Litchfield National Park
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Darwin may be better known as a jumping-off point for visits to Australia's Kakadu and Nitmiluk national parks, but the modern city, situated high on a bluff overlooking a vast harbor, has plenty of attractions for the one-day cruise visitor. Its arcaded streets are lined with Aboriginal art and craft galleries, boutiques selling locally cultured pearls, and restaurants and cafes where ethnically diverse cuisine highlights Australia's bountiful produce and seafood. From the modern Parliament House to the historic (and spooky) World War II oil storage tunnels and lush tropical settings in the Botanical Gardens, Darwin can offer an enjoyable day out for travelers with a variety of interests.
The city of Darwin -- named after Charles Darwin, who stopped there aboard HMS Beagle in 1839 -- is the capital of Australia's Northern Territory and boasts a growing population of 75,000. It is, by far, the smallest administrative center of the country's seven states, and it's also the most modern, as the city was largely leveled by devastating cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve in 1974. Prior to that, Darwin had a colonial bungalow look with many buildings rebuilt after some 64 airstrikes by the Japanese during World War II.
If natural beauty is what you're looking for, you should have enough time to squeeze in a visit to Litchfield National Park on a long day trip. The park, just a 90-minute drive from Darwin, is noted for its cascading waterfalls with swimming pools at their bases, delightful trails through lush tropical forests and giant termite mounds, many six feet high or taller.
Large cruise ship lines (Holland America, Seabourn, Silversea, Princess and P&O Australia) that offer around-the-world sailings or extended voyages between Australia, South Pacific and Southeast Asia generally call on Darwin in The Wet -- the time of year between December and March, when it pours buckets late in the afternoon and at night, temperatures top 100 and humidity reaches extremely high levels. The land turns green, but it may also flood, and some trips will be washed out by impassable roads. Air-conditioned venues, such as Darwin's shops and museums, will then be the most sensible destinations.
Small expedition-style cruise ships (Coral Princess Cruises, Kimberley Discovery Cruises, North Star Cruises and Orion Cruises) that explore the Top End, Arnhem Land and the Kimberley Coast use Darwin as a base during what is known as The Dry, the clear-blue-sky season that lasts roughly from late April through late October. Temperatures are typically in the high 80's and low 90's.
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English is spoken with a variety of Australian accents and often with lots of abbreviations and colloquial expressions. Crikey indicates surprise; a dunny is a toilet; mystery bags are sausages; a stubbie is a small beer, while a Darwin stubbie is a very, very large beer.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the Australian dollar, and ATM's are located along the main shopping streets. Check www.XE.com for the latest exchange rates. The largest coin denominations are the tiny, gold-color two-dollar pieces and the larger, gold-color one-dollar pieces. (We know that seems backwards so pay extra attention when counting your change.) Also, Australia no longer uses pennies, so all prices are rounded to the nearest five-cent increment.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock very close to and just below the main town center in an area called the Wharf Precinct -- a section that is rapidly turning into a restaurant, shopping and convention center. You can walk to town in about 15 minutes, including a gentle climb to the plateau, where the city center is located.
The immediate area is very much under construction, though by the time you arrive, there may be several shops and restaurants open for business. The main tourist attractions are in town and in the surrounding area.
By Foot: The walk to town takes about 15 minutes. Once there, the center is walkable in about 20 minutes, from end to end.
By Taxi: Taxis will be available at the pier, and a ride to the city center should cost about $8.
By Bus: Cruise lines may run a shuttle bus for the short distance into town. The bus terminal for the local Darwin bus is located along Harry Chan Place, off Smith Street, at the end of the main shopping street, near the port. Timetables are available, and drivers do make change. A single ticket ($2) allows three hours of travel -- enough for a roundtrip to some destinations. All-day passes are also available ($5). The Darwin Airport Shuttle meets all flights and provides direct transfers to all hotels.
By Car: Driving is on the left, as in Britain, and the area's roads are well-maintained. Car rental agencies give good value for three to five people. Try Hertz (corner of Smith and Daly Streets), Europcar (77 Cavenagh Street and Darwin Airport) and Advance Car Rentals (86 Mitchell Street).
Watch Out For
Given the region's fine beaches, swimming seems a natural outlet…except that large saltwater crocodiles lurk in many coastal and riverine areas, and deadly box jellyfish drift in during The Wet. However, not all is lost, as swimming pools and some natural freshwater pools below waterfalls provide excellent, safe swimming. Heed posted warnings, and never swim where no one else is in the water. There is probably a very good reason.
Darwin Botanical Gardens, Garden Road, is walkable (just over a mile) from the center of town or reached by buses 4 or 6 from the bus terminal and along Cavenagh Street. The 105 acres are replete with collections of palms, orchids, boab trees and mangroves. The gardens are open daily, and admission is free. Pick up a self-guiding trail map.
