Bruce Elder walks the city with a wartime history, tropical pace and modern edge.
Darwin is a city with the feel of a big, modern country town. Cyclone Tracy saw to that. It is the quintessence of informality and good fun. People love standing around in shorts and diaphanous frocks as the sun sets, sipping icy drinks and enjoying the tropical ambience. It's a city to be enjoyed like a good party, where myriad cultures (more than 100 nationalities at the last count) have mixed to create a vibrant and fascinating potpourri like nowhere else in Australia.
Breakfast at the Roma Bar. Rumour has it that Nicole and Keith used to breakfast here regularly during the filming of Australia. That's not quite true. It was a favourite with David Wenham, who apparently recommended it to Nic and Keith. They went once. Breakfast degenerated into a paparazzi field day, disrupting the coffee and pancakes of the regulars. Nic and Keith never returned. If you are not named Nic or Keith, then go and enjoy the ambience and good coffee at this haunt of Darwin's journos, pollies and lawyers. Just don't bring any paparazzi.
Roma Bar, 9-11 Cavenagh Street. Phone (08)89816729; see romabar.com.au.
Darwin is a manageable size for walking. The best of it can be walked in a couple of hours. Steve Noble, who leads Darwin Walking Tours, knows the city's history and can talk with great authority about the Japanese attacks, the building of Parliament House (called the "wedding cake" by some cynical locals), the Old Town Hall ruins, the impact of Cyclone Tracy, the monuments to the early explorers and the changes wrought by the Overland Telegraph to Darwin and the nation. It is a perfect introduction and, if you have time, walk through Bicentennial Park afterwards, and admire Darwin Harbour.
Drive to East Point Military Museum, seven minutes from the city centre. It has a fascinating old newsreel of the bombing of Darwin in 1942, a bunker where the army planned the Top End defence strategy in World War II and plenty of memorabilia to evoke the devastation wreaked by the bombing raids.
East Point Military Museum, Alec Fong Lim Drive, East Point. Open daily 9.30am-5pm. Phone (08) 8981 9702.
Where to eat? If you fancy some fresh fish by the water's edge, there are good restaurants at the new Cullen Bay Marina with tables overlooking the harbour. If you want something with a decidedly tropical-colonial feel try Char Restaurant on the corner of The Esplanade and Knuckey Street. It has tables under palm trees, a lazy tropical ambience and a multicultural menu (lamb tagine with orange couscous and mint yoghurt, wagyu beef rissoles, beef cheek and kaffir lime spring rolls, and more). It's real Somerset Maugham country. A gin sling is essential.
Darwin is awash with Aboriginal art galleries with everything from the cheap and tawdry to fine art. For an excellent overview of Aboriginal art, visit the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which has a fine and representative collection of the best of Northern Territory's indigenous art. Equally impressive is the collection at the Northern Territory Supreme Court, in which there are fine examples of works from the desert country around Alice Springs. If you're eager to buy some indigenous art, the artists' cooperative Maningrida Arts & Culture in Darwin has a reputation for quality.
Before the advent of air-conditioning, all that Darwinites could do in the summer months was turn on the fans and hope for an onshore breeze. To experience Old Darwin, visit Burnett House, which forms part of the Myilly Point Heritage Precinct and is just a short drive from the city centre. Built in 1938, the house was bombed during World War II and damaged by Cyclone Tracy but it has been well restored and, even on the hottest of days, its tropical design ensures it captures the slightest waft of a sea breeze. On Sundays the National Trust serves high tea complete with scones and sandwiches from 3.30-6pm. It is an essential ritual for anyone wanting to recapture the tropical elegance that once formed a part of Darwin.
Burnett House, 4 Burnett Street, Larrakeyah, is open Monday-Saturday 10am-1pm and Sundays for high tea at 3.30-6pm. Phone (08) 8981 0165.
Walk down the hill from Burnett House and wander through the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. Darwin is famous for its outdoor markets and this is the place where the city's truly multicultural character is on show. The tunes from itinerant musicians are decidedly eclectic and the food, ranging from Indonesian and Malay to Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai, is a wonderland of heat and flavours. Buy a takeaway meal and watch the sun set as music pulses around you.
The markets reopen after the wet season on April30, and operate every Thursday and Sunday night until October. See mindil.com.au.
There is nothing quite like leaning back in a deckchair, enjoying some fine Indian food and watching an interesting art-house movie under the stars. The Deckchair Cinema, run by the community-based Darwin Film Society, screens movies the multiplex wouldn't even consider and it's open in the dry season, from April 22 to November. In the warm darkness at the edge of the harbour with a quiet and committed audience, it is a reminder that Darwin is more than an overgrown outback town. It is full of interesting and unusual experiences not found elsewhere.
Deckchair Cinema, end of Jervois Road, off Kitchener Drive, Wharf Precinct, Darwin. Phone (08)8941 4377 or see deckchaircinema.com.
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