Why we disagree with Bill Bryson about Darwin

We’ve been fans of Bill Bryson’s writing for some time. We particularly enjoy his observations, and obvious affection for the United Kingdom, although he originates from the USA. We also enjoyed his account of his visits to Australia, although we think there were plenty more places he could have gone to, and hope he’s had chance to return since Bill Bryson Down Under was published. However, Bill was less than complimentary about Darwin, the Capital of the Northern Territory, whereas we had a fabulous time there and definitely hope to go back.

To be fair to Mr. Bryson, he did arrive in Darwin after a long international flight punctuated by conversations about sharing urine with his travelling companion should they become lost in the outback. He then had trouble finding his hotel and wasn’t greeted by the most helpful of locals. We, on the other hand, had a pleasant afternoon flight from Cairns and an easy transfer to the airport Mercure hotel for our first night before we continued to the AirBnB apartment we’d booked in the city centre. The location couldn’t have been better; a street back from the main shopping drag – Smith Street Mall, 5 mins in one direction to the bars and restaurants of Mitchell Street and a similar distance in the other direction to the Darwin Waterfront.

Our first night was spent at the deckchair cinema which is a Darwin institution that’s been open in its present form since 1994. The cinema is run by Darwin film society and survives solely on ticket sales and donations, it receives no government subsidies. We had a fabulous evening watching the sun set and enjoying a superb meal. Different Darwin restaurants cater each night and when we visited it was the turn of Hanuman. We enjoyed a tasting plate of their Asian dishes for only $15 – a bargain. To top it off, there was a well stocked bar which included local beers from the One Mile Brewery. After dinner it was time for the film; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which we enjoyed very much. We loved the deckchair cinema and it revealed a quirky side to Darwin which appealed to us quite a lot.

Over the next few days we explored the city centre, the George Brown Botanic Gardens and Darwin waterfront, all of which impressed us. The gardens were great and we understand they’ve just received significant funding to rebuild the visitor centre so they should be even better in the future. The Darwin waterfront has been revitalised in recent years and there is now an easy pedestrian route to it from the city centre which includes a lift down to ocean level. There is a variety of restaurants and bars there as well as a swimming pool filled with ocean water, a wave pool and huge inflatables to entertain the family. We thought that it had been really well done, and enjoyed swimming and drying off whilst sitting on the grass and people watching, before an obligatory beer to round it off.

We were lucky enough to be visiting during the weekend that Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Administrator’s House were open to the public so had the opportunity to look around. Our guide, Sara did a great job of explaining the differences between government in the Territory and the States of Australia. If you’re interested, you can read more about it at the website of the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory. There are guided tours of Parliament every Saturday, not just on the open weekend. You shouldn’t miss the chance to see probably the only Parliament House in the world which has a croc skin front and centre. As you can see, while we there, we were invited to address the Legislative Assembly.

The Administrator of the Northern Territory plays a similar role to Governors in the Australian States. They sign bills to pass them into legislation and act as the official representative of the Northern Territory hosting visiting dignitaries. Many of these ceremonial duties are undertaken at their official residence so it was fascinating to have a look around the house and the beautiful gardens. If you’ve seen the film Australia, you may remember the administrator keeping an eye on the goings on at Darwin docks through a telescope from the residence. Visiting it, you could see how that could have been a reality, even though the Darwin scenes in the film were actually filmed in Bowen, Queensland.

Nights out in Darwin have a bit of a reputation, you might be aware of this if you’ve ever seen the TV show, ‘Territory Cops’. Much of the action seems to happen in the bars of Mitchell Street so as we were visiting on a Friday night we felt obliged to check it out. Our night started a couple of blocks away at Browns Mart Theatre. The theatre is a performing arts centre located in the oldest building in the city centre which was built in 1885 as a mining exchange. It has withstood cyclones, including Tracey in 1974 and wartime bombings. On a Friday, they have live music in their bar so this seemed like a good starting point. Our next stop was in Mitchell Street where we wanted to check out Six Tanks Bar, a craft beer venue which sells their own beers as well as those from other craft breweries. By this time, the street was at that point in the evening where after work drinks blend into punters coming out for a serious night session. There was a visible police presence though so we didn’t feel unsafe.

It was time to get some food to soak up the beer and we opted to try out Alfonsino’s Porchetta and Pizza café which was down a laneway off Mitchell street. It was busy and we were lucky to get a table. However, whilst there, we noticed that you could opt to have a ‘takeaway’ pizza, eat it on the public tables next door and they would still serve you as if you were in the restaurant proper. The pizzas really were superb – authentic Italian and some of the best we’ve had. We’d definitely recommend you check Alfonsinos out if you’re in Darwin. We headed on for one more drink at the Hotel Darwin, a pub dating from 1940, before calling it a night. We can’t therefore claim to have had a wild all nighter in Darwin, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.

Harvest: The Art of Muulkun Wirrpanda and John Wolseley www.magnt.net.au

To give Mr. Bryson his due, he did recognise how good the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is and we agree with him on this. There are excellent permanent exhibitions on the history of Darwin including extensive coverage of the devastating Cyclone Tracey with hit Darwin on Christmas Day 1974, flattening much of the city. When we visited, there was also a superb art exhibition featuring a collaboration between indigenous artist Wulkun Mirrpanda and landscape artist John Wolsely. The exhibition centred on indigenous edible plants and the work was created where these plants grow. Jane enjoys painting and coincidentally, just before we left Bundaberg had been to an outdoor art class which used the work of Wolseley as inspiration. She was therefore thrilled to get to see this exhibition.

Darwin also has an excellent military museum, which has a particular focus on the role that Darwin played in the World Wars as a northern defence point for Australia. This includes the WWII bombing of Darwin by the Japanese. There is a fabulous audio visual presentation which recreates the bombing and tells the stories of people involved. As well as the modern part of the museum there are huge collections of artefacts which have been collected by historians, professional and amateur, over the years. You could easily spend several days at the museum without seeing it all.

SkyCity Darwin Lagoon Pool

After an amazing side trip to Kakadu and Arnhem Land which you can read about in ‘Connecting to Country’, we had one night back in Darwin, before continuing our travels down to Alice Springs. We chose to treat ourselves to a night at the SkyCity Casino and Hotel complex and were pleased we did. As well as a great room, the hotel had an impressive lagoon pool which we had pretty much to ourselves. We’ve visited a few casinos in our time but never actually gambled as we don’t seem to be able to get our heads around the rules. We were determined that Darwin would be the breakthrough but it wasn’t to be. We went as far as spending some money but after feeding pokie machines with 10 dollars of change and having no idea what was going on, we retired to the bar. This is a leisure activity we understand – you pay your money and are rewarded with a refreshing beverage – seems a more straightforward form of transaction to us simple souls

Cold Drip Coffee at The Rabbit Hole Darwin

So thankyou Darwin, we enjoyed our time visiting you. As we travel round, there are places which we could see ourselves living and Darwin was one of those. We also found the best coffee we’d had since we began our travels, at The Rabbit Hole on Smith Street. Yes it’s remote, and we haven’t experienced the city in the middle of a Northern Territory summer, but it had a charm that appealed to us. Mr. Bryson, give it another go, we think you might change your mind.

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