Darwin – Northern Territory.
Author – Felicity McNaught
Darwin: A Colourful Melting Pot of People & Cultures
Darwin prides itself on being both a laid-back, big country-town, and a sophisticated tropical capital city. Situated at the top end of ‘The Territory’, on the edge of the Timor Sea and with a harbour bigger than Sydney’s, Darwin is the centre of NT commerce and business, a hub of world-class natural and cultural attractions, and the gateway to Asia, with Singapore just a 4 hour, 20 minute flight away.
Like any capital city, Darwin has a lot to offer keen tourists, from multicultural food and wares at the city’s many outdoor festivals and markets, to nature-based adventure activities unlike anywhere else on earth. And it’s all delivered with a youthful energy that’s contagious. Swap your city suit for the uniform of the tropics – t-shirt and shorts – and let the relaxed Darwin vibe surround you!
Here are just some of the many and varied attractions well worth putting on your shopping list while in Darwin.
In The CBD
Aquascene Fish Feeding Sanctuary
Situated in the heart of Darwin city at Doctor’s Gully, Aquascene showcases a natural and unique phenomenon that has occurred on high tide in the area since the early 1950s. Hundreds of local wild fish swim to the shallow shoreline looking for a meal and for $15 (adult price as of writing) you can be the one to hand feed them! Check the day’s feeding times on Aquascene’s website.
Boasting the world’s largest display of Australian reptiles and showcasing some of the largest and fiercest saltwater crocodiles in Australia, Crocosaurus Cove is a must see when visiting Darwin. Cove-goers can swim with fresh water crocodiles, hold a baby saltwater crocodile, check out the 200,000 litre fresh water aquarium home to Barramundi, Sawfish and Whiprays, or jump in the Cage of Death, the only crocodile diving experience in the world.
Australian Aviation Heritage Centre
The Australian Aviation Heritage Centre boasts an impressive collection of aviation memorabilia, depicting the Territory’s aviation history from the region’s aviation pioneers to its frontier role in WWII. The massive B52 Bomber is the star of the show, but the Centre also houses Mirage and Sabre jets, a Spitfire replica and Wessex and Huey Cobra helicopters. The Bombing of Darwin exhibition here is a must see. Open daily.
On the Waterfront
Stokes Hill Wharf and Darwin Waterfront Precinct
Darwin’s revitalised waterfront precinct has many historical and entertaining attractions, and offers a variety of dining choices, ranging from alfresco eateries to top-class seafood. You can catch a cruise on one of the many tour operators to explore the harbour, relax and enjoy the seasonal live entertainment, drop a line from the fishing platforms, or take a stroll past the waterfront mansions. You can also trace the area’s rich history in walking trails and public artworks.
A man-made wave pool located right on the waterfront, Darwin’s Wave Lagoon is a safe, stinger and crocodile free swimming facility provided by the NT government. At just $5/half day for adults and $3.50/half day for under 15’s (at time of writing), the Wave Lagoon is a cheap and fun way to cool off on a hot Darwin summer day.
Cullen Bay Marina
Home to over 250 vessels and some of the best restaurants Darwin has to offer, Cullen Bay Marina is a chic destination, popular amongst tourists and locals alike. Featuring an eclectic mix of restaurants, cafes and gift shops, Cullen Bay Marina is also home to privately-owned boats, as well as many of the sunset harbour cruises and fishing tour operators. Being in a tropical environment subject to severe cyclones and weather extremes, the Marina has been uniquely designed to protect both boats and private residences from tidal damage. The entire Marina is maintained at a constant level of 5-5.7 metres and all vessels must pass through an eight-door lock to access the sea.
Indo Pacific Marine
Darwin’s only living marine environment centre gives the public an opportunity to see and learn about the fascinating eco and coral reef systems at the bottom of Darwin Harbour. Each tank houses a complete ecosystem, with only the occasional fish introduced as food for some of the predators. It is one of three such exhibitions in the world and has won 13 awards for excellence and eco-tourism. The centre’s popular Coral Reef By Night program features a tour of the aquarium followed by a seafood dinner and impressive show of fluorescent plants and animals.
