Unwrapping Darwin, a beach town with a difference.

A beach town where the yoga is plentiful, the coffee is organic and the average age is 33, Darwin is full of surprises!

A Man and a Woman taking selfie in Wangi Falls
  • Jetstar
  • June 2018

You’re relaxing by the water, on a restaurant-lined wharf. In one hand is a schooner of local craft beer, perhaps by One Mile Brewing Co. The other holds your shopping (vintage lace and pretty jewellery, thanks very much) bought moments ago at nearby boutiques. With the sun on your shoulders and swaying boats keeping tempo with the breeze, you could almost fall asleep … if it weren’t for the pair of giant, googly eyes staring at you from the wall.

Perhaps we should add that you’re at Lola’s Pergola: one of the quirkiest, and most enjoyable, additions to Darwin’s exploding food scene. Where else but Darwin would somebody buy prime waterfront real estate, turn it into a pub decked out with plastic ponies (the kind ripped straight off a merry-go-round), those gigantic eyes and children’s toys, and become an instant, screaming success? With its artisan tap beer, stylish young crowd and menu of adventurous pub grub, you could be in any upmarket beach town … except for the carnival-on-acid theme.

But that’s precisely what makes Darwin, well Darwin. Step off the plane and you’ll feel as though you’ve wandered into an otherworldly carnival. Fifty-six nationalities have made this palm-fringed beach town their home, where beautiful galleries, open-air markets and fascinating museums line the streets in a social kaleidoscope of exotic cultures, tropical weather and some of the best Asian food Australia has to offer.

Coastal view of Darwin City Waterfront
The waterfront in Darwin

It’s a place of deeply romantic swimming holes, spectacular sunsets and kids who run barefoot; where every second person is a larger-than-life character, and every third car has a personalised number plate. It’s a city with a wholly ingrained sense of humour (just have a read of any NT News front page). And where else could you find an iced coffee obsession that runs so deep, even McDonalds sells cartons of Paul’s with its meals?

“The Territory has some unique food opportunities,” grins Chung Jae Lee. The talented chef moved from Adelaide 20 months ago to open Little Miss Korea, a barbecue house and martini bar in a CBD laneway. Although that might sound like an unlikely recipe for success in an outback beach town, think again: Darwin is closer to Bali than Brisbane in more ways than one.

“It was the obvious move for us,” Chung says. “The food scene has a strong Asian influence, which is wonderful, but it’s also changing rapidly – there’s a lot of opportunity here, a lot happening at the moment.”

People enjoying sunset in Mindil Beach
Sunset at Mindil Beach in Darwin

Dining à la Darwin

Darwin has long had great food. A sizeable Greek population, the result of workers who migrated in the 1920s and never left, has meant a long-established coffee culture, and any number of family-run tavernas serving up traditional spanakopita and relationship advice (our tip: head to Manoli’s for Darwin’s best souvlaki).

If you prefer your food organic and your coffee with soy, you won’t miss out. Eateries such as Alley Cats Patisserie – a café-slash-organic-bakery in a teeny arcade with a fantasy garden out the back – sling out artful dishes with Campos Coffee, a solid brunch menu and handcrafted pastries.

Other trendsetter places, Rabbit Hole, Pour and Wharf One among them, have recently sprung up alongside the paleo eateries, high-ceilinged yoga studios (naturally heated, of course) and juice bars, in a meshing of modern urban trends.

If you don’t like markets and sunsets, the saying goes, don’t bother coming.

Shopping bazaar-style is almost a religion, and locals visit favourite stalls with pious regularity. Rapid Creek, Nightcliff and the famous Mindil markets are the most frequented, but foodies must visit Parap, where sushi, gado gado, pho, spicy Cambodian pancakes and Chinese pork buns jostle with stalls serving piquant cups of steaming laksa and jumbo tropical smoothies.

Head to Darwin Sailing Club for a sunset by the water, where enormous containers of free stubby holders are dotted about the bar, thanks to staff who appreciate the importance of a cold beer. And slip outside town to find Berry Springs Nature Park: a bucolic series of swimming holes with an adjacent mango farm and café called Crazy Acres, essentially a shrine to all things mango (smoothies, salads, jam, cheesecake and ice cream). Hire a pool noodle from the kiosk and launch into the deep green pools – they’re so clear that you can see tiny fish darting about. Outback snorkelling? Yes please.

Top view of Jim Jim Falls in Kakadu National Park
Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory

Berry Springs isn’t the only place to cool down. Waterholes are threaded through the lush green land with surprising regularity, and plenty are safe and croc-free. Like Litchfield National Park, often ignored in favour of nearby Kakadu (both are under three hours from Darwin), but brimming with palm-filled rainforest walks, wildflowers and beautiful swimming spots such as Florence Falls, Wangi Falls and Buley Rockhole.

Darwinians often spend the day here with an Esky-ful of treats, lazing on the rocks, book in hand while the kids bomb into the glittering waters. If headed here, stop off at Batchelor Butterfly Farm on the way. This whimsical spot is also a sanctuary for rabbits, goats and other cute animals you can pet. Plus there’s a café that’s as delightfully bizarre as Never Never Land, with a strictly Territorian twist.

Or jump on a ferry to the culture-rich Tiwi Islands, where the local Indigenous art is globally sought after, but priced from just AUD $50 on the spot.

Culture, shopping, islands, coffee: tick, tick, tick, tick. And we haven’t even mentioned the permanent beach weather. File this place under #holidaygoals.

Visit

Batchelor Butterfly Farm
8 Meneling Road, Batchelor

Parap Village Markets
Parap Road, Parap, Darwin

Eat

Alley Cats Patisserie
14/69 Mitchell St, Darwin

Lola’s Pergola
48 Marina Boulevard, Cullen Bay

Little Miss Korea
56 Smith Street, Darwin