Flying into Darwin on an overnight flight from Singapore, Richard turned to me and said “Welcome Home”.
There is no other country that I have visited so far, that has such a magnetic pull on my whole being as Australia.
This was our first visit to the “Top End” and I was really excited to discover what this region had to offer. We collected our bags, passed through customs into the arrivals hall and decided to head upstairs to Dome Cafe for some breakfast as we couldn’t get the keys for our apartment until midday. However, at the bottom of the escalator we had to put our bags through an x-ray machine again. Simple, or so we thought, as we had just been granted access into Australia. But no, something was flagged up on the machine. So with gloves pulled on, the security guard started searching through our hand luggage, and decided that the problem was a bottle of body lotion. Next up was one of the large cases which also had to be opened up and searched through. The culprit was a beard trimmer ….. Ric’s I might add and not mine!!
After a very tasty full English, we took a taxi to the waterfront and sat in another cafe until the lady from Top End Suites arrived with our keys. First impressions of the waterfront area where extremely good. It is a relatively newly developed part of Darwin which has been transformed beautifully, and includes a residential area of apartments, one of which we would be renting for the next 4 nights. Saltwater Suites are an ideal alternative to staying in a hotel and are ideally placed to stroll into the center of Darwin. ( Separate Review of our stay at Saltwater Suites here )
Darwin is a city on the rise, both in growth of tourism, hotels, restaurants, activities and attractions. It has a casual, laid back vibe, a well laid out design and a multitude of attractions on offer to visitors.
After unpacking and settling into our apartment, we headed out to investigate Darwin which was only a 5-10 minute walk away. The following is a inventory of our time spent in Darwin, during an 11 night self-planned trip.
Palmerston Town Hall Ruins
Darwin (originally known as Palmerston) Town Hall, built in 1883, was destroyed by Cyclone Tracy which destroyed the city on the night of Christmas Eve, 1974.
Surrounded by a small park area and occasionally utilised by Darwin Theatre Company, the ruins are a testament to the force of the cyclone and in the grounds is an informative plaque, detailing the history of the town hall.
On the edge of the park across from Parliament House is Government House, rebuilt in the 1870’s after being devoured by white ants. The official residence of the Administrator of the Northern Territory, it sits elegantly with its white shuttered windows, cream corrugated roof and palm tree lined grounds.
Visitor Information Centre
This is a great visitor centre, packed with a huge variety of free brochures, detailing accommodation options, activities, restaurants, tours and upcoming events. The staff are knowledgeable and interested in helping with any questions. We booked a sunrise tour for Yellow River Billabong, purchased a travel ticket for the local buses, grabbed some really useful maps, chatted to an Irish girl behind the counter and got into a chin wag with an Australian bloke. He and his wife were travelling round in a motorhome and informed us about his 10 grandchildren and 5 children, one of whom had married a pom!! Not sure if he was too impressed with that fact!
We stopped off for coffee and cake at Cafe 21 in Smith Street, which was light and airy inside and the lemon meringue pie was fresh and tasty. Rejuvenated, we shopped at Coles Supermarket for tea and picked up wine and nibbles for later, before strolling through Smith Street Mall and returning to our apartment.
Across from our apartment, sitting in the centre, is a free lagoon which is a crocodile and stinger free zone, together with a an artificial beach. It’s a great area to sit and go for a paddle and there was a lifeguard on hand for the majority of the day.
Feeling refreshed after a comfortable nights sleep and a healthy breakfast, we headed out for the morning, catching Bus 4 from the bus terminal in Harry Chan Avenue, opposite Brown’s mart.
The first thing I noticed when boarding the bus was how cheerful and friendly the driver was, saying hello to every single passenger. The interior was clean, the seats were spotless, free wifi was available and there was music playing unobtrusively in the background. There were several posters on the windows which made me chuckle. One had a picture of two smiling people, with the caption “Sally and Bob were fined for smoking. Sally and Bob don’t smoke at interchanges anymore. Thank you Sally and Bob”.
