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

tourismtopend.com.au

australia.com

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
music
Sport
Dave Mackay lifts the FA Cup in 1967 having skippered Spurs to victory
football
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Exhibition Content Developer

    £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in South Kensington, this prestigi...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - major leisure brand

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Partner

    £25000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Partner is required to ...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn