SHIRLEY SINCLAIR

Embrace Darwin's tapestry of culture

ONLY in Darwin would you hear the one about the crocodile that two half-tanked fishermen nearly hit in their tinnie on a mission to buy a carton of beer.

They had pulled up to the rocky beach down from their favourite watering hole and, on spotting the croc sunning itself, hastily made other mooring arrangements. Well, they weren't leaving without the beer!

And that's what everyone loves about the Northern Territory capital: nothing ever surprises you.

So, more than 15 years after our last visit, we weren't really surprised to find the Darwin we grew to love was "same, same but different".

Deep down, she's still the same country girl welcoming all comers with open arms to create her rich tapestry of multiculturalism. But the vibrant population mix has brought a newfound sophistication and worldliness. She's wrapped herself up in that tapestry, carefully designed a new look, and stepped out in style as a tourism head-turner.

Spend 24 hours with her and sure, you'll still stumble upon the boisterous and bawdy bars, but she'll also take you on an adventure of pioneering history and indigenous culture, scenic landscapes and harbour views, fine dining and world-class entertainment.

We started our day where we dropped our bags: the Medina Grand Darwin, lying smack-bang in the heart of the impressive Darwin Waterfront.

As well as being popular with the corporate sector for accommodation and conferences, the hotel apartments are also finding favour with couples and families for their handy access to the CBD and the Smith Street Mall, the Esplanade and Bicentennial Park as well as other city attractions.

The three-year-old hotel has all the comfort and facilities to match its prime location and its design brings the outdoors indoors, taking full advantage of the majestic views and laid-back tropical lifestyle.

Back when we visited in 1996, The Waterfront - once 25ha of industrial wasteland - hadn't even been contemplated. Today, we find an area where we could quite comfortably live, work, rest and play - a "happening place" attracting tourists, families, singles and couples alike.

Even under grey skies, the massive area is picturesque and pristine.

Palms, frangipani and big shady trees dot the park area where visitors can simply find a comfy piece of grass and lie down for a siesta or throw down a rug for a picnic.

The surrounding medium-rise apartments and street-level boutiques, businesses and restaurants still allow plenty of park "breathing space".

Take the circuit from the hotel, starting with some sand between the toes at the Recreation Lagoon Beach.

Then follow the meandering concrete path for pedestrians and bicycles past the Wave Lagoon (with its 10 different wave patterns) and Darwin Convention Centre - an architectural delight, inspired by the curves of a pearl oyster.

The promenade wraps around the Recreation Lagoon where serious fitness swimmers do laps, and looks out to Stokes Hill Wharf and its charter boats, to the harbour beyond.

Head back to the shops over water along the pontoon-like boardwalk.

The Waterfront has a rich cultural history, most notoriously as the site where the first bomb landed on Australian soil in the Second World War.

And just about everywhere you turn, Darwin's proud history and ability to pick itself up after whatever war and weather throws at the city is told in sculptures and artwork, plaques, interpretive signs and displays.

As late afternoon turns to twilight on the waterfront, the crowds hit the bars, cafes and restaurants with a buzz in the air to rival the cicadas.

While most of the city's better-known eateries and dining establishments can be found in Mitchell Street, the Waterfront is turning on the culinary charm with a wide variety of styles on offer.

For a guaranteed fun night out, head to Fiddlers Green Irish Pub for a pint of Guinness or perhaps a "Bookie's Sandwich" in the undercover outdoor dining area.

But there's a whole other side to Darwin and it starts once you walk out of the hotel reception, to the right past the undercover public carpark, and take the glass-

panelled elevator to the Sky Bridge.

Stop for a moment to survey the Waterfront Precinct and Darwin Harbour, then follow Sky Bridge across Hughes Avenue - the oldest road in Darwin - as it links to the Smith Street East Walkway into the CBD.

You'll pass the old courthouse and police station (originally built in 1884, partially destroyed by Cyclone Tracy in 1974 and reopened exactly seven years later on December 24, 1981, to become the Northern Territory Administrator's Office), and State Square (housing Parliament House, the Supreme and federal Courts, old Town Hall ruins, Civic Park and Chan Contemporary Art Space).

Browse the souvenir shops, grab a coffee and a quick bite to eat, take shelter under the sprawling branches of a weeping fig and, once energised and hydrated to take on the tropical heat and humidity, stroll down to the Esplanade and Bicentennial Park.

