• Sally

City stay with young kids: Darwin

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Living with Darwin as our closest city (and major airport) for almost a decade, we have spent a lot of long weekends and stopovers in Larrakia country. That didn’t stop once we had kids. If anything, stopovers became even more essential once we had a baby in tow.


Darwin is a great city to explore with young children. The relaxed outdoor lifestyle means there are plenty of kid-friendly places to eat and space to run around. Most major attractions are near the city centre and the city is easy to get around by hire car (and not too tricky by bus or by bike, if you prefer). Now that we live here, we visit most of the places I’m going to recommend here on a fairly regular basis (most offer some form of annual pass), and we enjoy sharing our favourite attractions with friends and family when they come to visit.


Recently, one of my friends who doesn’t have children herself asked me to share some suggestions for her visitors who have young kids. I’ve put together this sample 4-day itinerary, sharing some of our top picks for both children and adults at a toddler-friendly pace. In dry season there are festivals or special events taking place almost every week, see if you can get a copy of Off the Leash magazine or ask at your accommodation to find out what’s happening. I’ve included some accommodation and transport tips at the end.


Day 1: Crocs in the city

Start your day by wandering through to city to Crocosaurus Cove. Most visitors to Darwin come wanting to see crocodiles, so you may as well check that off your list on your first morning. Whilst there definitely are a number of large crocodiles on display, we actually think it’s their reptile display that is the most impressive part of a visit there. With lizards, snakes and turtles from across the top end on show, it’s a great place to see these animals up close. There are a number of shows and talks throughout the day, we often seem to be there for the fish and whip ray feeding show, but young children often lose interest before the end so we now prefer to go at quieter times. Bring your bathers to swim in the pool alongside some of the smaller crocs (don’t worry, there’s a wall of acrylic between you), this is a free, kid-friendly option that is more sedate than the more widely-advertised ‘Cage of Death.’ NT (and East Kimberley) residents can show their licence to receive a ‘Locals Pass’ for the same cost as general admission, allowing free entry for 12 months (make sure you get your photo taken on the way out to get your card, it also gives discounts at various other attractions and restaurants around town).


Once you’ve seen enough reptiles, wander back through the mall and across the walkway to the Waterfront for some lunch and a play on the playground or a swim in the lagoon or the wave pool. You can easily spend the whole afternoon here, if your children don’t need to nap (or see if you can get them to sleep in the pram on a walk around the rock walls). There are plenty of restaurants to choose from for dinner (our kids’ favourite is Hot Tamale), or wander across to Stokes Hill Wharf for fish and chips (or Thai, or Indian, or a crocodile burger….).


Day 2: Museum and gardens

Head down to the Museum and Art Gallery NT as it opens (if you’re there at 10am on Thursday they feed the turtles in the pond to the left of the main entrance). Highlights for our children are the pig-nosed turtles, ‘Sweetheart’ the croc, and the maritime gallery; highlights for visiting adults are the Cyclone Tracy exhibition and annual National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) exhibition. If your kids need a break from the displays, they can run around on the lawns out the front or wander down to the beach. Unfortunately, the café at the museum seems to have closed permanently, although from 12pm you can get meals and drinks from the Ski Club across the carpark (with an amazing view from its beer garden, you may not get any further….).


A short drive from the museum is the George Brown Botanic Gardens. The playground is one of our favourites, with a treetop tower for kids to climb, and a giant log swing. Eva’s Café is relaxing (and has a good supply of kids toys), and walk trails lead you through the garden to dinosaurs, crocodiles and all sorts of unusual plants. When you need to cool down (or shelter from the rain), head for the visitor centre and check out the displays showing traditional uses of many of the plants found in the gardens, as well as a short film showing the gardens through the seasons.

We would probably head back to our accommodation and eat somewhere within walking distance after such a busy day, but options near the gardens include the Mindil Beach Markets on Thursdays and Sundays during the dry season, or the restaurants at Cullen Bay (our kids’ pick is Lola’s Pergola, with a large selection of old carnival rides that kids can play on, although I prefer the food at Yot’s Taverna).


