Sophisticated, trendy, cool ... Darwin?

I glance around at the interior of the tapas bar. Dark and moody with orange-yellow illuminated panels beneath a bar with angular black bar stools, it could be anywhere in the hipper suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

Instead, I'm in Darwin. If I had a little dog, this is the point at which I'd say “We're not in Kansas any more, Toto”. Instead I ask Viva la Vida co-owner Jennifer Hanlon why she started up a place that's so far from the stereotype of boozy Territory drinking holes.

“We've been down south plenty of times and love the tapas bars in the big cities,” she says. “That was one thing we didn't have in Darwin. So we set about setting up a wine bar with the food to complement it.”

Not that the bar is a total southern ring-in; among its tapas dishes are some distinctive local ingredients. “We have buffalo milk cheeses from Beatrice Buffalo [a Northern Territory company], local mozzarella, ricotta and halloumi. There's Bees Creek Honey from up here too.”

The result is an impressive range of tapas dishes ($6-16), from banderilla (food on sticks) to empanada (deep-fried pastries).

The wine list also stands out, contrasting with the sometimes limited range of other Darwin restaurants and bottle shops. There's a long list of mostly Australian wines, with a few intruders from New Zealand and France, from $6-$17 per glass.

“We have about 40 to 50 wines by the glass,” says Hanlon, and I get the feeling it's her personal mission to shake up Darwiners' drinking habits. “Most nights the barman will go round with something new, offering people a taste.”

Viva la Vida, 48 Smith Street Mall, Darwin. Tel: 08 8942 0544.

I've set myself the task of scoping out Darwin's drinking establishments before I board The Ghan to Adelaide in a couple of days' time. The recently opened tapas bar might be an outlier, so I try a pub for lunch.


The Deck Bar looks more what you expect from the plain-talking Top End – a big broad deck on a busy corner in the CBD, with a canopy to ward off the tropical rain. It's a pleasant atmosphere out here, one part humid beach bar to three parts local pub.

What really stands out is the view: across the road is the grandiose Northern Territory Parliament, built in a vaguely colonial grand hotel style and surrounded by tropical greenery.

The food is surprisingly good for a corner pub. My fish and chips is actually teriyaki-style threadfin salmon ($17.90), a local white fish, with chips and a salad which includes a little bowl of sliced pickled ginger. A schooner of XXXX Gold ($4) complements it nicely.

The Deck Bar, 22 Mitchell Street, Darwin. Tel: 08 8942 3001.

Below the escarpment above Port Darwin is Darwin Waterfront, a spanking new collection of upmarket apartments and eateries reminiscent of Sydney's Cockle Bay Wharf or Melbourne's riverside Southbank.

Going one better, the complex has its own beach in an artificial lagoon, protected from the Territory's famous biting/stinging wildlife by nets. It's surrounded by sandy shores and green lawns, a popular destination for families.

At the portside end is Il Lido, an Italian bar and restaurant with broad open-air terraces. Mid-afternoon on a Saturday it's full of groups of friends lounging on the low wicker chairs, sipping beverages.

The drinks list is impressive, with plenty of Italian wines, some expensive champagne and an international spread of beers. I choose a fairly bitter, malty Castello lager ($8) from northern Italy and sit back, enjoying the soft warm breeze as people muck about in the water below.

Il Lido, Wharf One, 19 Kitchener Drive, Darwin. Tel: 08 8941 0900.

Now this is old-school. The sprawling bar area at the Darwin Sailing Club is reminiscent of an old-fashioned beach resort. Plastic chairs and long tables stand in rows in the open air, on a stretch of lawn framed by palm trees. Below is the long sandy beach of Fannie Bay, north of the Darwin CBD.

It's mellow here on a Sunday afternoon, with punters eating pub lunches and sipping coldies, in no rush to be anywhere in particular.

Adjacent to the bar, the club's Waterfront Bistro serves a menu of pub-style meals, with plenty of local seafood dishes around the $25-30 mark.

The food looks fine, but it's all about the beautiful tropical view here. I'm content to sip a schooner of Coopers ($6) on my plastic chair and take in the view of sailboats on the calm aquamarine waters below, where Port Darwin meets the open waters of the Timor Sea.

Darwin Sailing Club, Atkins Drive, Fannie Bay. Tel: 08 8981 1700.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail & Tourism NT.


Getting there

Qantas (131313) flies direct from all mainland capitals to Darwin.

Another way of getting there is aboard The Ghan train (132147) from Adelaide via Alice Springs.

Staying there

Mantra on the Esplanade (08 8943 4333) has rooms from $149 per night, in an attractive location with a view over the harbour.

A budget alternative is Chilli's Backpackers (08 8941 9835) in the Mitchell Street nightlife zone. It has dorm beds from $31 and rooms from $85 per night.