Hook a barramundi in lush wetlands, glide through mangroves alongside a peeping crocodile, or cool off under a waterfall in stunning national parks. The Darwin region is a playground for those of us feeling cooped up by COVID lockdowns and dreaming of empty highways and yawning skies. Even city dwellers longing for the buzz of booked-out restaurants and crowded bars will delight in the Northern Territory’s capital, which we discover has cultivated a sophisticated edge in recent years.
The Darwin CBD is compact enough to get around on foot, so it’s convenient to book a city stay. Adina Waterfront Hotel has one of the best locations with parking on site for those launching adventures further afield via hire car. Sure, there’s nothing extraordinary about clean, reasonably priced, serviced apartments – but a surprise-free holiday is all most of us can dream of in 2021. Enjoy the views over the vibrant Waterfront and wander out the door to popular restaurants and wharves where fishing and sailing tours depart from. There’s a gym and a pool downstairs plus, those lusting after a bain-marie breakfast will be thrilled to discover buffets live on in Curve Restaurant.
One welcome surprise on a Top End trip might be a washing machine in your hotel room. Oaks Darwin Elan Hotel offers just that; and delightfully, detergent is provided. These spacious, self-contained apartments are welcome respite for families returning from camping expeditions or long day trips to waterfalls and dusty hikes. Book two apartments and shut the kids out via the adjoining door. Or work off some steam in the gym before cooling off in the high-rise lap pool.
SEE AND DO
The tropical heat, waterways, national parks and unrelenting blue skies are like catnip for adventure travellers to Darwin. Unfortunately, swimming is not always an option: saltwater crocodiles swarm the rivers and muddy coastline. The best place to cool off is in the man-made Harbour lagoon, with an inflatable obstacle course and nearby wave pool, in the Waterfront Precinct. Otherwise, drive 40 minutes south to Berry Springs for a hike and swim in the natural springs under mangrove forests.
Anglers will delight in the many fishing tours that leave Darwin Harbour for a chance at Spanish mackerel, tuna, sailfish, marlin, black jewfish and golden snapper. But you can also self-drive thanks to loose Territory boat laws: any adult may hire and drive a boat on any waterway in the state without a fishing licence. If you’re hoping to snag a barra (barramundi), try Shoal Bay or Howard River – both have boat hire and secure parking.
Thousands of years of Indigenous history, the Bombing of Darwin and Cyclone Tracey come together at two museums: the impressively vast Darwin Military Museum, and the more culture-focused Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT).
Finally, it wouldn’t be a visit to the Top End without seeing a croc, right? Crocosaurus Cove is unashamedly touristy but great fun. Hold a baby crocodile, learn about the crushing power of an adult’s jaws (16,000 newtons of force), and meet 800kg Wendell (named after rugby star Wendell Sailor).
EAT AND DRINK
Wearing thongs and Akubras on a night out is totally acceptable, and you’ll rarely don a jacket or pant below the knee. But it would be foolish to assume any lack of sophistication in Darwin’s bars and restaurants.
The Thai, Indonesian and Nonya-inspired flavours of swanky city restaurant Hanuman (pictured above) will catapult your assumptions out of the territory. The searingly moreish barramundi meen mouli (a gloriously coconutty, turmeric-infused fish curry) puts other capital cities on notice of Darwin’s competitive Asian food scene. Sri Lankan-born chef Jimmy Shu, hero of his own SBS television series Jimmy Shu’s Taste of the Territory, was nominated for NT Senior Australian of the Year in 2021 for his ability to bring people together over a meal. However, dishes like zesty trumpet mushrooms topped with pork and prawn seem more likely to spark fights between diners.
Darwin’s Waterfront Precinct buzzes with a fiesta vibe most times of day – get amongst it with a traditional Mezcal margarita at Hot Tamale ($10 margaritas at happy hour 4-6pm). Pair it with one of the crunchiest, flakiest barramundi fish tacos this side of the Pacific ($5 at happy hour) and you may never need those international borders to open.
Just out of town on a secluded nature reserve, Pee Wee’s at the Point has high-end Australian dining with stunning sunset views across the Timor Sea. But the best seats to a nightly show are free: just claim your spot at the Mindil Beach Sunset Market (right) on a Thursday or Sunday evening, before the sky kaleidoscopes into orange, purple and red at sunset. This is a Sunday ritual for hundreds of tourists and locals; so be quick to grab a takeaway container-full – the Darwin laksa is deservedly renowned.
DAY TRIP: LITCHFIELD
Just 90 minutes’ drive south of Darwin is an oasis of waterfalls and monsoonal vine forests known as Litchfield National Park. It’s perfect for time-poor Darwin visitors who like to venture into the wild but return to air conditioning and a comfortable bed at the end of the day.
Hurtle down the Stuart Highway at 130km/h (the speed limit in the Territory) and turn off from the tiny gateway township of Batchelor into Litchfield. The landscape as you enter the park is a marvel in itself – an other-worldly desert terrain with huge termite mounds towering up to two metres tall. Wiry dingos slink out of the scrub beside the road, while black cockatoos circle the treetops. Gape at Australia’s answer to Stonehenge – a series of sandstone outcrops known as the Lost City. They evoke the remains of an ancient civilisation, but no one knows how they came to be there.
Take a hike and a swim in a waterfall underneath the dreamy pandanus palms of Florence Falls or Buley Rockhole. Sandy Creek Falls and Wangi Falls tend to be less crowded, but you’ll need a 4WD to access them. Even better, Northern Territory Indigenous Tours will help you avoid crowds altogether with day tours from Darwin to private family land at Woolaning Spring. Your local Aboriginal guide will help you understand Country a little better via a bush tucker lunch, stories of culture and Dreaming.
ROAD TRIP: KAKADU
Kakadu is the jewel of Top End national parks: Australia’s biggest, World Heritage-listed, home to exotic wildlife, thundering waterfalls, and centuries of Indigenous culture. It’s also one of few places in the world where you can drive for 130km/h for four hours and not see another car on a highway. A breath of fresh air for readers currently inhaling the stale surroundings of home offices.
Scramble over rocky creek beds to swim in Maguk waterfall, Gunlom Falls or Twin Falls. Visit the Burrungkuy rock art site to view some of Australia’s oldest Indigenous art. And behold incredible art and views from sacred site Ubirr, where Indigenous Dreaming tells of how the Rainbow Serpent Garranga’relli once visited and sang the people, animals, and plants into existence.
You’ll need a few days, plus a national park pass (purchase online) to properly explore Kakadu, which is about 2.5 hours’ drive from Darwin. The best place to set up a base camp (or book a luxe glamping tent or hotel room) is Cooinda Lodge for its supreme access to iconic tours run by Indigenous-owned Kakadu Tourism. The Yellow Water Cruise departs from the lodge’s doorstep and offers multiple croc sightings, colourful birds and local wildlife. The fishing tours are also thrilling: this amateur angler scored three barramundi in three hours (12 between the group of four) on a 6am tour under a magnificent rising sun.
The closest alternative accommodation is about 40 minutes’ west of Cooinda, in Jabiru. It’s only a small mining township but worth a visit for two reasons: petrol, and the exotic tasting menu at Escarpment Restaurant featuring possum croquettes, croc spring rolls and bush minted-cocktails.