Darwin and the Top End have plenty to offer visitors during the wet season, writes Lee Atkinson.
There's a lot to be said about flouting conventional travel wisdom. Type the words "Best time to visit Darwin" into Google and almost every travel site that comes up in the results will tell you the dry season, May to October, is the time to go. They're wrong. The wet season is a great time to go to Darwin.
Sure it's hot, but Darwin is always hot: the wet-season maximum temperatures are only a couple of degrees higher than those of the dry season, although there's no escaping the fact that it is a lot more humid – at least the rain gives some welcome relief. But just because it's called the wet season doesn't mean it's wet all day every day: showers are usually short and sharp, and sometimes it doesn't rain for days. Watching the night sky light up during an electrical storm is one of the greatest free shows on Earth.
People who have never been to the Top End in summer will also tell you there's nothing to do and you can't go anywhere because the roads are all cut by floods. That's not true, either. The major roads in and out of the city are all-weather roads, and it takes an extreme weather event to close them: you can even still drive out to Kakadu National Park. Most tourist attractions in the city stay open all year, as do all the city's bars and restaurants.
The famous Mindil Beach night markets are closed, but the weekend morning markets, such as those at Parap on Saturday mornings or Nightcliff and Rapid Creek on Sunday mornings, offer better food, less tourist tat, are crowd-free and operate all year round.
Here are five more good reasons why Darwin is better in the wet.
The wet season – which runs from November through to April – is the low season, when all the tourists stay home, probably because they believe everything they read on the internet. What that means is that you can often nab a great deal on flights and accommodation, with many hotels offering discounts of up to 50 per cent.
The sunsets are even better
Darwin's always been pretty famous for its spectacular sunsets, especially at Mindil Beach. The sunset markets may not operate during the wet season, but the sun still sets, and it's even better in the wet when there's actually some cloud in the sky to add colour to.
The waterfalls are thundering
If you want to see the raging waterfalls and the green, lush billabongs brimming with water lilies that feature on all the travel brochures, you need to go in the wet. In the dry, when it hasn't rained for months, the waterfalls are reduced to little more than a trickle. The wet season is the best time to take a scenic flight over Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls in Kakadu, or drive out to see the waterfalls of Litchfield National Park.
The locals come out to play
If you want to find out the best things to see and do in Darwin, ask a local. And if you want to mix it with locals in the bars and restaurants rather than tourists from Warrnambool or Wagga Wagga, you should go in the wet, when the locals reclaim their favourite spots, such as the Ski Club (that's water-ski, not the white stuff) where you can pull up a chair on the beachside lawn and toast the sunset beneath swaying palms. There's a playground, live music on weekends and the food and drinks are cheap. It's open from noon daily and is opposite the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory on Conacher Street.
Wildlife is jumping
The wet season is the best time to go birdwatching. Fogg Dam, about an hour's drive east of the city, is accessible all year but is best in the wet, when huge numbers of wading birds gather at the dam wall (which you can drive across) and the lily-covered wetlands spread out across the plains. Visiting Fogg Dam is free.
The writer was the guest of Tourism NT & Vibe Hotels.
Beat the heat
Get wet There are two swimming lagoons in the new Darwin Waterfront redevelopment. The artificial wave lagoon costs $5 for a half-day, $3.50 for kids, and is open daily, 10am-6pm. The sea-water recreation lagoon is free and has a stinger net. It's open 24 hours but is only patrolled by lifesavers between 9am and 6pm. waterfront.nt.gov.au.
Chill out in MAGNT The Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is both airconditioned and free, and it's worth going to for the indigenous art collection and the terrifying cyclone Tracy display featuring a small, dark room where you can listen to a tape recording of the cyclone's screeching winds. Open daily, 9am-5pm (weekends, 10am-5pm). Conacher Street. artsandmuseums.nt.gov.au/museums.
Swim with a crocodile Climb into the Cage of Death and come face to face with a five-metre crocodile at Crocosaurus Cove. The cage is actually a clear Perspex tube, and it's the only way you can swim with a saltie and be guaranteed to live to tell the tale. The experience will set you back $150; $110 if you bring a friend. Daily, 9am-6pm. 58 Mitchell Street. crocosauruscove.com.
Go underground Escape the heat and explore the old WWII tunnels that were built (but never actually used) to house oil and other flammables after the Japanese bombing of Darwin Harbour in 1942. Entry is $6 for adults, $3.50 for kids. Open daily, 9am-1pm. Kitchener Drive.
Take a slide Kids of all ages will love the new Palmerston Water Park with its 100-metre long, six-lane water slide and two wet play areas. It's about a 20-minute drive from the city centre, en route to Kakadu or Litchfield national parks. There are barbecues on site and entry is free. Open Friday to Monday, 8am-6pm, weekends and school holidays, 11am-6pm. University Avenue, Palmerston.
Getting there Jetstar (jetstar.com), Qantas (qantas.com.au) and Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com) all have regular flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Darwin. Return flights start at about $400 during the wet season.
Staying there Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront overlooks the wave pool and lagoon in the heart of the buzzy waterfront strip. Wet-season rooms start at about $129 a double. (08) 8982 9998.
More information travelnt.com