Life at the top
ROOM AT THE INN
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