11/25/2014 11:06 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Discovering Darwin, Australia on a Hop-on Hop-off Bus

The sleek Ghan train was my conveyance from Alice Springs to Darwin, Australia this past fall. The 24-hour ride was the last stop on the trek up through the Northern Territory. I disembarked refreshed at the train station perched in the city at the top of the sprawling continent.

During the walk from the hotel to the main commercial area, I began the countdown: I had another 24-hour period to get a taste of Darwin.

First stop was the Darwin Visitor's Center where the kind ladies on duty recommended the Darwin Hop-On, Hop-Off bus as the perfect choice to squire a tourist around town. The fee was moderate (around $40 bucks) and the view from the upper deck provided a great perch to spot the sights with the comfort of a much-appreciated sea breeze.

The recorded commentary offered the standard intros to city history: Darwin is closer to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea than it is to Sydney, and is now the fastest growing city in Australia. Its Asian flair was very apparent as soon as we drove to the city's major commercial street, Mitchell Street. It was bustling. I saw a proliferation of Asian restaurants, shops and businesses, plus a lot of young people of many ethnicities flitting about - the dress: beach town casual, the vibe: a little funky.

I skipped a chance to jump off at the first stop: one of Darwin's popular tourist haunts-Crocosaurus. Up close and personal introductions to a variety of crocs were on the menu. Well, I felt no need to socialize with crocs then when I knew I would surely have some encounters on the rivers at Kakadu National Park in a few hours. So I didn't hop off there.

The bus moved on with short pauses at lovely beaches and a marina that looked inviting. Stately palm trees positioned to frame the water views and a vivid turquoise sky for cover presented a great snapshot for a perfect paradise escape. And then, of course there was a glimpse of the Timor Sea, expansive and inviting - Darwin's backdrop. The city is typically hot and humid most of the year with their beaches providing the enticing escape from the heat. But swimmers should be aware of salt water crocs because they love the beaches too - forewarned is forearmed.

Between the recorded commentary on the bus and a later visit to the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory, I learned about two defining events in Darwin's modern history.

Darwin was brutalized and almost totally destroyed twice in the 20th century. Multiple bombings in 1941 by the Japanese during World War II devastated the city killing hundreds and leveling much of the city's homes and infrastructure. At that time the city had a population of fewer than 50,000 residents, many Aboriginals. It was the only city on the continent bombed.

In 1974 Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin and wiped out 70 percent of the city and required temporary evacuation of a large part of the population. Most of the city was rebuilt by the end of the decade. During our bus tour we paused by one small house that is one of the few that wasn't leveled. Most residents lost everything.

But with true grit and determination, Darwin has rebuilt itself quite handsomely in an almost frantic pace in the last two decades. It is still actively developing housing and commercial districts in the inner city as well as suburban communities for immigrants from Asia and other regions of the country. As the bus skirted around the city, I saw a city presenting itself as a thriving, colorful, and spirited little metropolis and a magnet for Australians from across the country and thousands of tourists from all over Oceania who visit this city of about 95,000 year round.

I was delighted to see a plethora of colorful and elegant mid-rise and high-rise apartment buildings in the city proper; some were sheltered around parks with great sea views. Many looked so upscale that I had to assume that Darwin residents are doing quite well.

The high point of my excursion around Darwin was a stop at the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory. This impressive sprawling contemporary structure covers ecology, history, an impressive preserved 20-foot plus crocodile, plus several art exhibitions. The multi level edifice presents panoply of artifacts, documentation, and exhibits that highlight the historical events that have challenged residents for decades.

I was lucky enough to run into a museum curator who spent time directing me to exhibits throughout the building and noted it was the most visited cultural venue in the city and an important regional asset. As an arts person, I was particularly drawn to multiple rooms that presented engaging examples of traditional Aboriginal arts and crafts, as well as juried contemporary painting, sculpture, and assemblage installations.

One artist, Danie Mellor of Aboriginal and European heritage, really almost knocked me off my feet in his 'Exotic Lies Sacred Ties' exhibition focusing on the often sordid and tortured relationship between Aboriginal and Scottish populations, particularly during the colonial period. His representations of the disconnect between the Scottish freemasonry traditions and Aboriginal connections to creatures and flora and fauna are brilliantly illustrated in his paintings.

We paused for a relaxing lunch at the museum cafe and enjoyed a water view from their terrace and some excellent chow. My only disappointment however was the museum gift shop was closed until further notice. I love museum shops!

The Hop on Hop Off excursion did what it was advertised to do: present a snapshot of Darwin proper. I would love to come again to plant my feet on one of its beautiful beaches and maybe take a moonlight cruise along the port side, or try some of the Asian cuisine that was announced with colorful signage on Mitchell Street. Perhaps I would do some shopping at one of the night markets, attend an internationally famous musical sensation at the Entertainment Complex, and surely visit some galleries that feature even more fascinating Aboriginal art. Next time.

Pat Johnson
Grannies on Safari

Darwin, Australia