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8 of the best: Darwin

No one can say Darwin is just another Australian city. The Northern Territory capital has an intoxicating hybrid character that blends rough-and-ready, blue-vest Outback with a strong Asian influence and a surprisingly prevalent boho streak. It’s hot, it’s remote, and it feels like nowhere else

8 of the best: Darwin
Sunset on the Darwin coastline. Image: Getty

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Sunset cruise
Darwin gets some magical sunsets. To experience one on the water, there are plenty of cruise options available. Pick of the bunch is Sail Darwin’s 50ft catamaran, which cruises around Darwin Harbour, serving up Champagne and barbecued tapas. You can bring your own booze too. Once the engine is cut and the sea is allowed to gently sway the catamaran, the sun starts dropping. Then everything starts to feel just a little bit magical.

George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens
Covering 104 acres north of the city centre, Darwin’s Botanic Gardens focus on tropical plants, but also grows mangrove, estuarine and marine plants. A boardwalk runs through a rainforest gully, with a waterfall, ponds and around 450 species of palms. Tropical orchids can also be seen, as well as wildlife, such as the rufous owl and water dragon. The gardens are an educational experience, but most visit simply to cool down under the green canopies.

Second World War Oil Storage Tunnels
During the Second World War, the Japanese flew 64 raids on Darwin, including the biggest attack since Pearl Harbour. From 1942 to 1945 most of the population was evacuated. Several sites give an insight into wartime Darwin; most notable are the Oil Storage Tunnels, dug into the rock face behind the waterfront. Ironically, no oil was ever stored in them; today, the dank tunnels display wartime photos — depicting everything from the city as it was then, to servicemen handfeeding wallabies.

Mindil Beach markets
The Asian and arty sides of the city are on show in the evenings at Mindil Beach, where craft stalls showcase their wares and street entertainers juggle and conjure. The food stalls, meanwhile, showcase food from Japan, China and Thailand, as well as less obvious outposts such as the Philippines, East Timor and Sri Lanka. The vibe is moochy rather than bustly — people don’t come to shop, they come to hang out. And when the sun goes down, covering the scene in oranges, pinks and yellows, everyone steps onto the sand to watch in hushed awe.

Crocosaurus Cove
In many ways, this is like other crocodile parks in Australia but what makes Crocosaurus Cove different is the Cage of Death; you can put on your swimwear and get into a big see-through acrylic box in the enclosures of the very biggest beasts. Whether the five-metre-long brutes decide to pay you closer attention depends on their mood.

Deckchair Cinema
On a warm, dry night, the big screen at the Deckchair Cinema comes to life — sometimes with a new release, sometimes with a family favourite, sometimes with a cult classic. Food stalls provide proper meals rather than just tubs of popcorn, while bars serve up Aussie beers and wines. The cinema runs during the dry season and rather makes you wish all cinemas were like this. It becomes more than just watching a film — it’s a shared experience. And whether you go for the deckchairs, or beanbags on the lawn, is entirely up to you.

Wave Lagoon
For all the heritage and nature on offer, chances are that cooling off and having a swim may well be your number-one priority. That’s where the Wave Lagoon on the waterfront comes in, because, frankly, you don’t want to be going for a swim in the sea here due to those big green creatures you saw at Crocosaurus Cove. The massive man-made lagoon provides tubes and boogie boards for those who want to try a little more than a doggy-paddle, and the waves are set off every 20 minutes. This is Darwin at its most family-friendly, and lifeguards are on hand to keep an eye out for anyone struggling in the swell.

Pee Wee’s at the Point
Darwin’s dining scene veers towards hearty pub food and good-value Asian joints, but it scrubs up nicely when it wants to. Pee Wee’s at the Point boasts sunset views by the water’s edge, surrounded by palm trees, and a seafood-heavy menu. The focus on local indigenous ingredients is evident in dishes such as the kangaroo carpaccio and Asian-style crocodile wrap. Another highlight is the barramundi, a meaty local fish.

Published in the Australia 2017 guide, distributed with the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).