Image credits: Tourism NT

With new airlift and a regenerated waterfront, Darwin is evolving. Katie McGonagle reports

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As a fairly frequent traveller, I’ve tried all kinds of cures for jetlag, but coming eye to-eye with an 18-foot-long crocodile called Chopper was a new one for me.

Having touched down in Darwin just a few hours earlier on the recently-launched Malaysia Airlines service, I found myself at city centre attraction Crocosaurus Cove, being lowered into a crocodile enclosure in the rather ominously named Cage of Death.

With nothing but that plastic cage separating me from Chopper’s fearsome jaws and huge, jagged teeth, the thrill of coming so close to one of Australia’s deadliest creatures was more than enough to overcome any stirrings of fatigue.

That was just the start of an exciting fam trip organised by Tourism Northern Territory and Malaysia Airlines to mark the launch of the latter’s Heathrow route to Darwin.

SEE: A CHANGING CITY




Don’t be tempted to let clients fly to Darwin and head straight for the outback: any itinerary will be richer for a couple of nights in this compact, cosmopolitan city.

Not every visit to Crocosaurus Cove is quite as terrifying: this fun family attraction has crocodile feeding sessions, and fish and reptile shows, and costs about £17 for adults, £11 for children. Look out for its resident celebrity crocs: Burt, who made us all jump in Crocodile Dundee, and baby George, named after our future monarch.

Visitors can get those legs moving after their long-haul flight with a stroll through seafront Bicentennial Park, adjacent to main hotel strip the Esplanade, or along the regenerated Waterfront. That’s also home to the delightful Wave Lagoon (£3.80 adult/£2.70 child), which offers swimming and sunbathing minus the crocodiles and stingrays that can crop up on Darwin’s beaches.

Come the evening, hop on a sunset harbour cruise around a harbour more than twice the size of Sydney’s (£48 adult, £35 child, with Darwin Harbour Cruises); or watch some independent Aussie films under the stars at the Deckchair Cinema, open nightly in dry season. Also running May to October, the popular Mindil Beach Sunset Markets each Thursday and Sunday are a thriving mix of street food, shopping and entertainment.

That’s not all there is to Darwin: this small city hides a fascinating history. The excellent Defence of Darwin Experience commemorates the tragic date of February 19, 1942, when the city was bombed in a Pearl Harbor-like surprise raid. The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is another essential stop, with exhibitions ranging from Sweetheart, the giant crocodile notorious for attacking boats in the 1970s, to devastating Cyclone Tracy, which almost flattened the city in 1974.

Darwin

STAY: A ROOM WITH A VIEW




Darwin’s waterfront has received some serious investment in recent years, with additions including swish sister properties Adina Apartment Hotel and Vibe Hotel. The former boasts spacious self-catering studios and one-bedroom apartments, the latter bright double and triple rooms. They share restaurant and pool facilities, plus easy access to the Wave Lagoon and buzzing bars and cafes of the waterfront.

The Esplanade houses many of the city’s premier hotels, whose prime locations combine proximity to shopping and dining along Smith Street and Mitchell Street with uninterrupted sea views. One of the best places to appreciate those is the Doubletree by Hilton Darwin, which offers decent-sized balcony rooms, airy open spaces and a poolside restaurant.

Mantra on the Esplanade offers a choice of city or harbour-view balconies from its 204 rooms and one-bedroom apartments, which can be combined into a two-bedroom apartment for families or couples travelling together. The tropical lobby of neighbouring Novotel Darwin Atrium is undergoing a makeover, but its 140 modern rooms need no such renovation, with pretty window seats offering harbour views.

Moving towards the city centre, Travelodge Mirambeena Resort Darwin is a popular fixture in many brochures with its budget-friendly accommodation and good location. Its 192 rooms come in four categories, the more spacious of which feature two queen beds, or a double and sofa, but guests who want to really spread out can opt for one of 32 two-storey townhouses, which sleep up to five and come with cooking facilities.

Also throwing in added extras, SkyCity Darwin, overlooking Mindil Beach, has valet parking, city centre transfers four times a day, and – rare in Darwin – free Wi-Fi. The 120-room hotel also houses a casino, five restaurants and eight bars, plus a glorious infinity pool which catches the sunset. But the real jewel in the crown is the 32-room resort area which opened in 2012, featuring a sizeable man-made sandy beach with some swim-up rooms.

MOVE ON: CROCODILE COUNTRY




The Northern Territory is outback at its purest: vast distances, wild natural beauty, and opportunities to learn about Aboriginal culture.

The Tiwi Islands offer that cultural insight in spades, as more than 90% of the small population is Aboriginal. There are limits on tourism, so the only way to visit is through an organised tour from Darwin.

On the mainland, within day-trip distance of Darwin, lies Litchfield National Park. It’s not the most famous reserve, but has lush tropical scenery, hiking and swimming spots such as Wangi Falls or Florence Falls, and the unusual phenomenon of magnetic termite mounds.

Most visitors make a beeline for the beautiful Kakadu National Park, where the staggering variety of wildlife is as fascinating as its intriguing rock art sites.

One of the most famous ways to move on from Darwin, though, is on board The Ghan train, which goes all the way to Adelaide, with stops in Katherine and Alice Springs along the way.