Most visitors to Australia fly into Sydney or Melbourne to begin their Down Under adventure, but there are loads of reasons why tropical Darwin in the Northern Territory is a great alternative jumping-off spot. It's closer to the UK than other Australian cities – you'll be sitting on a plane for nearly three hours less if you choose Darwin (17h 50m) instead of Melbourne (20h 30m) or Sydney (21h).
We'll take a look at boom town Darwin's many unsung delights and highlights and show you just how easy it is to get from there into the authentic beating heart of Australia's nature and diverse cultures.
On the waterfront
Darwin has everything you would expect from a major waterside city – a lively, buzzing waterfront precinct and working marina, packed with bars and eateries serving seafood and international cuisine. It's safe to swim, and you can even hand-feed friendly fish. Don't miss a Darwin Harbour sunset cruise – tours take place on a variety of charismatic vessels, from an historic 65-ft pearl lugger to an old timber fishing boat with a deckchair cinema on board. Tours take in the surprising wartime history, intrigue and wildlife of the harbour and environs – you may even be able to visit nesting turtles on Bare Sand island.
Because Darwin is closer to Asia that it is to the rest of Australia, you'll find plenty of oriental influence around the city, particularly on Sunday and Thursday nights at the Mindil Beach Sunset Market. Crowds, buskers and fire-performers gather on the beach to watch the sun melt into the horizon, browse hundreds of stalls, sample exotic cuisines, pick up beautiful handmade textiles and even enjoy an authentic Thai massage.
Museums that are anything but dusty
Darwin's museums are as state-of-the-art as you get, and if you want to understand what gives the 'Top End' of Australia its uniqueness, they are a great place to start. The superb, eclectic Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory celebrates Indigenous Australian art and sacred objects, Southeast Asian artifacts, natural history and the World War II defence of Darwin, under one roof. A highlight is the Cyclone Tracy exhibition with its infamous sound booth – stand in a pitch-dark room with the terrifying roar of the cyclone and be grateful that it's not 1974, when Darwin was completely destroyed.
Another brand-new museum, the Royal Flying Doctor Service uses touch screens, virtual reality and a 55-seat hologram cinema to combine the World War II bombing of Darwin with the story of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. History comes vividly to life, and you can even track RFDS planes in real time.
The iconic animal around Darwin and the Northern Territory isn't the kangaroo or koala – it's the mighty saltwater crocodile, or 'saltie'. You can meet some of these colossal reptiles face to face – and even go swimming with them – at Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin itself. If you prefer to see your salties in the wild, the Corroboree Billabong on the Mary River Wetlands is the place to take a cruise. It's home to the largest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the world as well as other wonderful wildlife. You can also go croc-spotting on the Adelaide river where you''ll be able to cruise right up to the famous jumping beasts.
And when you're in the Northern Territory's Museum and Art Gallery, pay your respects to the legendary 5m Sweetheart, a naughty saltie who put the frighteners on a few too many fishermen in the 1970s and ended up at the taxidermist's.
Day trips from Darwin
From Darwin, you can easily day trip into Australia's outback heartland for experiences comparable to those in more crowded Queensland. Litchfield National Park is just over an hour's drive away, yet offers swimming in cascading waterfalls, boat trips on the Adelaide River, and the intriguing Magnetic Termite Mounds that all face the same north/south direction. About an hour south of Darwin, Berry Springs is a wonderful place to picnic and wallow in warm natural spring pools and waterfalls.
Experience Indigenous Australian culture
The Northern Territory is a stronghold of indigenous Australian culture, with a profound connection between the people and the spectacular landscapes. This culture is woven deep into Darwin's fabric: in art exhibitions, festivals, nature-based outback experiences with the Pudakul people, and rock art in Arnhem Land and Kakadu. From Darwin, it's a short hop by plane or ferry to the stunning Tiwi Islands, where the We people, cut off from mainland Australia until the 20th century, developed their own distinctive culture and art.