Day 3: Daytrip for some ‘Top End’ sightseeing

To get a real feel for the Top End you need to head out beyond the city. I’ve suggested 3 different day trips so you can choose based on energy levels, budget and personal preference:


· Jumping Croc cruise, Fogg Dam wetlands, Humpty Doo Tavern

Take a boat cruise along the Adelaide River and watch the tour operators lure giant crocs out of the water with a piece of chicken. Not everyone’s idea of a fun day out, but very popular nonetheless. We have enjoyed the Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise, there are other operators available and I don’t know how they compare. This company is located in behind the Window on the Wetlands visitor centre (presently closed but may reopen). I have also heard good things about the nearby Pudakul cultural tours (they offer combined packages with the jumping croc cruise). If you’ve got time, check out the viewing platforms or some of the short walk trails at Fogg Dam on your way there or back, or stop off for a meal at Humpty Doo Tavern.


· Territory Wildlife Park, Berry Springs

Territory Wildlife Park is one of our kids’ favourite places, we have an annual pass and visit every couple of months. You can get up close with local wildlife that you otherwise only hear or see from a distance. Highlights for our family are the nocturnal house, ‘Flight Deck’ bird show, and the aquarium (an excellent display following a water system all the way to the ocean, with a walk-through tunnel, whip rays, barramundi, a giant croc, coral and reef fish). Walk tracks criss-cross the park and you’re welcome to bring bikes but we usually end up taking the free shuttle train (pram-friendly but can get crowded in peak season). Once you leave the park, take a dip at nearby Berry Springs Nature Park (dry season only) or grab a bite to eat or a drink at Berry Springs Tavern (kids can play on the playground).


· Litchfield National Park

Pack a picnic and your bathers and head south to Litchfield National Park. Stop off at the giant Magnetic Termite Mounds on your way in, then head to Buley Rockhole for a picnic and a swim. Nearby Florence Falls is another popular spot, but we find Buley an easier walk for little legs and the series of pools means you’re more likely to find a shallow area for young children to swim and play in. Head back either the way you came, or continue through the park, stopping to admire Wangi Falls before heading back to Darwin via the gravel road to Berry Springs. There are a number of other waterfalls, walk trails and camping spots throughout the park, if you have the time to explore or want to get away from the crowds. Make sure you read the information signs for up-to-date crocodile warnings – Be Crocwise!


Day 4: Take your pick

After a big day trip you may find yourself wanting to take it easy, or you might want to fit in as many sights as possible before the end of your trip. If you’ve travelled into Darwin from a more remote area, you may also want a day for shopping and stocking up before you head out again. Again, I’ve suggested 3 options:


· For exhausted families with little kids

Head down to Aquascene at Doctors Gully to feed the fish. They provide the bread and staff are very knowledgeable about all the different kinds of fish (and birds) that come for a feed. Check the website for feeding times, they change daily with the tide. Burn some energy before or afterwards at the Esplanade playground, then wander back to the Waterfront for a swim or return to the Botanic Gardens for another play.


· For those interested in Darwin’s war history

There are a number of interesting historic sites in and around the city centre, but I don’t always recommend them for young families. If your children are yet to be exposed to the concept of war, you have a lot of questions coming your way. You might want to give some thought beforehand as to how you are going to explain what guns are for and the more abstract notion of ‘war’. A lot of displays are literature heavy, so try to ‘tag-team’ with another adult so you can give the displays your full attention while someone else wanders around with the kids. The Oil Storage Tunnels near the Waterfront are a good place to start, then you can head to East Point to check out the Military Museum (or even just explore the area around the museum and then head to the playground at Lake Alexander afterwards). Charles Darwin National Park, just out of the city along Tiger Brennan Drive, has an interesting display of historic artifacts in an old bunker. Surprisingly, not many people seem to know about this park, which also features a great view over the city from the picnic area at the top of the road (along with many many mosquitoes…). We have visited the Bombing of Darwin/RFDS Museum on Stokes Hill Wharf but didn’t feel it worthwhile with young children, I hear the Aviation Museum might be a better option.


