There’s been plenty of buzz about Darwin in the last year. Aside from it having been named as one of Lonely Planet’s Top Cities for 2012, Australia’s tropical north is gaining a reputation as an excellent family holiday destination – with its steamy climate, relaxed, outdoor living and easy access to spectacular wilderness areas.
Darwin really shines in the Dry season, which runs through the Australian winter from May to early September. The Dry is a time of gorgeous, balmy weather, endless blue-sky days and cool nights. The dragonflies are out, the sunsets are glorious and, compared to the rest of the year, the city is positively buzzing, culminating with the two week Darwin Festival each August. Outside of the Dry expect extreme tropical weather – incredibly hot, humid days and electrifying evening storms. The weather at this time of year is often said to drive the locals “troppo” and makes it almost impossible to muster the energy to do anything, especially trying to entertain the little ones.
- Noshing on a multicultural feast at one of the many outdoor food markets (see EAT)
- A sunset picnic at East Point or Nightcliff Foreshore (see EAT)
- Waterhole jumping at Litchfield National Park (see SEE & DO)
- Catching a movie under the stars at the Deckchair Cinema (see SEE & DO)
- Getting up close and personal with a Top End croc (see SEE & DO)
Widely spaced Darwin has an odd layout, with the airport plonked right in the middle of the city, blocking the CBD from the northern suburbs, where much of the population lives. Smith Street Mall is the main thoroughfare of the small CBD. Follow it up past the Visitor Centre and the old Brown’s Mart Theatre and you’ll quickly reach the Skybridge which takes you across to the Waterfront Precinct overlooking the Port. On the other side of the city, you can follow the coast road along past Mindil Beach to Fannie Bay and the turnoff to East Point Reserve. Continue on to the suburbs of Parap, Nightcliff and Rapid Creek (approx 10km away) which are home to the weekend markets.
SEE & DO
Head down to Doctor’s Gully for a fish feeding frenzy where you can wade into the water and hand feed throngs of mullet, bream and catfish.
This free museum is set in lush gardens on Darwin Harbour. There’s an impressive Aboriginal art collection, but the kids will probably be more interested in the local history section, which has a Cyclone Tracey exhibition (with a terrifying audio experience), and the infamous ‘Sweetheart’, a stuffed five-metre long, 780-kilogram saltwater crocodile.
The Discovery Centre offers various games and activities to keep kids entertained while you grab a coffee at the café. The museum also runs a Little Explorers program (Fri 9.30-11.30am) where 2 to 4 year olds can make art, listen to stories and feed the turtles.
For more art head to the smaller galleries in Parap like Outstation and Nomad (albeit better for babies than toddlers) and follow it up with lunch at Cyclone Cafe.
Never Smile at a Crocodile
Whenever I talk to children from outside Darwin about coming to visit, they seem to get most excited about the possibility of meeting a crocodile. And it’s true, Darwin does offer many opportunities to get nose to nose with these famous reptiles. The most convenient place is Crocosaurus Cove, an excellent two-storey aquarium that features some of the largest saltwater crocodiles in captivity. With a daily program of kid-friendly activities and lots of air-conditioned spaces, Crocosaurus Cove is a very cool city hang out. There are reptile displays, fish feeding sessions and opportunities to hold a baby croc (aptly named Fluffy). And don’t forget your bathers, because kids can also ‘swim with the crocs’ in a unique pool which backs on to an enclosure filled with energetic juvenile crocodiles. Possibly more terrifying for the viewing parents!
Alternatively head to the Adelaide River, 65km south of Darwin, where competing cruise companies run jumping croc tours – imagine huge saltwater crocodiles launching themselves out of the water to claim a piece of dangling meat. Both companies offer a bus service from Darwin city centre. While you’re in that neck of the woods check out Window on the Wetlands, a viewing platform overlooking the ever-changing floodplains.
This fabulous, outdoor cinema is atmospheric Darwin at its best. Grab dinner from the bar, and sink into a deckchair under the stars. Open every night from April to mid-November, with a double feature at weekends. Generally speaking the Thursday night film and the first Saturday night flick at 7.30pm are both child-friendly. Make sure to buy a locally-made Crazy Acres ice cream while you’re there.
The city’s endless summer – the average temperature is 33 degrees Celsius – means you’ll definitely be keen to cool off. Unfortunately Darwin’s beaches are a no-go swimming zone, thanks to box jelly fish and crocs but here’s some great, safe options for having a splash:
Down at the Waterfront Precinct, kids will have a ball in the wave pool and free recreation lagoon, which are surrounded by grassy areas perfect for a lazy picnic. The wave pool has a shaded shallow area for toddlers while bigger kids can use the boogie boards and rings on the waves which run on a 10-minute cycle. You can buy a half day pass or a full day pass.
In the northern suburbs, about 20 minutes drive from town, Leanyer gets the thumbs up for its free waterslides, skate park and shady BBQ areas. If you’re travelling from the city by public transport there’s also a handy bus stop right outside.
Nightcliff pool (259 Casuarina Dr, Nightcliff)
Perched right on the foreshore, with dramatic coastal views, this is an early evening hang out for many locals who make use of the free barbeques and expansive grass area.
