My kind of place : This northern Australian city combines a taste of the tropics with a cosmopolitan vibe, says Kris Madden
Darwin has evolved into a top destination in Australia
The capital of Australia's Northern Territory, Darwin is located on the edge of a harbour that's bigger than Sydney's. Discovered in 1839 and named after the English evolutionist Charles Darwin, the town endured many hardships on its way to establishing itself as the gateway between Asia and Australia - from bombing by Japanese forces in the Second World War to nearly being completely destroyed by a cyclone in the 1970s.
The rebuilding that followed has left a well-designed, modern city with very few old buildings. But the real story of Darwin began with the discovery of gold in the late 1800s. Aviation also played a part - it was the landing site of the first flight from England to Australia in 1919.
Named by Lonely Planet as one of the world's Top 10 cities last year, Darwin enjoys a tropical climate, is famous for its sun, sand and nightlife, and takes pride in its laid-back vibe and multicultural feel.
A comfortable bed
Darwin's hotel scene has been redefined in the past few years, with a new waterfront development and the opening of many high-end hotels and resorts. The five-star beachfront SkyCity Darwin resort (www.skycitydarwin.com.au; 00 61 8 8943 8888) completed its latest renovation last year, adding 32 new luxury rooms around a lagoon with a man-made white beach. Double rooms cost from AU$185 (Dh700) per night.
Located right on the harbour, with cool sea breezes wafting through its wide-open balconies, is Adina Apartment Hotel Darwin Waterfront (www.adinahotels.com.au; 00 61 8 8982 9999). With boutiques, restaurants, beaches, boats and rolling parklands all on its doorstep, it's hard to find a better location. Double rooms cost from $215 (Dh815) per night, including breakfast.
Described as a "hotel with personality", the funky Vibe (www.vibehotels.com.au; 00 61 8 8982 9998) has views over the harbour and brightly coloured tropical decor. Double rooms with breakfast cost from $165 (Dh626) per night.
Find your feet
To understand the country's splendour and cultural heritage, start with a guided walk along the Esplanade with an Aboriginal tour guide (www.batjitours.com.au; 1300 881 186). You'll learn about sacred sites, the medicinal and culinary value of local plants and animals, and the special relationship Aborigines have with the land.
The Casuarina Coastal Reserve, also known as Dripstone Park, occupies the area between Raid Creek and Buffalo Creek. It's a popular picnic destination and birdwatcher's paradise, with white-sand beaches, cycling tracks, rock pools and secluded barbecue spots.
Meet the locals
Recline in a deckchair under the stars and watch a movie - from family classics to top-billed foreign films - at the open-air Deckchair Cinema run by the Darwin Film Society (www.deckchaircinema.com.au; 00 61 8 8981 0700).
The Mindil Beach Markets (www.mindil.com.au) are Darwin's crowning glory. More than 200 stalls serve up all international cuisine and crafts; at sunset, lounge on the beach to watch the magnificent Indian Ocean views.
Book a table
The aromas of Indian and Thai dishes waft from the kitchen to the stylish, open dining room and outdoor deck at Hanuman (www.hanuman.com.au; 00 61 8 8941 3500). The signature dish is oysters in lemon grass, sweet basil, ginger, chilli and fresh coriander ($20; Dh75). Follow up with meen moolie (wild barramundi fillet with turmeric, fresh curry leaves and coconut ($29; Dh109).
The speciality at Char (www.charrestaurant.com.au; 00 61 8 8981 4544) in the historic Admiralty House is chargrilled steaks cooked to perfection. Try the Wagyu rump served with baked pumpkin, roasted onions, goat's cheese and dukkah ($46; Dh174). Finish with wild berries served with cream, vanilla, mint and chocolate dust ($14; Dh53).
Pee Wee's at the Point (www.peewees.com.au; 00 61 8 8981 6868) serves some of the freshest ocean fare to come out of the Timor and Indian Seas. Or try something new: coconut-crusted, wild crocodile tail ($19; Dh72).
Darwin is where to buy quality Aboriginal art. Steer clear of the usual mass-produced tourist tat and head for a reputable gallery, such as Mason (www.masongallery.com.au; 00 61 8 8981 9622) or the Mbantua Gallery (www.mbantua.com.au; 00 61 8 8952 5571).
For a unique, quirky Australian souvenir, stop by the Barra Shack in Humpty Doo (00 61 8 8988 1258) on the way to Kakadu National Park and check out the bags, belts, purses and book covers made from crocodile and kangaroo hide. Exquisite south-sea pearls are another good buy.
What to avoid
In the Top End, crocodiles rule. While the waterholes are patrolled regularly, the only 100-per-cent safe place to swim is a swimming pool. Some attractions are closed in the wet season from November to April - stinger jellyfish make the ocean a no-go zone during this time.
Kakadu National Park, the largest in Australia, is a World Heritage Site. Set about 250 kilometres from Darwin, it has one of the highest concentrations of Aboriginal rock art sites in Australia.
Return flights with Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Darwin via Singapore cost from Dh4,190, including taxes.
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