Darwin might be better known as a departure point for visits to Australia's Kakadu and Nitmiluk national parks, but this modern city in the Northern Territory has plenty of attractions for the one-day cruise visitor. Its 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 feeding crocodiles in the central business district (CBD) to historic World War II oil storage tunnels and a lively waterfront wave pool, Darwin offers an enjoyable day out for travellers with a variety of interests.
The city of Darwin -- named after Charles Darwin, who stopped there aboard HMS Beagle in 1839 -- is home to a growing population of 130,000. It is the smallest Australian capital city and closer to the capitals of five other countries than it is to Canberra, the capital of Australia. It is also the most modern, as the city was largely levelled 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 WWII.
Kakadu is too distant to reach on a shore excursion, but 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 2 metres (6.5 feet) high or taller.
Large cruise ship lines (Holland America, Seabourn, Silversea, Princess, Royal Caribbean 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 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity reaches extremely high levels. The land turns green, but it could also flood, and some trips -- such as those to Litchfield -- 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 low- to mid-30s.
Darwin's waterfront precinct is home to contemporary restaurants and upmarket bars. The main tourist attractions are found in town and throughout the surrounding area.
Australia's northernmost capital is filled with stories of courage, adventure and lucky escapes along with plenty of hands-on attractions.
Crocosaurus Cove proves you don't need to go far in Darwin to meet some of the largest saltwater crocodiles on the planet. This wildlife park in the CBD is home to the world's largest display of Australian reptiles and plenty of crocodiles including Burt, the croc who starred alongside Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee. Hold a baby crocodile or pull on your swimmers and enter the Cage of Death, the world's only underwater cage that brings humans face-to-face with some of the largest 'salties' in captivity. Most of the attractions are outside, so bring a hat and plenty of water. Crocosaurus Cove is open daily from 9a.m. to 6p.m.; prices vary depending on the choice of activities.
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory offers an appealing combination of art, nature and local history. 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, 5-metre (16.4-foot), man-eating saltwater croc with a story to tell. 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 Australian Aviation Heritage Centre holds one of Australia's most impressive plane collections, including an F-111 and a mighty B-52 bomber. Visitors are encouraged to handle the exhibits and 'feel' their history. While holding a bomb fragment from the WWII raid is deeply moving, this place is far from sombre. It is impossible not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the volunteers who have plenty of tall tales to tell about the centre's aircraft and artefacts. The Australian Aviation Heritage Centre is 7km (more than 4 miles) from the CBD, and can be reached by taxi or bus 8 to Palmerston. Stop 4 is at the front gate.
The strikingly modern Parliament House, at the corner of Bennett and Mitchell streets, overlooks the 1883-built Government House (open occasionally) and the harbour. 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.
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 WWII.
WWII Oil Storage Tunnels, Kitchener Drive, are located right near the port. One of Darwin's more unusual tourist attractions, the historic tunnels were constructed during WWII to protect fuel supplies from Japanese air raids. Number 5, which is open to the public and runs 120 metres (394 feet) beneath the city is lined with dozens of WWII photographs. Images of the bombing show the harbour covered in plumes of black smoke, but most of the photos are candid shots of those who served. Airmen lean nonchalantly against an aircraft fuselage as they conduct a debrief, and pretty girls and their beaus kick up their heels at a dance. This deeply moving photographic display shows the human face of the war effort. Admission is $7.
The Wave Lagoon at the waterfront precinct provides a cool way for families with young children -- and the young at heart -- to embrace Darwin's endless summer. Entry to this public pool includes the use of boogie boards and water tubes. Older children (and their parents) can take on waves ranging up to 1.7 metres (5.5 feet) high while youngsters paddle in the shallow zone. Admission only costs a few dollars or you can swim for free at the nearby recreation area.
Litchfield National Park, located 120kms (almost 75 miles) south of Darwin, encompasses 145 hectares 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. Cruise ship tours ensure you get back to the ship on time, but do not allow much time for exploring.
By Foot: The walk to town takes about 15 minutes. Once there, the centre 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 centre should cost about $8.
By Bus: Cruise lines might 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 ($3) allows three hours of travel -- enough for a round trip to some destinations. All-day passes are also available ($7). The Darwin Airport Shuttle meets all flights and provides direct transfers to all hotels.
By Car: Driving is on the left 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).
Restaurants, representing many nationalities and price levels, abound in the city centre. Hanuman (93 Mitchell Street), with perhaps the most sophisticated atmosphere in town, serves Thai-, Tandoori- and Chinese/Malaysian-fusion cuisine. Main courses range from $20 to $38. In Australia, the price of food includes the tax, and at informal restaurants and cafes, gratuities are not expected. In better restaurants such as Hanuman, tipping is becoming common practice, but remains discretionary.
Shenannigan's (69 Mitchell Street) is a bustling indoor/outdoor pub, serving all walks of life and age groups with all-day pizzas, burgers and something called the "Territory Grill" -- crocodile sausage, seared kangaroo and grilled barramundi served on creamy mash. Main courses are $15 to $25. Lunch deals cost $15 and include a glass of beer, wine or a soft drink.
Oyster Bar (19 Kitchener Drive) is an attractive indoor and alfresco dining venue specialising in -- you guessed it -- oysters. Seafood is the order of the day here although there are alternatives for those who don't enjoy the restaurant's namesake dish. Australian wines and beers feature on the drinks list, and share plates are a popular choice. Oysters are priced from $16 for a half-dozen.
Parap Village Markets offer a true local experience where the only thing rivalling the fabulous food is the equally fabulous vibe. Grab a mango smoothie and stroll through stalls selling everything from vibrantly coloured ornamental ginger and indigenous crafts to Vietnamese spring rolls, roti pancakes and Mary's famous laksa. The latter is rumoured to be a failsafe hangover cure. Parap Village Markets are located at Parap Road and run every Saturday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. (rain or shine) all year round. Catch the free shuttle bus from the CBD or bus 4, which stops at Parap Village.
Cruise ships dock very close to and just below the main town centre in an area called the Wharf Precinct -- a drinking and dining hub with a modern convention centre. You can walk to town in about 15 minutes, including a gentle climb to the plateau, where the city centre is located.
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.
The local currency is the Australian dollar. The largest coin denominations are the tiny, gold-colour two-dollar pieces and the larger, gold-colour one-dollar pieces. (We know that seems backward, so pay extra attention when counting your change.) Check oanada.com or xe.com for the latest exchange rates. The smallest currency is a silver five-cent piece, so all prices are rounded to the nearest five-cent increment unless you are paying by credit card.
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; a "stubbie" is a small beer, while a "Darwin stubbie" is a very, very large beer.
--By Tiana Templeman, Cruise Critic contributor