Parap Pool (Ross Smith Av, Parap)
Closer to the city than Nightcliff and also has great kiddie pool with slide, not to mention tonnes of shade and a playground.
OUT OF TOWN
Only 45 minutes from Darwin, Berry Springs offers an easy “bush” experience. Start off at the Territory Wildlife Park where you can wander through bush trails to discover native wildlife in recreated natural habitats, including a monsoon rainforest with boardwalks, lagoons with bird-watching hides, a walk-through aviary, an aquarium and a nocturnal den. Stop for a bite of mango cheesecake (or ice-cream) at the nearby Crazy Acres Farm Shop, which is located on a 25-acre mango farm. Then head to Berry Springs Nature Reserve (Cox Peninsula Rd) where you can take a dip in a series of spring-fed swimming holes shaded by paperbarks and pandanus palms.
This spectacular national park is the locals’ pick for a one-day adventure. Here you can cool off in croc-free plunge pools, swim under epic waterfalls, see the intriguing magnetic termite mounds and discover ancient rock art. About 100km south-west of Darwin, the Park is generally accessible all year (sealed roads) via Batchelor. If you only have a day to spare, head to the popular swimming spots such as Wangi, Florence, Tjaynera Falls and Buley Rockhole. It’s best to bring your own picnic as the only food available within the park is at the Wangi Visitor Centre or the Litchfield Cafe (just past the Wangi Falls turn-off).
One of the best places for a feast are the incredible weekend markets. Kicking off on Thursday night are The Mindil Beach Markets (Thursday and Sunday from 5pm, April-October), where stalls sell everything from didgeridoos to donuts (or rather loukoumades, delicious Greek honey puffs). There’s tie-dyed clothes, African fabric stalls, tacky arts and crafts, Indigenous artefacts and the usual wares from Indonesia and Thailand. The atmosphere is carnivalesque and there’s live music and roving entertainers. A highlight is the array of food, with tastes from Turkey to Timor. However, the essential Mindil foodie experience has got to be an iced fruit shake, flaming satay sticks and a green papaya salad. Head down to the dunes, to enjoy dinner and the sunset. No alcohol is served, but you can bring your own.
Market madness continues on Saturday at Parap (8am-2pm) a couple of kilometers north of the city, where the quality of the food moves up a notch. Like Sunday’s Rapid Creek (6am-12pm) and Nightcliff markets (8am-2pm), it sells weird and wonderful tropical fruits, piles of Asian greens, yummy Thai desserts and eskies filled with mud crabs. A veggie laksa and satay prawns, washed down with a freshly ground coffee, is a Saturday morning institution for many Darwinites. Kids go nuts for nutella and bannana pancakes at Ken’s Crepes (Mindil, Nightcliff and Parap) and the iced juices/smoothies available at all the markets.
While kids will no doubt enjoy the atmosphere and of course the moveable market meals, the markets can get quite hot and hectic. On a Thursday night it can feel like half of Darwin (and most of Europe’s backpackers) descends on Mindil Beach, so Sunday would be our pick for a more relaxed outing. Parap is also often jam-packed, particularly in the Dry Season, so start early and leave the stroller in the car. Nightcliff is the most chilled-out and kid-friendly, with a popular playground right in the centre of the markets, within eyesight of some shaded tables.
Despite its million dollar views this club is refreshingly laidback. Not much more than a beach bar with some plastic chairs and tables among the palm trees at Vestey’s Beach, kids (and dogs) are welcome to run amok in the beer garden or have a splash in the pool. There’s live music on Friday and Sunday afternoons and a standard pub grub menu with some tasty desserts like croc in a billabong and homemade ice-cream.
Darwin has a large Greek population and there’s two excellent Greek restaurants which dole out fantastic food and a loud, festive feel. They also really like kids. Step inside the heavily-air conditioned Manoli’s is like entering a traditional Greek taverna, with incredible homestyle mezedes and syrup-laden sweets. On a large deck overlooking Cullen Bay Marina, is Yots, which is slightly more up-market. Similar menu – grilled saganaki, piles of seafood etc – but the dishes are enormous. Don’t be afraid to share one main between two adults.
The outstanding Indian dishes at this little Parap restaurant are created to show off the Top End’s impressive seafood and the produce the chef sources from Rapid Creek Market. Highlights include baby squid pakoras, Humpty Doo barramundi poached in coconut, ginger and turmeric, and the colourful array of locally grown vegetable dishes. If your kids are dosa fans the South Indian Sundays menu will get them excited, as will the well-chosen dishes on the kids menu. Hailed as an eco-dining experience, the food is served on biodegradable bamboo plates – which works well if they end up on the floor…
Darwin does Melbourne-lane way hipness at Four Birds, tucked into the Star Village Arcade off Smith Street Mall. They also do a delicious line in bagels, cakes and arguably the best coffee in town. The nutella milkshake is incredible. Also in the city is the super friendly Roma Bar which is open on Sundays (a novel idea in Darwin) and has high chairs, free WIFI and strong coffee. There’s a global take on the all-day breakfast (the Indian breakfast is great) plus great salads, burgers and main dishes. Over at Parliament House, the coffee and food is not nearly as good but Speaker’s Corner Café has a wonderful outdoor area with a beautiful big fountain little ones will love.