· For those who come into Darwin to stock up

Casuarina Shopping Centre is your best option for general shopping. You’ll pass by Bunnings and Jape Homemaker Village on Bagot Rd on your way (stop off for BCF, Anaconda, Spotlight, Good Guys etc with a small indoor playground and café on Wednesday-Sunday at the Village Markets). Casuarina Square itself also has a cinema, outdoor playground (with water play). If you manage to find everything you need by lunchtime (or decide to split up as you don’t all need to go to the shops), head down to De la Plage at Casuarina Coastal Reserve for some food and beach time. If you need to cool off or burn some energy, check out the free Leanyer Recreation Park (waterpark).


Regardless of how you spend the day, consider finishing off your trip with a family-friendly sunset cruise. The Sea Darwin Sunset Fish and Chip Cruise is a great option, especially if you can pick a night where they stop on the sandbar to eat. I have heard the Streeter Pearl Lugger BYO Cruise is another good option for families, depending on who else is on board with you. We have taken the ferry over to Mandorah for lunch at the Cox Country Club, which could also make a good dinner option depending on return ferry times (and how busy you’ve been during the day).


If you don’t manage to fit everything in, there’s always next time.


Accommodation

I highly recommend families with young children stay in one of the hotels or apartments at Darwin’s Waterfront. The buildings open out into parkland with a swimming lagoon and plenty of restaurants and cafes, and a short trip up in the lift (elevator) takes you to a walkway that leads right to the city centre.


As one of the most popular places to stay, accommodation does book out quickly, we try to book as far in advance as possible, checking prices and availability online as soon as the idea of the trip comes up. Pre-children, we would usually stay at the Adina or Vibe hotels (they are essentially one hotel, in the same building with the same reception and facilities), if you don’t need kitchen or laundry facilities these are a good option (get the ‘aqua view’ / ‘premier view’ rooms).


Now, we prefer to stay at any of the various private apartments at the Waterfront (I usually just find the Adina/Vibe on the Booking.com map and look nearby). We’ve stayed in quite a few different apartments and all have been well-maintained and well-equipped. Pricing can vary dramatically, although we haven’t found the more expensive listings to be significantly better than the cheaper ones (book early). Some apartments even come with a free hire car.

If it’s a last-minute trip, or a busy period when there’s nothing affordable around the Waterfront, our next recommendation would be the Oaks Elan in the city centre. It’s a huge hotel (request a room on a high floor for excellent views on either side of the building) so there’s always availability, and their rooms and apartments are reasonably priced for a modern hotel. You’ll likely find a room there, but other apartment options we’ve stayed at before include the Mantra on Esplanade (large rooms, usually more expensive) and Cullen Bay Resort (need own transport, older rooms).


For late-night stopovers or if you’re returning from an adventure and flying out early the next morning, the Mercure would be our pick of the airport hotels.


Getting around

You could easily get by without a car for a couple of days in Darwin. The city centre is walkable and there are buses running to most major attractions with taxis filling the gaps (Route 6 travels to the museum on weekdays and Route 4 goes past Mindil Beach, the Botanic Gardens and Nightcliff and Rapid Creek markets). Free shuttle buses run between the Waterfront and Stokes Hill Wharf, and also between major hotels and Parap Markets on Saturday mornings.


Neuron scooters and electric bikes now cover most of the Darwin city centre and northern suburbs (including some of our favourite bike paths out to East Point and around Nightcliff Foreshore, all the way up to Casuarina - you need to download the app to see the current map). Their multi-day passes make them a great option for adults or families with older children, but they are yet to offer child seats so aren’t ideal for young families.


Hire cars are available at reasonable rates (from less than $50 a day, or even free with some apartments). Traffic is light and parking is readily available (and usually free), so a car does make exploring Darwin with small children a lot more convenient (especially if they nap in their car seat). It also means you can go at your own pace on day trips out of the city, rather than being bound by tour bus timetables. Hire car offices at the airport have always had limited opening hours, so it may be that you can’t actually collect a car on arrival, in which case it might make sense to do without for a couple of days and then pick one up in the city when you’re ready to head further afield. In the past, we have booked using vroomvroomvroom.com.au, but we haven’t hired a car for a couple of years now so I don’t know if they still have the best available rates.


What are your top picks for visitors with young children? Do you ever get the bus, or does the car win every time?