Another one had the caption “Sue loves music, so she wears her headphones when on the bus. Thank you Sue.” Classic! Simple, yet very effective, and made me smile. When we got off the bus, the driver told us to walk back along the road to the entrance of the museum and then followed this with a goodbye and have a great day. Mmm, I don’t think our bus drivers are that cheery. Must be the sunny and warm climate!
Museum And Art Gallery of the NT
This excellent FREE museum is packed to the rafters with interesting facts and exhibits to suit any age group. One area houses pearl luggers and other historic crafts and natural history collections, and there is an excellent Gallery of Indigenous Art with an array of works from the Top End. There was an exhibition on during our visit, the annual Telstra national Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, and some of the art pieces were stunning.
One canvas painting depicted the scene of two white officials at a meeting with a group of local aboriginals sitting in a circle, and dated back to 1963 with the title “White fellas came to talk bout land.” The colours were vivid and striking and the scene compelling in its message.
Two Australian ladies were deep in discussion about which painting should win a prize and dragged me into their conversation. I enjoyed the exhibition and whilst many pieces were unique, they seemed to me, to be some way from what I think Aboriginal art to be and that is what I told the ladies, unsure of their reaction. One of them said she had purchased 2 of the pieces (must be loaded!!) and her friend whole heartedly agreed with my summation. I am a firm believer that Art is very much in the eye of the beholder.
One piece on display that really piqued my interest was a figure of a body with two separate heads coming from the top. Constructed from dyed blankets and embellished with wool, cotton and feathers, it sent a strong message from the lady who constructed it, to the audience who viewed it on display. Basically a head with 2 faces, one side happy and smiling, the other unhappy. The description read :-
“That’s me – really I only have one head, but sometimes I think it’s two heads sitting on my shoulders.
One head happy, the other head tells me … go to town and drink!
When I drink I’m happy then lonely.
I wake up, clean my house and try to find that other head that keeps me happy.”
Extremely thought provoking ……
Back on the ground floor and numerous species of stuffed animals … and the star of the show … “Sweetheart”, a 50 year old, 5.1 m male crocodile weighing in at 780 kg when caught in 1979. Yes really!!!!
Another exhibition of great interest is the story of the destruction brought by Cyclone Tracy on the city during Christmas Eve 1974. Features include footage and reports leading up to that night, the night itself and what it has taken to rebuild Darwin. The whole exhibition is clearly displayed using a variety of different media and includes a room that you can enter and listen to the force of the cyclone, which was eerie but remarkable.
There is a wonderful place to eat here, the Cornucopia Museum Café, which has a large indoor eating area and also an outdoor terrace overlooking the water. The menu is reasonably extensive and the food was tasty, enjoyable and of a high standard. We walked back to the bus stop along the beach looking out onto Fannie Bay, which is beautiful and headed back into town.
Parliament House & State Library
This modern and grand looking building sits on the corner of Mitchell and Bennett Street and was designed to pay homage to Darwin’s wartime history.
As you enter through the security into the foyer, which is a light and airy space, your eyes are drawn to the NT crest and other Territorian details.
There are free guided public tours at various times, however we chose to utilise the free information booklets available in the foyer, and explored the public areas under our own steam.
One of the things to look out for in the main reception hall, is a floor plaque, pinpointing the spot where a Japanese bomb fell during the 1942 air raids. Other areas identified are the NT flag, the Post Office wall, Speakers Green and the Portrait Gallery.
From the hall you can access the State Library, which was actually quiet …. you know like libraries used to be! Free wifi can be accessed here and a huge NT collection database to learn about the Northern Territory. We wondered around and picked up various leaflets, before heading to the Speaker’s Corner Cafe for afternoon tea.
We sat outside on the perfectly manicured lawn with the terrace in front of us which serves incredible sweeping views over the sea. The cake was delicious but the tea was so strong, you could practically stand your spoon up in it! Thankfully I had a cappuccino!!
Stokes Hill Wharf
I was amazed at my lack of knowledge regarding the bombing of Darwin in 1942. Staggeringly, more than twice as many bombs were dropped on Darwin, as Pearl Harbor Hawaii. The wharf standing here today is in fact the third to be built, as the others were destroyed by a cyclone in 1897 and then by the Japanese air raids in 1942.
