When Brendan surprised me with a trip to Darwin for Christmas — our last getaway alone before getting married — I was pumped. Lonely Planet had ranked Darwin as one of the top global destinations to visit in 2012, describing it as a cosmopolitan, yet laid-back, Top End city. I imagined light blue shores extending out to the Timor Sea, an enclave of restaurants and pubs, a vibrant, colorful wharf precinct. We’d planned a trip to Kakadu, prepared ourselves for exploring. I expected a bit of the bohemian, a bit of the bogan and an Aussie culture infused with the indigenous and the Asian, given its close proximity to that continent.
Darwin did, to a degree, offer all these things. But at almost every turn — except for Kakadu — I was underwhelmed. In seems the Lonely Planet proclamation that Darwin is “now a hip city to visit rather than just the end of the road for lost souls” missed the mark.
It’s not Darwin’s job to impress me or any other visitor. It is what it is. Some people hate Sydney but love Melbourne, think Tassie’s strange or prefer Perth to any other city. And that’s their right. Maybe I can blame Lonely Planet, because it had me imagining Darwin in a very specific way. And instead, I found it a place trying to be something it isn’t, or isn’t quite yet. In five to 10 years, Darwin might be the city Lonely Planet deemed it to be.
But right now, it’s a place with sub-par eateries and service — think stale corn chips and a main never delivered or accounted for, with no apologies from the waitress, and coffee that always failed to arrive till after we ate our breakfast –, a CBD marked solely by a strip of pubs on Mitchell Street that seemed the stomping grounds of fraternity boys and muted vistas. Perhaps we went in the wrong time of year — the middle of summer, when it was too hot, the Mindil Beach Markets were shut and parts of Kakadu were inaccessible. But I’m not sure a change of season would have changed anything for me. The vibe wasn’t cool and relaxed. People weren’t nice and friendly. There was a sense of the downtrodden to the entire population, like this wasn’t a place they really wanted to be as much as a place in which they got stuck.
The two best parts of the trip were our drive to Kakadu — which I’ll describe in a future post — and our last night in town when we made our way into the Darwin Surf Club, where we watched a pink sun sink into eerie indigo over the water, a spectacle for which Darwin is known, while live music played, we sipped champagne and ate a dip platter with other families enjoying the late arvo. That last night was when we finally found the Darwin I had envisioned — in love with its coastal home, grateful when the night sky sweeps in to cool off the hot days and drunk on being outdoors with the sound of a guitar in its ears and sweet wine on its lips.
Have you been to Darwin or is it on your bucket list?