Here, you'll have a different perspective on the harbour and maybe see a ship berthed at Fort Hill Wharf Cruise Terminal.

The day of our visit, the Cenotaph is attracting small groups wanting to pay their respects and read the messages on the wreaths that remained at the base, marking the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin on February 19.

As we continue our walk, we marvel at the number of hotels and resorts that have sprung up along the Esplanade and slow here and there to read the 200 Remarkable Territorians whose names and "claim to fame" have been commemorated in tiled sections along the promenade.

From quiet achievers on the land to high-profile public figures, larrikins and eccentrics, these characters have made Darwin what it is today and have been remembered in this simple yet effective way.

We put on the pace in the light rain until we stumble upon an old friend: The Top End Hotel. The Balcony Bar (right next door to the infamous Honey Pot strip club) offers a welcome drink in the shade in true Darwin style.

Lucky for us a friend has come to our rescue (before we drink ourselves silly on the veranda) to play tour guide.

First on the agenda is a trip to the seafood businesses on Frances Bay Road where we still rave about the fish that comes straight off the trawlers.

Mr Barra, Darwin Fish Market and Darwin Fisherman's Wharf Eatery are among the pick of fresh and cooked seafood shops here. But we settle on Darwin Fisherman's Wharf Eatery where we sit down to barramundi burgers and pick up a few free recipe cards on the way out for Mediterranean Mudcrab and Steamed Goldband Snapper with Soy Chilli Sauce.

Next on the agenda is a drink at SkyCity casino, which is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and where we are assured "there's always something happening".

We don't need to gamble a cent or win a jackpot here to enjoy an ice-cold chardonnay and beer while overlooking the colourful gardens and beautifully kept lawns leading out to Mindil Beach on the deck of stylish Sandbar. We could easily have spent a lazy Wednesday afternoon, sipping cocktails and waiting for the sun to go down over the Arafura Sea, or joining the long-lunch set in the casino's popular Italian restaurant il Piatto across the walkway.

While we are a few months early for our favourite Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, which only operate in the dry season from May to October, our "tour guide" has plenty more sightseeing up her sleeve.

Nearby Cullen Bay introduces us to trendy boutiques and seafood restaurants, a marina filled with expensive yachts and waterfront homes, a stone's throw from the golf course and botanical gardens.

The sunsets are superb here, as we later discover, but we have our sights set on new territory for the three of us: Mandorah.

The seaside spot - on Cox Peninsula on the western side of Darwin Harbour - is home to only 450 people, with another 150 in Belyuen, 20km to the south.

In two years in Darwin, our friend is yet to take the Mandorah Ferry the 6km across the harbour to what many consider the best little beer garden in the Territory at the Mandorah Beach Hotel.

And we are in agreement once we settle in the fresh air under a shady yellow beer-company umbrella, guzzling that first refreshing drink. We stare at the superb cityscape, strike up easy conversation with the locals, and lean back to watch the ferry and all manner of vessels motor past.

That's where we hear the story of the crocodile and the fishermen after their tinnie sails into the sunset across the harbour.

Whether or not the story is a croc, we'll never know.

GOOD TO KNOW ABOUT DARWIN WATERFRONT

Medina Grand Darwin Waterfront

7 Kitchener Drive, Darwin City Waterfront, Darwin. Phone (08) 8982 9999

Mandorah Beach Hotel

http://www.mandorahbeachhotel.bigpondhosting.com/

Fiddlers Green

Open daily 9 am-11.30pm.

T: 08 8981 2222

The Darwin Waterfront Precinct

This is an alcohol-free zone except in licensed premises.

Visit waterfront.nt.gov.au.

The Wave Lagoon is open 10 am- 6 pm, seven days a week, Good Friday (closed all day) and Christmas Day (open 2pm to 6pm).

The nearby Recreation Lagoon offers a sandy beach and calm swimming.

Both these lagoons are patrolled by experienced lifeguards.

Just like the ocean, the Recreation Lagoon is a natural ecosystem with fish, algae and small Cassiopeia jellyfish.

The Darwin Waterfront Corporation warns that while it does its best to prevent marine stingers entering the lagoon with mesh screens, night spotting and drag netting, it cannot guarantee the lagoon is free of jellyfish.

As late afternoon turns to twilight on the waterfront, the crowds hit the bars, cafes and restaurants with a buzz in the air to rival the cicadas.

>> Read more travel stories.


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