Today, the area is a pleasant place to come and sit, whist eating/drinking and taking in the fine views. The plaques dotted on the wharf depict the scene and the outcome of the air raids and paint a sad, though interesting and descriptive picture.
There were several restaurants within strolling distance of our apartment and we chose Wharf One, which has a waterfront setting and specialises in wood grill cooking with seasonal local produce. We shared a starter of black pudding with crispy fried potatoes, then I followed with roasted NT gold-band snapper fillet with mash, sauteed beans and caper butter. Richard opted for braised lamb shank, mash, peas and caramelised onion gravy. The food was delicious, and after a lovely evening we waddled back to the apartment with full stomachs.
For the second day running we had set the alarm for 7.30 am with the intention of getting up and exercising, but ….. we went back to sleep. We did eventually head out after breakfast on the terrace, to the bus terminus and took Bus No 4 out to the Botanic Gardens, which are roughly 2 km north of the city.
George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens
Yet another FREE attraction, it is hard to imagine today that during Cyclone Tracy in 1974, a staggering 89% of all the plants were lost due to the severe damage caused. A man named George Brown, who had worked at the gardens since 1969, took charge of the restoration program, from 1971 to 1990 and subsequently had the gardens named after him.
Today the 42 hectares are looking verdant and are a relaxing place to wander through the many trails which showcase collections of north Australian tropical species. In fact the gardens have marine and estuarine plants growing naturally.
We entered the gardens through the Geranium Street Gates and picked up a brochure and map from the information center. Walking around at a leisurely pace due to the heat, some areas still looked like a work in progress, but the trees and plants were striking and the silence relaxing.
I had read beforehand that two adult Rufous Owls and a juvenile had been sighted in November 2013 after disappearing for a couple of years, but we were not lucky to spot one.
Richard was fascinated with the giant spider webs, while I most definitely was not! He went on a spider hunt and I definitely did not! A slight theme was beginning to develop, so I decided to suggest lunch. Well food always distracts doesn’t it?
Eva’s Cafe is housed inside one of the oldest churches in Darwin, namely the former Wesleyan Methodist Church. This prefabricated church dates back to 1897, and was moved piece by piece in 2000, and reassembled at the Gardens Road gate entrance to the gardens.
We sat outside in the shade and the food was fresh and flavoursome, and just what the doctor ordered.
We really enjoyed the peace and quiet of the gardens and especially the beautifully coloured flowers, palms, cycads, mangroves and rainforest gully and the waterfall.
When we had seen all that we wanted to, we retraced our steps back to the main road, and crossed over to check out Mindil Beach, where we would be going to the next night for the Thursday Sunset Market.
We took the bus back into the city and wandered past the shops on the way back to our apartment, and had a refreshing cup of tea sitting out on the balcony.
At about 5.45pm we walked along the Esplanade to Jervois Road and the site of Darwin’s iconic deckchair cinema. We had already checked the listings for the length of our stay, and as someone (okay it was me!) had watched The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on the plane, our film was going to be an Australian one starring Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes, called Strangerland.
We had a great night watching the sun setting over the waterfront, eating flavoursome food with a glass of wine and then watching a slightly morbid but entertaining film. See a full review of the Deckchair Cinema here.
The day started positively as we got up with the alarm at 7.30 am and went for a run around the waterfront for half an hour, followed by exercises back at the apartment. That’s when things began going slightly pear shaped. The day before, I had washed our dirty clothes and hung them on a clothes dryer out on the balcony to dry. When I brought it in to fold, it wasn’t quite dry and smelt slightly musty, so it all had to go back in the washing machine. The saga that entailed does nothing to assuage anyone of my abilities.
First off when the wash and dry cycles finished, the machine door refused to open. Then, it began filling with water and going back to square one! Okay, I thought, put it on again for the quick 30 minute cycle, with drying time afterwards. Simple …. NOT. The stupid machine reset itself for 3.5 hours washing time and was not for changing it’s mind! No amount of reading the manual or turning buttons made any difference, so feeling suitably wound up we decided to leave it to its own devices and go out.
Christ Church Anglican Cathedral
Walking into town we stopped along Smith Street to look at Christ Church Anglican Cathedral, which is easily recognisable from a distance by its striking gable roof.
