Darwin: Tip Top Down Under

Day 49, Grand Asia 2018

Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, Darwin, Australia:

Some ports I visited last year were hazy in my memory until I stepped ashore. Others didn’t even look familiar the second time.

I remembered Darwin down to the smallest details. It’s a small city, with a central business district close enough to the pier to walk, but with a temperature so high that I gladly took the complimentary shuttle. After the frenetic energy of Singapore and large Indonesian cities, it is nice to be in a relatively quiet setting.

Today was even quieter because it was Sunday. Darwin is growing as a cruise ship destination, but even the shuttle drivers observe that the city needs to open up more on Sundays when ships are in port. Fortunately, I headed in early to do some window-shopping. By 2 p.m. most of the stores were closing, even as the ship stayed until 8 p.m.

Darwin is at the top of Australia, much closer to Indonesia than to most of Australia’s better-known cities. It is surrounded by wilderness and protected parks. It is said that there are more ways to die to Australia than in almost anywhere else, and the Darwin area has its share of jumping crocodiles (you can see them from a boat tour) and box jellyfish, whose sting is frequently fatal. No one swims at Darwin beaches because of the many crocodiles. The city features a protected lagoon near the pier that provides safe salt-water swimming.

As we sailed in, I noticed a small submarine passing by. It’s the second time I’ve seen a submarine from a cruise ship; last year we saw one in the harbor of our last Japanese port.

Last year I bought neckties here for my nephews in what I think is a stunning Aboriginal pattern. (Although I’m not sure why I thought 20-something boys need or want neckties.) So this year I first headed back to Provenance Arts, an Aboriginal-owned social enterprise on the Smith Street pedestrian mall to see what would interest me this year. I made up for my lack of shopping in earlier ports by selecting several items, including a goat leather handbag decorated in native motifs. The prices weren’t cheap, but it was nice to know that the purchases would benefit the artist designers.

At the tourist center, we had the opportunity to see a caiman up close and personal.

It is the beginning of the wet season, and by noon ominous clouds were moving in. I had continued window-shopping and admired the Christmas decorations, and was thinking about eating on shore.

But the dark clouds and spattering of rain sent me back to the shuttle. In the end, the storm skirted the city, so after lunch I headed back again with the goal of sketching. I sat down for a latte just as the stores and cafes were closing, so quickly finished and moved on to the Esplanade, a street and park along the bluff overlooking Darwin Harbor.

Darwin suffered from Japanese bombing during World War II, and the park features a monument not only to the Darwin men lost in that war, but also in World War I and other conflicts.

This area didn’t look as familiar, and I later learned that it was because a huge storm last March took out many of the giant African Mahogany trees. I managed to find one along the park path that nicely framed the MS Amsterdam in the harbor.

Other trees were sporting showy orange-red blossoms. These are the Poinciana, or flame tree, a relative of the jacaranda. A friendly resident told me they bloom at the beginning of the wet season and will be even more stunning in another week.

Some of us had planned to visit PeeWees on the Beach, a restaurant that chef Eric Ripert visited on his Avec Eric show. We had time between its 5 p.m. opening and our 7:30 p.m. all-aboard, but when I checked the website to confirm a few days earlier I learned that it had just switched to wet season hours and wouldn’t be open on Sunday.

However, Darwin has some wonderful pubs, and I stopped at Hotel Darwin to join fellow passenger Del on the porch and enjoy a Great Northern on tap. An afternoon on shore with a beer and a friend is a good way to end a port visit.