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is perhaps the most worthwhile Darwin destination. It's 20 minutes by buses 4 or 6 to Conacher Road and a five-minute walk toward the water. Aboriginal and Indonesian art take up two galleries, and two more hold an amazing collection of preserved Australian birds, mammals and reptiles. See whistling spiders, giant water scorpions, black-headed pythons and Stoke's sea snake, plus Sweetheart, a preserved, 17-foot, man-eating saltwater croc captured in Kakadu National Park. In the Cyclone Tracy gallery, poignant photos and narrated film footage tells the story of the 1974 storm that blew the city apart. The museum is open daily, and admission is free.
The strikingly modern Parliament House, at the corner of Bennett and Mitchell streets, overlooks the 1883-built Government House (open occasionally) and the harbor. It is open to the public daily. Free tours occur on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the state library for periodicals and research is accessible to the general public.
The WWII Oil Storage Tunnels on Kitchener Drive, near the port, were constructed during World War II to protect the fuel supplies from Japanese air raids. A park ranger will tell you their story and then direct you to explore Tunnel 5, which extends hundreds of feet under the city and is lined with dozens of World War II photographs. Admission is $5.
Bicentennial Park, a leafy linear greensward, paralleling the Esplanade and the cliffs overlooking the water, is punctuated by war memorials -- including one to the U.S.S. Peary, an American warship sunk nearby during World War II.
Cullen Bay Marina, a half-hour walk or a short taxi ride from the city center, has a seafront and boardwalk, packed with restaurants and cafes. Harbor cruises and fishing trips leave from there as well. Book a taxi for your return.
Been There, Done That
Litchfield National Park, located 75 miles south of Darwin, encompasses 360,000 acres and is noted for waterfalls cascading from escarpments into plunge pools (some, a swimmer's delight), deep prehistoric-looking forests and thousands of six-foot-high termite mounds. There are numerous marked walking trails for short and long hikes. Admission is free. Take the Stuart Highway south, and turn off the road to Batchelor.
Darwin's main shopping area is along Smith Street (partly a pedestrian mall and partly an arcaded shopping street), on parallel Mitchell Street and on streets branching off. Favorite purchases are aboriginal art (on canvas, bark and paper) and crafts, cultured pearls, opal and diamonds. Two notable art galleries are Raintree Aborginal Fine Arts Gallery (20 Knuckey Street) and Aboriginal Fine Arts Gallery (upstairs, on the corner of Knuckey and Mitchell streets). For pearls, Paspaley Pearls (a huge cultured pearl enterprise in the Top End) is on Bennett Street, off Smith Street Mall.
Restaurants, representing many nationalities and price levels, abound in the city center. Taxes and service are included, though a couple of dollars extra is appreciated.
Hanuman, 28 Mitchell Street, with perhaps the most sophisticated atmosphere in town, serves Thai, Tandoori and Chinese/Malaysian fusion cuisine. Main courses range from $20 to $35.
Tim's Surf 'n' Turf, 10 Litchfield Street, is tucked away on a side lane in a renovated house, set in a tropical garden. Dining is inside and out under the palms. Food and drink are ordered at a counter and are brought to your table by waiters. Specialties are fresh oysters, crumbed barramundi (a freshwater fish), crocodile schnitzel and Malay curries. Reasonable main course prices range from $12 to $25.
Shenannigan's, 69 Mitchell Street, is a bustling indoor/outdoor pub, serving all walks of life and age groups with luscious Irish stews and pies and something called "Taste of the Territory" -- crocodile, kangaroo and barramundi served on a spinach mash. Main courses are $15 to $25.
Staying in Touch
Internet cafes with reasonable prices are easily found in the center, as the town attracts lots of backpackers who use Darwin as a base for adventure trips in the Outback.
Crocodiles and Litchfield Park is a day's outing with an hour and a half drive south of the city. The park, composed of 360,000 acres, is most noted for cascading waterfalls, plunge pools for swimming, freshwater crocodiles and huge termite mounds. The tour includes a barbecue lunch.
Highlights of Darwin's Historical Past, a half-day tour, makes three varied stops and passes through the city center. Fannie Bay Gaol Museum shows the grim, penal quarters built in 1883, a reminder of Darwin's convict settlers past. Lyon's Cottage, a stone colonial bungalow, once served as living quarters for the staff of the British and American Telegraph Company. The major stop is the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which combines Aboriginal art exhibits with Australia's natural history and the story of the 1974 cyclone that devastated Darwin.
Darwin's Military Past, a half-day tour, reveals Darwin's role during World War II -- when the city was bombed 64 times by the Japanese -- and highlights the American and Australian defenses that were mounted as a result of the attacks. Visits are made to East Point for a photo exhibit of Darwin Harbor, the East Point Military Museum for wartime artifacts (including artillery) and the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre with an impressive collection of aircrafts that include a U.S. B-52 bomber, ex-U.S. Army Huey Cobra and wreckage of a Japanese Mitsubishi Zero fighter.
For More Information
Tourism Top End (Darwin and the Northern Territory): 6 Bennett St. at Smith St., +08 8980 6000, www.tourismtopend.com.au
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Images courtesy of www.australia.com
-- by Theodore W. Scull, Cruise Critic contributor.