The Deckchair Cinema is a great way to spend an evening outdoors enjoying the balmy Darwin climate. Located at the Waterfront Precinct, this is Darwin’s only open-air cinema. You can bring your own snacks, or enjoy a hot, casual meal from one of the food vendors and kick back in one of the canvas deckchairs with a drink or bottle of wine from the bar.
Built during WWII by the Civil Construction Corps, the Oil Storage Tunnels located near the Darwin Waterfront Precinct was reopened in 1992 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin. Today, there are two tunnels open for viewing featuring a collection of photographs of Darwin and the men and women that served there during the war. An experienced guide will take you through the tunnels with informative commentary for just $6 (adult price, current as time of writing).
Around the Bay
SKYCITY Casino & Hotel
Billed as the ultimate entertainment destination in the Northern Territory, SKYCITY certainly has a lot to brag about. Home to Darwin’s only 5-star beachfront resort including luxury Lagoon Suites, VIP Super Villas with gaming suites, and a day spa, the Hotel and Casino is idyllically set amongst tropical gardens at the foot of Mindil Beach and hosts 6 bars, 30 gaming tables and over 700 gaming machines.
Mindil Beach Sunset Markets
Held every Thursday and Sunday night between May and October, the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets are Darwin’s largest and most popular weekly markets. With stalls offering international cuisine, arts, crafts, and entertainment, Mindil provides the perfect combination of atmosphere and relaxed, tropical ambiance. Sit back and enjoy a casual multicultural picnic on the beach while taking in the spectacular Darwin sunset and listening to the sound of didgeridoo masters lulling passing market-goers into a trance.
Other popular markets are the Saturday morning Parap Village Markets, the Sunday morning Nightcliff and Rapid Creek Markets, and Palmerston’s Friday night markets.
Fannie Bay Gaol
Located directly across the road from the beautiful Fannie Bay, it is difficult to decide whether in its heyday, this historic site would have been the best or the worst place to be incarcerated in Australia. Opened in 1883, the Fannie Bay Gaol operated as the major detention centre in Darwin for almost 100 years. Now acting as a site of historical interest, the cells contain information panels that provide insight into the region’s unique social history. Free self-guided tours are available through the site from 10:00am to 4:30pm daily.
Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
Situated at Bullocky Point, MAGNT features collections of Aboriginal art and culture, arts and craft from south-east Asia and Pacific regions, maritime archaeology and Northern Territory history. The museum also houses a Cyclone Tracy exhibit, with a sound booth and photographs that really bring home the extent of the destruction, the chance to meet Sweetheart, the Top End’s most famous crocodile, and a café with delicious food and fantastic views over the bay. Free entry.
Leanyer Recreation Park
This YMCA run recreation waterpark is northeast of Darwin’s CBD, not too far from the airport. It features three water slides, a large water play area and pool, a skate park, bbq facilites, and a canteen. And it’s all free! Amazing place for the whole family to enjoy.
Parks & Nature
George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens
The George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens cover 42 hectares and showcase the flora of northern Australia and other tropical habitats around the world. Nature enthusiasts can meander through monsoon forests, coastal dunes, mangroves and open woodlands, and view orchids, bromeliads and other striking foliage plants.
Casuarina Coastal Reserve
Located in Darwin’s northern suburbs, the Casuarina Coastal Reserve is a popular spot for a walk along the beach, catching a sunset from the gorgeous Dripstone Cliffs, or enjoying a picnic. For the naturalists (read “nudists”), a section of the beach has been set aside.
Charles Darwin National Park
Just a short drive from the city, Charles Darwin National Park was developed to show visitors the rich mangrove habitats of Darwin Harbour. Relics of Darwin’s involvement in WWII can also be seen. The reinforced concrete bunkers found in the Park were used for safe storage of armaments during the war.
