in hand, friends catch up over a coconut smoothie or a fresh crepe. Here all of Darwin’s vibrant ethnicities are on display from aboriginal artists and to Thai and Malaysian hawkers.
This sunny market has a feel unlike any other in Australia, or the world. Here you can enjoy breakie under a banyan tree and then go and pick up some locally made aboriginal art, or that last minuet souvenir.
On weekend nights head out to Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, set against the dunes Mindil Beach Market has stalls that sell everything from crocodile skin whips to poi and fisherman’s pants. Watch a didgeridoo show or just take your crocodile burger out over the dunes to the beach and enjoy the season’s incredible sunsets made all the more brilliant by the bush fire smoke hanging in the atmosphere.
If you’re lucky enough to be here on July 1st, Northern Territory’s Independence Day then you’re in for a fantastic fireworks display out over the water. It seems like the whole of Darwin gathers here for this special occasion and it’s worth planning your trip for this time of year. Americans will find it reminiscent of the 4th of July with a distinct Aussie twist.
Bearded monster, famous reptile of the Outback.
Festivals and Entertainment
Darwin has become known in Australia as the Festival City for a reason. Whatever the season there’s a reason to celebrate.
In June there is the Darwin Blues Festival which attracts big names like Ash Grunwald in a small and intimate setting. For three nights you can sit under the stars, dance until you have blisters and enjoy some of the best blues music Australia has to offer.
In August there is the Darwin Festival, where arts and culture are on display. For a little bit of silly fun try the Beer Can Regatta where Darwinians’ compete to race boats made out of collected beer cans, you can’t make this stuff up folks.
Ever feel torn between spending an evening under the stars or watching a movie? Fear no more, Darwin’s Deckchair Cinema has you covered! Run by the local film association the Deckchair cinema is a wonderful way to spend and evening and is the best date spot in town.
Sit back with a plate of delicious Indian food or a ridiculously cheap beer and watch an independent flick on the big screen, better than a drive in and decidedly Darwin. Just be careful and don’t leave snacks on the ground, the possums will get to it before you do!
Tucker is an Australian word for food and can be commonly heard up in the Top End. Compared to the Southern cities Darwin’s CBD is small.
You can easily walk around the whole thing in an afternoon. And while Darwin may lack the gastronomic delights of Melbourne or the color of Sydney it still manages to satisfy with some tasty restaurants and cafes.
With its proximity to the sea the seafood is fresh and delicious, no trip would be complete without a bit of Barramundi or crocodile.
Try Hanuman, Darwin’s celebrated multi-ethnic restaurant fusing Indian, Thai and Nonya cuisines into sumptuous dishes. The oysters are well known to the locals as the best in town but stick to the seafood and locally produced meats. Avoid the items that contain hard to transport food, it’s better for the local economy and better for the palate as it can take a long time for things to make it up from the south.
The Darwin Ski Club, in reality the Darwin Water Ski Club, is a great place to have a relaxed dinner by the sea. The prices are reasonable and there’s a great view of the dry season sunsets.
Finlay’s Joint, down the Stuart Highway towards Katherine is a wonderful little place to stop on your way out of or back into the city. You’ll know it buy its collection of giant, kitschy, lawn ornaments, ignore them and gab at table on the splendid veranda. They have great wraps, good smoothies and a laid back feel. Take in the breeze and enjoy a traditional NT passionfuit slice.
A Jabiru at Feather's Sanctuary
Birds of a Feather
There are hotels and then there are sanctuaries. Feather ’s Sanctuary located conveniently in between the city and the airport is a special breed. Desiring to share their love of birds with others Peter McGrath and his wife, both builders, constructed this beautiful eco-get –away themselves. Their small but beautiful sanctuary hosts dozens of beautiful local species and is powered by wind turbines that Peter himself designed.
Walk in amongst parrots and black swans, enjoy their barramundi lagoon and help out at feeding time. The Jabirus, tall arrange legged storks are especially beautiful and there is nothing more peaceful then the calls of Australian birds in the morning.
The property has several bungalows each individual and equipped with outdoor showers that make the most of the wonderful dry season weather. This is a romantic retreat best enjoyed, like the birds, in pairs.
While Darwin may lack some of the drawing power of other Australian cities it manages to be at once friendly, exciting and fresh. Darwin’s youthful vibe makes it a great place to bring the family and with so many things to do you’ll be hard pressed to be bored. Without a doubt it is a place that is truly and uniquely Australian and for that reason alone is worth a visit.
Enjoying the cool waters of Florence Falls at Litchfield National Park.
Feather’s Sanctuary: A beautiful and charming family run getaway close to the city and airport. (though you wouldn’t know it) www.featherssanctuary.com
Vibe and Medina on the Darwin Waterfront: Centrally located to the CBD with incredible views of the waterfront precinct.
Frogs Hollow: The best budget option in town, always popular with backpackers.
For More Informtion:
Mindil Beach Sunset Markets
Open Thursday 5pm-10pm and Sunday 4pm-9pm
Kathleen Broadhurst is a writer and blogger who has spent the last year traveling around Asia and Australia. You can read about more of her travels atwww.travelvicarious.blogspot.com
Read more GoNOMAD articles about Australia.