Darwin is re-inventing itself as a tropical city with a cool vibe. It’s also the gateway to the fascinating Tiwi Islands.
Most Australians think of Darwin as a colourful and relaxed tropical city. But few realise how modern the city actually is. A pedestrian bridge connects the Darwin Waterfront precinct to Darwin’s old town, linking a dazzling contemporary development to the city’s rich historic past.
The $1.1-billion Darwin Waterfront has transformed a run-down industrial area into a lively hub of residential apartments, hotels and restaurants. The redeveloped precinct has green parklands with landscaped jogging and cycling tracks, a man-made beach and a massive 4000-sqm wave lagoon that can generate 1.7-metre waves.
There’s a cruise-ship terminal and a gleaming 1,500-seat convention centre. And this is only the beginning. Over the next 10 years, visitors to Darwin can look forward to more apartments and retail shops, new roads, heritage trails, public parks and a pedestrian promenade around the residential wharves.
Heart of Darwin
To truly understand the heart and soul of Darwin, you need to take a step back into history.
A great way to explore the city is on a guided walking tour with Darwin Tours. The historic walk evokes images of Darwin’s colourful past as you wander around its heritage buildings.
The Browns Mart stone building was used as a warehouse, a World War II torpedo workshop, police headquarters and a theatre.
The ruins of the former town hall were demolished by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. You’ll see the first telegraph pole of the Overland Telegraph line, erected in 1870, linking Port Darwin to Port Augusta in South Australia. And admire the tropical architecture of the heritage-listed National Trust property Burnett House, which has World War II bullet holes in the front fence and remnants of an exploded bomb in the garden.
Australia’s only World War II battle in the country was fought in Darwin. Darwin was bombed 64 times between 19 February 1942 and 12 November 1943, only 10 weeks after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour.
Back then, it was a scary time for a young Australian to be in Darwin as Japan’s armed forces of around nine million outnumbered Australia’s by over nine to one.
Darwin’s military history can be re-lived by visiting former World War II sites. These include Stokes Hill Wharf (which was bombed by the same aircraft used on Pearl Harbour), ammunition bunkers in Charles Darwin National Park and old airstrips located on private properties around the region.
I decide to join a cruise on Darwin Harbour aboard Anniki, a romantic pearling lugger with Beechwood decks, traditional gaff sailing rigs and solid timber spars. The pearling lugger featured in Baz Lurhmann’s movie Australia as the boat that Lady Sarah (Nicole Kidman) arrived in Darwin from England in.
From the water, it’s obvious Darwin’s skyline is moving upwards. And the city has become much more sophisticated. There are plenty of cafes where you can get a good barista-made coffee with a view. The unique thing about this city is that it’s close to Asia and has a strong Asian influence.
Darwin’s residents still discuss which restaurants make the best wonton noodle soup the way people in most other Australian cities would compare favourite haunts for the best barista-made coffee.
Dining in Darwin
So whenever I visit Darwin I always look forward to a Southeast Asian feast. Darwin is the closest Australian capital city to Asia and it’s not surprising dishes like spicy laksa, nasi goreng, ice kacang and satay are as authentic as you would get in Southeast Asia.
Darwin’s dining scene is constantly evolving. Popular dining spots are Evoo at Sky City for modern Australian and La Beach at Cullen Bay for a seafood feast with beach views. And contemporary bars and restaurants in the Darwin Waterfront precinct have brought more than a dash of city sophistication to Darwin’s culinary scene and nightlife.
Although much development has occurred in Darwin, the city still retains its laid-back atmosphere. This chilled-out mood along with a distinctive mix of Australian, Asian and Aboriginal culture sets it apart from most other Australian cities.
Art in Darwin
Indigenous art is a magnet for many visitors to Darwin. Art keeps Darwin’s soul alive and the indigenous connection is one of the most amazing things about Darwin.
There are a number of galleries in the city that display artworks sourced from the region. A good time to visit is between 12 to 29 August during the Darwin Festival when Darwin is abuzz with dance, theatre, music and art. And all the galleries showcase their best.
The Tiwi Islands is 80km off the Darwin coastline. Although the Tiwi Islands is only a 30-minute light aircraft flight over the Dundas Strait, the islands are a world apart from Darwin in culture and lifestyle. The islanders are known for their unique art which includes traditional painting on bark, canvas and silk-screened cloth. Decorative patterns are painted on bark baskets, known as tungas, and Pukumani burial poles. And ceremonial body painting has been practiced for centuries.
Visit Bathurst Island’s Patakijiyali museum for a peek into Tiwi culture and the Tiwi Design Art Centre to watch well-known and upcoming indigenous artists.