East Point Reserve & Lake Alexander
East Point Reserve is one of the most popular recreation areas in Darwin. It has extensive walking and cycling paths, relaxing picnic areas with free barbecue facilities, and safe, year-round swimming in Lake Alexander. The reserve is also home to Darwin’s East Point Military Museum, which houses an extensive collection of photographic and informative displays including the Defence of Darwin Experience – an immersive, interactive, multimedia experience of the story of Darwin’s role in World War II. East Point Reserve also has a sizeable wallaby colony in residence and is one of the best sites in Darwin for witnessing the famed tropical sunsets.
For more information on Parks and Reserves located within the Darwin region, visit http://www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/
Attractions Outside the CBD
Beyond Darwin’s compact CBD many more attractions and intrepid travel opportunities await. Jump in the car or on an organised tour and get exploring!
Crocodylus Park has been operating in Darwin for over 20 years as both a tourist attraction and a resource for wildlife research and education. In addition to the almost 1000 species of crocodile to be found at Crocodylus Park, there are also buffalo, cassowaries, dingoes, wombats, kangaroos, wallaroos, ostriches, big cats, alligators, and sea turtles. Located 5 minutes from the airport and 15 minutes from Darwin’s CBD.
Window On The Wetlands
Located on the way to Kakadu National Park, Window on the Wetlands Visitor Centre sits on Beatrice Hill, one of the highest points on the Adelaide River floodplain. At the Centre you will find interactive displays and from the top floor there are spectacular views across the floodplains, which showcase the amazing birdlife in the area, especially during the early morning or late afternoon during the Wet Season. The Centre is open from 8:00am to 7:00pm daily and entry is free.
Litchfield National Park
Litchfield National Park, with its lush woodlands, spectacular waterfalls, sparkling plunge pools, and tall termite mounds, is an increasingly popular trip from Darwin, being just two hour’s drive from the capital. Even better, all the main natural attractions, including Buley Rockholes and the dramatic Florence, Tolmer and Wangi Falls, are easily accessible from Litchfield’s main road and do not require 4WD.
Kakadu National Park
Australia’s largest national park, the hundreds of square kilometres that make up the World Heritage listed Kakadu are home to an incredible amount of habitats and wildlife, some unique to the area, which change from season to season and never cease to amaze. Kakadu contains one of the highest concentrated Aboriginal rock art sites in the world, some dating back 50,000 years, which tell stories of long extinct things like giant kangaroos and thylacines. Don’t miss the wildlife cruises, such as the Yellow River Water Billabong cruise, or Gunlom in the southern part of the Park, with its magical combination of waterfall and plunge pool shaded by native gums and with sweeping views of south Kakadu.
A sleepy township 114 kilometres south of Darwin with a population of less than 200 sounds like the sort of place any self-respecting tourist would give a wide berth. Not so. The locals figured out long ago that the croc-infested Adelaide River was a tourist goldmine and with numerous wildlife and croc-jumping (yes, I said jumping!) cruise operators based in the region, we tourists certainly aren’t complaining. Tours take guests down the Adelaide River, viewing territorial crocodiles at very close range and offering exceptional photo opportunities.
Just a short 30-minute flight from Darwin lie the Tiwi Islands, Melville and its smaller sister Bathurst, where travellers can experience first-hand life in a modern-day Aboriginal community. The Tiwi people, who have lived on the Islands for nearly 7000 years, are known for their athleticism and artistic talent and have developed their own distinct traditions. As there are very few tourist facilities available on the Islands, visitors will need to organise a day trip departing from Darwin. Visit www.aussieadventures.com.au.
Nature’s Way Self-Drive 2WD Tour
The beautiful self-drive Nature’s Way 2WD Tour winds through the Adelaide and Mary River wetlands to World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park, a rich tapestry of wetlands, wildlife and Aboriginal rock art. Here you can bushwalk through rugged escarpments and lush rainforest and discover a treasure trove of Aboriginal rock art. The Tour continues onto Pine Creek where you can learn about the Territory’s pioneering history before finishing up in the spectacular landscape of Litchfield National Park.