Mandalay Luxury Stay and its twin Villa La Vue occupy centre stage on Darwin's Esplanade, set back a smidge behind a white picket fence amid tropical gardens.
Mandalay has views of Darwin harbour through the trees in Bicentennial Park, where at night groups of disenfranchised Aboriginals gather. Their poverty and angry outbursts provide an uncomfortable contrast with the opulence and serenity of this enclave, built in 1988 by Lord McAlpine, henchman to arch-capitalist Margaret Thatcher.
However, most of Darwin's other nightlife is within walking distance. Char, the city's restaurant of the moment, is a few languorous paces away. The Deckchair Cinema is few minutes further along the Esplanade and Darwin's emerging waterfront precinct is beyond that. One block back are the Mitchell Street eateries and bars and this is where we wander for dinner.
Next morning we saddle up Mandalay's free bicycles and point them in the direction of Parap Markets, four kilometres away, aiming for a breakfast laksa. But even with a map and GPS we get lost and end up with a bacon and egg roll and coffee back at Smith Street mall.
Everything about Mandalay summons up colonial-style chic. A verandah at ground level and a first-floor balcony run around the front and sides of the stone cottage, giving an indoor-outdoor feel to all rooms, particularly the upstairs bedrooms. The house is topped with a conical roof and beside it is a small, kidney-shaped pool, shared with guests from Villa La Vue.
Inside, the furnishings and artwork reflect McAlpine's fascination with Asian and Aboriginal culture and alone merit a mini-tour. If the outside is all classic stone, much of the interior is dark wood, from the polished floorboards across the lounge and dining area and louvred French windows to Balinese sideboards and an imposing dining table.
The separate kitchen has enough gear to keep a professional chef happy, although I'm willing to bet few guests bother with self-catering. But the Nespresso machine gets a good workout from us.
Upstairs it is hard to know which of the three bedrooms to fall into. We end up in the master at the rear, with en suite facilities (the other bedrooms share a bathroom) and king-size bed.
Antiques are scattered about with exquisite abandon and there are scratches on the walls from guests being dragged away by their spouses at the end of their stay.
The pool is little more than a puddle but nonetheless welcome for cooling off. There is a gas barbecueon the verandah, a fully equipped laundry and a dishwasher just in case legendary Darwin chef Jimmy Shu (who founded the lovely Hanuman restaurant here) pops around to cook you dinner. Busy bees also get free Wi-Fiand Foxtel in the Library and there is off-street parking for three cars.
Mandalay is almost too opulent to be comfortable but the overall effect is soothing. For couples of a certain age and sophistication, there is nothing missing. Except, perhaps, a personal butler.
In that kitchen, with its commercial stove, you could cook up an memorable chilli mud crab. But why bother when Darwin's dining scene is currently at its best? Next door is local favourite Char, where dishes such as "wagyu beef ragout pappardelle with field mushrooms, pecorino, pangrattato and truffle oil" taste as astounding as they look and the service is genuinely affable. A taxi ride away is Pee Wees at the Point for alfresco dining with harbour views, and both Cullen Bay and the waterfront development offer a variety of cuisines. Back in town, recently arrived Indian chef Akash Srivastava is doing innovative work with native ingredients and spicy nuances at the Hilton Esplanade, and the Hanuman on Mitchell Street regularly wows diners with signature dishes like oysters with lemongrass, ginger, chilli and sweet basil.
WORTH STEPPING OUT FOR
Crocosaurus Cove, in the centre of Darwin on Mitchell Street, has several ways to interact with reptiles, from holding a grinning baby croc to going eye to prehistoric eye with a giant salty in the Cage of Death ($160, crocosauruscove.com). For in-town access to indigenous culture there is the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (artsandmuseums.nt.gov.au, open 10am-5pm weekends, free) in Fannie Bay. The Mindl Beach night markets, on Thursdays and Sundays, are good for multicultural food offerings and blazing sunsets, with drum circle accompaniment. Out of town, you can do Litchfield National Park, a la James Bond, with Outback Floatplane Adventures ($695, outbackfloatplanes.com.au), flying by seaplane, landing on a billabong, powering through the wetlands by airboat and taking a jaunt in a helicopter flown by larrikin NT pilot, Matt Wright.
As atmospheric a colonial Asian-style bolthole as you'll find in Darwin and it's all yours. Use Mandalay as a base from which to discover this rapidly expanding tropical city or stay in and spend hours marvelling over the furnishings or poring over books in the library. As an abode it's flawless, five-star AAA rated accommodation. But it's hard not to be touched by the indigenous poverty and sadness on the doorstep.
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly direct to Darwin from Melbourne and Sydney with Qantas and Virgin. It's a 20-minute drive to Mandalay House or $35 in a cab.
Mandalay Luxury Stay, 78 The Esplanade, Darwin. Renting the whole house costs $645 a night (October-March 31) and $745 (April 1-September 30). Minimum two-night stay. See mandalayluxurystay.com.au
The writer was a guest of Mandalay Luxury Stay