Darwin got off to a slow start only in the 1870s and was later bombed, cyclone damaged and laughed at for its ocker isolation, but it is stepping out as a transformed, youthful, multicultural and much more confident city. It has an impressive waterfront and parks, steamy tropical sexiness, lively markets and a constantly changing urban landscape. At last the Northern Territory's capital has become a destination in itself rather than just a departure point for surrounding national parks.
Smith Street is the city's pedestrian shopping drag and centre of downtown, while Darwin Waterfront Precinct (waterfront.nt.gov.au) is the city's newer, trendy recreation area. Wander the Botanic Gardens (nt.gov.au) and East Point Reserve (darwin.nt.gov.au), where locals walk, cycle and barbecue among the wallabies. Thursday and Sunday evening's Mindil Beach Sunset Market (mindil.com.au) is the Darwin highlight from mid-April to October, offering a startling array of Asian cuisines to the sounds of live bands and buskers.
Wharf One Food and Wine (wharfone.com.au) is a casual harbour-side eatery with a focus on wood-grilled steaks, pork and seafood that will leave you licking your lips. Service is impressively attentive and friendly. Char Restaurant (chardarwin.com.au) is pricey but delivers fabulous steaks with innovative side dishes. Moorish Cafe (moorishcafe.com.au) is particularly good for its Middle Eastern-inspired tapas. If you're after south-east Asian then head to Chow (chowdarwin.com.au), which has great pho and laksa.
RFDS Tourist Facility (rfdsdarwin.com.au) relates the story of the Royal Flying Doctor Service but is actually more interesting for its high-tech account of Darwin's World War II bombing by the Japanese, which uses talking holograms and extraordinary virtual-reality goggles. The Museum and Art Gallery of the NT (magnt.net.au) is worth its somewhat inconvenient location for excellent exhibitions of natural history and art, and an account of Cyclone Tracy, which wrecked Darwin in 1974. Before and after photos are shocking.
The city's somewhat uninteresting appearance – much of it was rebuilt after Cyclone Tracy – belies a rollicking history of early development and the human-interest story of Darwin's World War II bombing, so a guided tour will add depth. John Hart of Walk Darwin (walkdarwin.com.au) will lead you on an insightful and entertaining two-hour heritage walk that takes in government and civic buildings, overlooked sights and the stories of pioneering eccentrics and aviators.
Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront (vibehotels.com) has a youthful, trendy atmosphere and large, comfortable if somewhat bland rooms along very long corridors. It's good to have a desk, armchair and (in waterfront rooms) pleasant outlooks. The wow factor, however, is the great location on the seafront entertainment and dining hub, with a quick connection to downtown Darwin via a nearby footbridge. Children will enjoy the area's playgrounds, wave pool and netted lagoon.
Sea Darwin (seadarwin.com) will take you on a sunset fast-boat ride around Darwin harbour to view mangroves, new developments and the cityscape from the water as you enjoy quality fish and chips and a glass of bubbly.
The writer travelled courtesy Coral Expeditions and Tourism NT.