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Published 01 June 2012   

Once a tropical backwater, Darwin has evolved into something quite cool. Ian Neubauer reports.

When I first visited Darwin a decade ago, it was like arriving on the set of the original Crocodile Dundee movie. The main drag, Mitchell Street, was a magnet for vagrants and drunks. The nightlife revolved around endless happy hours at cheap backpacker bars and beer gardens with no gardens to speak of. The city’s culinary offerings, meanwhile, were limited to kebab, fish ‘n’ chips and whatever other foodstuffs could be stuffed into a deep fryer.

The Darwin of today is totally different animal, a cosmopolitan capital adorned with glimmering high-rises, art galleries by the dozen, a sophisticated selection of Asian and modern-Australian restaurants, and a regiment of trendy nightclubs and bars. From the multi-million-dollar condominiums edging Cullen Bay Marina, to the multitudinous cuisine and crafts offering at Mindil Beach, Parap Village and Rapid Creek Markets, and the pristine beauty of the Casuarina Coastal Reserve, Darwin’s days as a vanguard of crocs, cops and cyclones is a thing of the past.

“In America and Japan, people have this misconception that kangaroos hop down the streets of Melbourne and Sydney,” says Gary Coleman, a prominent Darwin hotelier. “And for a long time Australian’s seem to have had the same perception of Darwin. But they’re now starting to realise that Darwin is actually quite an interesting destination, because the reality of this place is really quite different.”

When Sri-Lankan immigrant Jimmy Shu opened his first Asian restaurant in Darwin in 1992, he had a rough start. “I didn’t have any competition then but that doesn’t mean it was easy,” he recalls. “I had a lot of trouble finding staff and people were not accustomed to the Asian style of cooking. There were many times when I thought about giving up on [what was then] a one-horse town.”

What a difference 20 years makes. Today Jimmy is known as NT’s foremost celebrity chef and his 200-seat Mitchell Street restaurant, Hanuman, is a runaway success. And while critics attribute Hanuman’s popularity to the chefs’ unique blend of classic Thai and Indian cuisines, Jimmy credits the city’s embracing of multiculturalism and the influx of newcomers from around Australia and abroad. “I think the growth we’ve seen has a lot do with the fact that this was – and still is – virgin territory,” he says. “There is so much to discover here and more and more people want to come and get a piece of it, and the lifestyle is just so easy-going. There are no queues, there’s no traffic and everything is so convenient. I can go to the market here and buy just anything I need, and when I can’t find something it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump into Asia.”

The Darwin Wharf Precinct.

It’s no secret that the Northern Territory is a playground for adventure. But you don’t need to leave the capital to experience the top end at its best

Jimmy is also co-owner of il Lido, a new 400-seat alfresco-style Italian restaurant within Darwin’s Waterfront Precinct. Built on the southernmost tip of a bluff bracing Port Darwin, the 25-hectare, billion-dollar project boasts a maze of coastal promenades, landscaped gardens, chic hotels, top-tier retail outlets, the space-age-looking Darwin Convention Centre, a wave-pool and an ever-growing list of al-fresco restaurants. “Our venue is literally surrounded by palm trees and water with a glassy interior that is air-conditioned and alfresco dining right around that’s cooled by fans,” says operations manager John Richards. “And business is fairly buoyant during the rainy season from October to March, which is the equivalent of the Australian winter. “There nothing like sitting back with a glass of wine and watching a storm pass through. It’s a spectacular experience.”

In sync with Darwin’s always-hot climate, il Lido dishes up a selection of southern Italian dishes expertly matched with local and imported wines. “We are very cautious about maintaining a sense of ‘Italian-ness’,” John explains. “But having said that we use a lot of local produce and encourage our chefs to use a bit of creative license and add a touch of the (Northern) Territory to everything that comes out of the kitchen.”

It’s no secret that the Northern Territory is a playground for adventure. But you don’t need to leave the capital to experience the top end at its best, with Darwin Harbour offering a smorgasbord of marine-based activities and attractions. Those travelling with children should not miss Aquascene at Doctor’s Gully, where fish by the thousands come to feed at high tide. The ritual began in the 1950’s, when local fisherman threw leftover bait at schools of mullet. Word got around the fish population and now dozens of species join the skirmish for a free meal.

Darwin Harbour is also home to sea turtles, marlin, dolphin and dugong, with operators offering daily sailing, sunset cruises and overnight fishing trips. Among them is Leslee Ann-Rief, co-owner of eco-certified City of Darwin Cruises. “We decided to try to differentiate ourselves from other operators so we went through the whole eco-accreditation process with Eco Tourism Australia,” sheexplains. “We do more than show our clients views of the city. We go to opposite side of the harbour to see the mangrove estuary. We impart our knowledge of the ecological aspects of Darwin Harbour so people can get a better understanding and appreciation of what this city is all about.”

If boating is not your thing, head down to the Darwin Sailing Club (DSC) at Fanny Bay at sunset. Once the mainstay of hardened sailors, a refurbishment in 2009 coupled with live music on the weekends and an up-market bistro that dishes up the best barramundi burgers in the land has turned the DSC into one of the Darwin’s favourite meeting spots. It’s also a great spot to catch the start of the Darwin to Dili Yacht Race in July, or the club’s annual dress up ball in August, which attracts the who’s-who of Darwin’s social scene.

“The ball is known as one of the social events of the year,” says Avenal Lockett, publicity officer for the DSC. “Last year we had a Roaring 20’s theme and everyone dressed accordingly. The ladies spent quite a lot of time and effort on their costumes and even the men put their best foot forward. The days when they went out wearing nothing but shorts and thongs are long gone.”

Did you know?
The city of Darwin was named after Charles Darwin, the British naturalist and crewmember of the HMS Beagle, the first European boat to enter Darwin Harbour on September 9, 1839.

Travel Facts
How to get there
Jetstar flies from Bali, Jakarta and many parts of Southeast Asia and Australia. Jetstar.com.

Where to sleep
Mantra on the Esplanade offers 4-star accommodation in the heart of the Darwin’s CBD, with city or harbour views from $195 per night (+618 8943 4333). More Than Just a Room Holiday Accommodation rents plantation-themed villas in five city locations (+618 8942 301).

Where to eat
Faultless service, sensational Asian-fusion cuisine and a lively atmosphere make Hanuman Darwin’s best dining experience (+618 8941 3500). For the best barramundi burger in town, try the Darwin Sailing Club (+618 8981 1700).

What to do
City of Darwin Cruises provides a range of eco-sailing soft adventure options on Darwin Harbour and beyond (+614 1785 5829). Doctors Gully, (+618 8981 7837).

For more information visit www.tourismtopend.com.au