In an article published by the NT Times and Gazette on the 12th of July 1902 …….
“Fully sixty ladies and gentlemen, and a goodly number of smaller fry, assembled on the allotment in Smith Street … to witness the ceremony of laying the foundation stone of the first Church of England in the Northern Territory”
What cracking use of the English Language!! Unfortunately, the cyclone (yep, that one again!) soaring through Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974, destroyed the entire church bar the porch and gateway. In 1976 a new cathedral was built around the historic porch, and the result is a visibly stunning piece of architecture.
We didn’t enter the interior of the cathedral, but you are free to do so and also join Sunday service.
Four Birds Cafe
Just off Smith Street in the Star Village Arcade, is this quaint yet buzzing cafe. Set just off the mall in a quiet courtyard, the menu is surprisingly contemporary and includes a great selection of filled rolls, salads, breads, burgers etc. There are stools for seating outside whist inside, which is very small, there are a few upholstered benches to sit on. We managed to bag a seat inside and the food was really really tasty.
** August 2016 and the owner has put the cafe on the market for $120,000 **
World War II Oil Storage Tunnels
Located along Kitchener Drive at the Waterfront Precinct, the network of tunnels was built with the sole purpose of serving as a fuel storage depot, but was never actually used. Following the air raids in 1942, the city needed to come up with a design for storing oil and keeping it secure from aerial bombardment.
The tunnels are a feat of engineering and were amazingly hollowed out by four hundred men, who were all 50 years or more in age.
Opened to the public on the 19th of February 1992, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin, the experience is self guided and easy to follow with your information leaflet. Plus, you get a reprieve from the hot weather! There are numerous interpretation boards along the tunnels, explaining the concept of the tunnels with photographic displays and the ultimate Digger Man, constructed entirely from WWII artifacts and items.
We chatted to the guide at the entrance and I took the opportunity to ask him about the local Aboriginals, as we had seen a couple of men drunk in the centre of the city. He was extremely negative about them in general and announced that 3 German tourists had been assaulted in a neighbourhood up the coast the previous night. It is certainly an extremely complex situation, one which I know little about.
Back at the apartment, and low and behold the flipping washing machine was STILL going!! We did eventually get the thing to turn off and the washing out, which was dried to within an inch of its life, but miraculously not shrunken. Early evening we took Bus No 4 up to Mindil Beach.
Mindil Beach Sunset Market
We arrived at about 5.15 pm and there were already quite a few people walking around, but most of the food stalls where just getting geared up with their offerings. The smell however coming from the different stalls was tantilising to say the least, and my tum was rumbling!
I love that this market is a local institution and it’s wonderful for a community to gather together in such a simplistic way, to eat, drink, be entertained and sit together on the beach watching the sun set. Simple pleasures in this, so often mad crazy and materialistic world we live in today.
I have written a full review of the Sunset Market in a separate post, but needless to say we had a fantastic evening, and would recommend anyone to experience it if in Darwin.
Arrival From Airport :
Darwin International Airport is approx. 13 km northeast of the central business district. Darwin Airport Shuttle Bus Service operates from the front door, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and can be booked online.
Getting Around :
I would recommend using public buses if you are staying in Darwin for a few days and then moving on to other areas such as Kakadu, Katherine and Litchfield by car. The bus terminal is located on Harry Chan Avenue, at the bottom of Cavenagh Street, and buses run from early in the morning until late. Fares can be purchased when boarding and a full timetable and route map can be picked up at the Tourist Information Visitor Centre.
Most accommodation is centrally located with options to suit most budgets. A popular place to stay is along the Esplanade and the Waterfront Precinct, with it’s easy access to attractions in the centre of the city, restaurants, safe beach and wave lagoon. I highly recommend the Waterfront Precinct and Saltwater Suites. (See full review here)
When To Visit :
I would liken the heat and humidity of Darwin to that of say Singapore or Bali. The average daily temperature year round is about 32 degrees Celsius and the Top End has two distinct seasons known as the wet and dry.
The peak time to visit is during the dry season, from May to October.
Coming up tomorrow, is the 11 night road trip itinerary in full, so be sure to check it out!
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