A slice of Darwin: High Times in Australia's Top End city

A hop across from Indonesia, Mark Rowe finds a tropical metropolis with enticing galleries, temples and a majestic harbour

Australia’s northernmost city has often been characterised as an edgy, unreconstructed frontier town, little more than a stepping stone for the wilderness jewel of Kakadu National Park.

Australia’s northernmost city has often been characterised as an edgy, unreconstructed frontier town, little more than a stepping stone for the wilderness jewel of Kakadu National Park. But times are changing. In a twinkling, Darwin has been transformed into a dynamic Asia-oriented city (set in the “Top End”, it’s closer to Indonesia than to any of Australia’s other big cities) that has embraced its stupendous natural harbour with walkways, bars, cafés and restaurants. With Singapore little more than a four-hour flight away, Darwin is now a viable gateway to Australia in its own right. This walk shows how Darwin has changed, while still retaining a distinctive mixture of gusto and panache.

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory at 19 Conacher Street (www.magnt.nt.gov.au; free; weekdays 9am-5pm; weekends 10am-5pm) displays work from Darwin’s neighbouring Tiwi Islands. It has an account of the 1974 cyclone that flattened the city. You can also inspect Sweetheart – a stuffed giant saltwater crocodile of great local notoriety. The gallery’s Cornucopia Café is one of the world’s great museum cafés, with stunning views of the harbour.

Leave the museum,  turn up Atkins Drive and cross the roundabout to Gilruth Avenue. Cross over and follow the boardwalk left into the botanic gardens (parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au; dawn-dusk). There are short looping trails to follow before heading for the information centre for an air-conditioned breather.

From the centre, follow the steps to the Weslyan Church and turn left on to Gardens Road to reach Daly Street. This is the start (or finish) of the north-south pan-Australia Stuart Highway, so turning left would see you reach Alice Springs in around 1,600km. Less ambitiously, turn right, crossing two streets before bearing right along Doctors Gully. Where the road swings left downhill, keep ahead down the steps  before emerging by Aquascene at 28 Doctor’s Gully (aquascene.com.au; open an hour either side of high tide; A$15/£8.90). This hugely enjoyable fish-feeding attraction is built around the shoreline, where hundreds of tropical fish come to feed at high tide. Every now and then a crocodile hauls out on the adjoining slipway.

Follow the path along the coast, winding uphill on to the esplanade’s parkland with wonderful views from lookout posts across Darwin’s vast harbour. Pass the cenotaph and tributes to Darwin’s considerable sacrifices during the Second World War, and then a thoughtful interpretation board about the local indigenous Larrakia people.

Cross into Herbert Street back to the city centre and dog-leg into Bennett Street. Turn left into Cavenagh Street and nip down Litchfield Street to reach the back entrance to a tucked-away Chinese temple (chungwahnt.asn.au) at 25 Woods Street. The red-painted columns and candles are a reminder of the Asian influence on Darwin – in the 1880s, Chinese outnumbered Europeans in Darwin by six to one – and the adjacent museum (March to November, 10am-2pm; A$4 /£2.40) recounts the absorbing history of the city’s Chinese population.

If you’re beginning to flag in Darwin’s tropical heat, respite is at hand. Skip two streets down to the  Smith Street Mall. In the Star Arcade, at 32 Smith Street, you’ll find Four Birds, a lovely café where the coffee is excellent and they serve hefty bagels for around A$10 (£6). A few doors up in the Anthony Plaza at No 38 is the Sumatra Café (00 61 8 8981 8074) which serves a mouth-watering beef rendang for A$10 (£6). Just a few paces away is the Mbantua Gallery (mbantua.com.au) at 2/30 The Mall, where the collection of Aboriginal paintings is signed up to a fairtrade indigenous art code.

Refreshed, walk on through the open-air Smith Street mall and cross the footbridge to Darwin Waterfront (waterfront.nt.gov.au), combining a busy port, a marina and cafés, restaurants and ocean-view apartments. Peel off your shoes and paddle in the artificial beach or, even better, grab a boogie board at the Wave Lagoon (A$5/£3 for half a day). At the nearby Trampoline drinks kiosk you can order a tropical fruit milkshake for A$7 (£4.15).

To sign off the walk in style, wander around the sea wall to Stokes Hill Wharf and take a sunset cruise  (darwinharbourcruises.com.au; A$55 /£33; 6pm-8.30pm;). The boat nudges out into the harbour, heading for landmark points such as East Point and Frannie Bay, before ebbing gently back to port, with the sun, and Asia, just over the horizon.

Fresh cuts

Elan Soho Suites  (00 61 8 8981 0888; elansohosuites.com) will be the first hotel from a new Australian group, Elan Hotels, when it opens in June in central Darwin. Doubles start from A$199 (£128) per night.

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory has an exhibition of prints and landscapes of Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. It ends on 22 June.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Singapore Airlines (020-8961 6993; singaporeair.com) flies four times a week to Darwin from Singapore with its regional carrier Silk Air. Return fares from Heathrow or Manchester to Darwin start at £780.

Malaysia Airlines (0871 423 9090; malaysiaairlines.com) flies from Heathrow via Kuala Lumpur; Qantas and its subsidiary Jetstar (0845 774 7767; qantas.co.uk) fly from Heathrow via Singapore; and Philippine Airlines (01293 596680; philippineairlines.com) flies from Heathrow via Manila.

The Ghan train (greatsouthernrail.com.au) serves Darwin, travelling from Adelaide via Alice Springs and Katherine. Fares from Alice Springs to Darwin start at £638pp for a sleeper (including food and drink) or £255 for a reclining night seat.

Staying there

The newly opened lagoon rooms at Skycity (00 61 8 8943 8888; skycitydarwin.com.au) cost from A$220 (£116), including breakfast.

Go guided

A senior Larrakia man, Robert Mills, leads excellent guided walks of the city (00 61 4 1673 1353;  batjitours.com.au) for A$50 (£26).

More information