Experience Darwin’s sublime, garishly pink and orange sunset with an evening picnic. Plonk yourself down anywhere along the Nightcliff foreshore (tables and barbeques are dotted by the water) or check out the aptly named Sunset Park (Aralia St, Nightcliff), which has a popular playground. Try and arrive before six and stay at least an hour after sunset to enjoy the drama of this seriously technicolour sky. For picnic supplies there’s a Woolworths and Five Star supermarket in Nightcliff, or pop in to Parap Fine Foods for some gourmet nibbles. On a Sunday night avoid the local chippo (overpriced and plain crap), and join the queue at The Potato Man next to the pool.
These architect-designed, Balinese-inspired villas are tucked into a lush rainforest garden replete with exotic birds and waterfall pools. The five villas are individually appointed and all have a rather sumptuous feel, although the heavy teak and leather furniture can be a little overpowering. There’s quite a few antiques around so it’s probably not the best option for active toddlers. Outside there are rainwater showers and breezy decks that flow to the rainforest and pool. All villas have fully-equipped kitchens with a Nespresso machine and full-size fridge, plus flat-screen televisions, iPod docks, free wireless Internet, and a private laundry.
Make the most of tropical living at the stylish Vibe Hotel, with its bright rooms and great water views. Nothing beats the location for families – it’s perched right on Darwin’s Waterfront, a hop from the Wave Pool, rec lagoon and a plethora of cafes and restaurants. Not to mention the best ice cream shop in town. The only downside is parking will set you back $10 a day.
Right across the road from Parap shops and the Saturday markets are these spacious 2 and 3 bedroom apartments. They’re a bit dated but very comfortable and offer great value for Darwin. Outside you’ve got two salt-water pools, BBQs, a playground and tropical ambiance a plenty.
The quintessential Darwin home is often elevated with a big deck, pool and jungle-like backyard. There are some lovely troppo-design homes available on sites like Stayz.com. North 12 Degrees out in the rural area (about 20 minutes from town) is one good example.
CALL THE SITTER
Darwin is such a casual place it’s hard to conceive of a sophisticated, child-free night out. Crazy right? We probably need some more small bars or fine dining! But if pressed I would say head to Parap for an ultra spicy and delish dinner at our favourite Indian restaurant, Saffrron (see EAT). Then duck around the corner to The Railway Club where you can often catch some great local or interstate music. For late night drinks hit Bogart’s, also in Parap. There are couches for lounging and some fun late night dancing to be had.
TIPS FOR BABIES & TODDLERS
- Whether you visit in the Summer or Winter, Darwin is very hot all year round so make sure to stay hydrated. It can also take a couple of days to acclimatise to the heat.
- There’s midges (sandflies) and mozzies aplenty at certain times of the year so bring repellant. We recommend a locally made all-natural product called Vanilla Mozi which is safe for babies, smells delish and works amazingly well. We’ve even used it in places where mosquitoes pose a real danger (like East Timor). It’s sold at all the weekend markets and online.
- Baby milk (formula), nappies (diapers), wet wipes and other essentials are all readily available at pharmacies and supermarkets in town and in Nightcliff.
- Casuarina Square. Just don’t do it unless you want to be depressed for the rest of the day.
- The Beer Can Regatta which is held every July. While there’s sand castle competitions and kids activities (along side the beer can boat racing), it’s over-hyped and a stereotypical ‘Darwin’ day out that is actually kind of lame.
- Fishing is one of the most popular activities in Darwin for both locals and visitors, but joining a charter can be a supremely expensive undertaking for a family. So skip the guides and take a little hand reel down to the Wharf, Eastpoint or Nightcliff Jetty. The friendly folk at Fishing and Outdoor World on Cavenagh Street can hook you up with a line and some hot tips on what’s fishing where.
Darwin is very spread out plus with the aforementioned heat, having your own set of wheels is highly recommended, particularly if you want to get out of town. Hertz, Avis, Europcar, Budget and Thrifty have car rental desks at the airport. Buses are the only public transport option. A regular service runs between the Harry Chan Avenue interchange, just minutes from the top of the Smith Street Mall, to the other major interchange at Casuarina Square. Tickets are a flat $3 for adults and are valid for three hours.
During the Dry season, Darwin is great for cycling. Traffic is light and there are some good bike tracks around town and out to the northern suburbs. If you’ve got kids with energy to burn, hire a bike and ride up through Fannie Bay to East Point Reserve, stopping for a dip in Lake Alexander. Alternatively, ride out to Nightcliff (a 40 minute ride) where there’s a beautiful bike track along the foreshore. Bike hire is available for $25 a day at Darwin Holiday Shop and kids under 15 ride free.
For some great Top End sounds check out these albums:
- My Little River by Jess Ribeiro and the Bone Collectors
- Love Inside a Jar by David Garnham and the Reasons to Live
- North by Green Stone Garden
- Gurrumul by Gurrumul Yunupingu
- Beautiful by Jessica Mauboy
- The Seventh Passenger by Sietta