Life at the top

ROOM AT THE INN

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - HUGH LAM­BER­TON

DAR­WIN is quick to de­liver on ex­pec­ta­tions, even for an overnight vis­i­tor. It’s 32C one day, the same the next — in win­ter. The air is so laden with mois­ture that a trop­i­cal down­pour is as­sured within hours. And, of course, the front-page pic­ture for the North­ern Ter­ri­tory News shows off a dog-eat­ing salt­wa­ter croc that’s 4.6m long and weighs 400kg.

Time to get my bear­ings. Plenty of Dar­win tours cover the usual sus­pects of civic lore, but chance and lack of time force meto opt for some­thing a bit more off­beat at Out­sta­tion Gallery in the in­ner sub­urb of Parap. It’s the fi­nal week­end of an ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled Foun­da­tions, in which lo­cal artist Chayni Henry pays quirky homage to 23 Dar­win build­ings by de­pict­ing them on wooden cut-outs, each with a note to ex­plain her choice — the Par­avista Mo­tel on Mackil­lop Street, where Ger­man tourists may once have gone for S&Mpar­ties (or not); the Bank of NSW in the city cen­tre, which was ‘‘kablooey’’ af­ter the 1942 bomb­ing of Dar­win, but later re­built; and Pecky’s Servo, where a 13- year- old Henry bummed smokes off the me­chanic.

One of the city’s best gal­leries, the five-year-old Out­sta­tion also deals with 15 re­mote in­dige­nous com­mu­nity art cen­tres in the Kim­ber­ley, Cen­tral Aus­tralia, Western Desert, South Aus­tralia, Tiwi Is­lands and Arn­hem Land.

In the same shop­ping cen­tre, Nomad Art fea­tures limited-edi­tion prints, bronzes, jewellery and tex­tiles. It works with artists and in­dige­nous art cen­tres across north­ern and cen­tral Aus­tralia. There is far too much to take in on a short visit, but one high­light is a fo­lio of highly tex­tured and dream­like colour etch­ings by Ade­laide’s Fiona Hall in col­lab­o­ra­tion with print maker Basil Hall, de­pict­ing the plant, arach­nid and in­sect life of East Arn­hem Land’s Blue Mud Bay.

This sam­pling of Dar­win’s gal­leries is one un­ex­pected plea­sure of a fleet­ing trip. My ac­com­mo­da­tion on the edge of the CBD is an­other. Tucked in among the generic ho­tels on The Es­planade, over­look­ing the har­bour, is a quar­tet of stone cot­tages be­hind a white picket fence.

The res­i­dence of Supreme Court judge Thomas Alexan­der Wells be­fore and af­ter World War II, the site was re­de­vel­oped by Bri­tish busi­ness­man, art col­lec­tor and Broome booster Lord Alas­tair McAlpine in the late 1980s. His fo­cus on lo­cal stone and jar­rah wood drew on the con­struc­tion choices of Dar­win’s early set­tlers from South Aus­tralia.

One of the cot­tages is now the self­con­tained, three-bed­room Man­dalay Lux­ury Stay. In aim­ing for a feel of ‘‘mod­ern trop­i­cal el­e­gance’’, owner and busi­ness­man Philip Grice has taken in­spi­ra­tion from McAlpine’s pas­sion for re­gional art and an­tiques and the sense of style ev­i­dent in his orig­i­nal Ca­ble Beach Club re­sort in Broome.

The five-star Man­dalay ac­com­mo­dates up to six guests. The plen­ti­ful dark tim­ber, in­clud­ing in­ter­nal shut­ters and ceil­ing fans, ac­cen­tu­ates a Bri­tish Em­pire feel. With the air-con turned up, you could dis­en­gage com­pletely from the hu­mid­ity out­side. A sub­stan­tial art col­lec­tion in­cludes indi- genous works by Bill Whiskey Tjapalt­jarri, Ma­bel Juli and Tiwi artist Ti­mothy Cook, as well as Asian an­tiques.

Up­stairs, two of the large bed­rooms have king-sized beds and the third has two sin­gles that can be pushed to­gether. Each has a plasma tele­vi­sion, DVD player and ac­cess to the large ve­randa with wa­ter views. The two stylish, mar­ble-clad bath­rooms (one an en­suite) fea­ture ‘‘satin-jet over­head drencher’’ show­ers and Na­tio toi­letries. Down­stairs, the fully equipped kitchen is big enough to swing a medium-sized freshie in, with dishwasher, full-sized fridge, com­mer­cial­size stove, mi­crowave and an im­pos­ing Ne­spresso ma­chine.

The din­ing and liv­ing rooms are spa­cious, and the lat­ter fea­tures a flatscreen TV with Fox­tel, DVD player and sound sys­tem. There is an eclec­tic li­brary of books, CDs and DVDs, and STEPPINGOUT Try Jimmy Shu’s blend of Thai, Tamil and Nonya flavours at nearby Hanu­manRes­tau­rant (93 Mitchell St; hanu­man.com.au). BRICK­BATS The switch for the main bed­room’s ceil­ing fan is a lit­tle too dis­creet. (Hint: look be­hind the bed­stead.) BOU­QUETS Lord McAlpine would surely ap­prove of the thoughtful blend of re­gional her­itage and art with con­tem­po­rary style. WiFi is free. Guests can also make use of the full laun­dry, a Beefeater bar­be­cue out back and a swim­ming pool in the gar­den of frangi­pa­nis, cy­cads, torch ginger and pink alpinias, plus a cou­ple of bikes for ex­plor­ing mostly flat Dar­win.

I opt for a five- minute drive ( 20- minute walk) to the tourist­friendly Mindil Beach Sun­set Mar­ket, where more than 50 food stalls serve up cui­sine from around the world in a for­est of beauty leaf trees, co­conut palms and ca­suar­i­nas only me­tres from the wa­ter. With a fair se­lec­tion of food in hand — mud crab rolls; bar­be­cued croc sir­loin with a lemon myr­tle and macadamia pesto; and a pa­paya salad that was pounded into ex­is­tence while I waited — I join the crowds on the beach to watch a muted sun­set as omi­nous clouds gather over­head. (NB: the mar­ket is BYO.)

The fact that quite a few stall­hold­ers are pack­ing up early signals it’s time to take the ap­proach­ing weather se­ri­ously, so I head back to Man­dalay and down dessert (black sticky rice with co­conut and palm sugar top­ping) on the ve­randa while the storm’s bil­lion­hooved stam­pede gen­er­ates a joy­ous din on the me­tal roof.

The next morn­ing it’s time to re­sup­ply. Apart from fresh pro­duce and gourmet gro­ceries, Parap Fine Foods has an im­pres­sive ar­ray of sa­lumi, cheeses, breads and olives, as well as sweeter treats such as macarons. Tucked in the back is a small but good wine sec­tion. Drop by here and the Dar­win Fish Mar­ket closer to the CBD and you’ll be set.

How­ever, with a three-hour drive south in store, I’m more in the mar­ket for snack food and find ex­actly what I’m look­ing for: Road­Kill, billed as ‘‘the cham­pagne of all beef jerkies — you can’t get any fresher than this’’. Per­fect. Hugh Lam­ber­ton was a guest of NT Tourism and Man­dalay Lux­ury Stay.

Man­dalay Lux­ury Stay’s swim­ming pool sits in a gar­den of frangi­pa­nis, cy­cads, torch ginger and pink alpinias

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