Over the course of a dozen adventures, I’ve crisscrossed Australia by plane, jumping over its empty red stretches as quickly as possible en route to my next destination. I don’t think I realized what I was missing at 30,000 feet. But a four-day journey aboard the new Great Southern luxury train line between Brisbane and Adelaide was just the opportunity I’d been looking for to see some of those expanses up close and at a more leisurely pace. The itinerary, which launched in December, makes use of the train that normally operates “The Ghan” line between Adelaide and Darwin but takes a hiatus during the hottest, wettest months.
That said, it was already 90 degrees Fahrenheit early one December morning when I arrived at Brisbane’s 19th-century Customs House, where 200 of my fellow travelers nibbled from fruit plates, sipped coffee, and made nervous chitchat with new acquaintances. The ambiance felt like the first day of summer camp. A welcome whoop of “All aboard!” from our “journey manager,” Bruce, broke the tension and we boarded buses to the station where our train awaited.
At 28 carriages, the train was nearly a half-mile long and would carry us 1,800 mile over 70 hours. I felt a surge of panic. That was a long time to be without Wi-Fi. The emails I’d miss! The Instagram posts I’d have to #latergram! Once I stepped on board, though, I told myself to take a breath and just…relax.
It helped that Arielle, the attendant looking after passengers in my carriage, materialized with a glass of chilled Bollinger for me to sip as she showed me the features of my Platinum-class compartment (there are also two lower levels of Gold service).
With space for two passengers, it included a cushy day lounge, a lit vanity, and a coffee table, plus USB and power ports and a touchscreen music system. My en-suite bathroom held a toilet, sink, and glassed-in shower stocked with full-size Appelles Apothecary products.
As the train lurched into motion, I felt like a cross between an unchaperoned Victorian heiress setting out on her Grand Tour and a European gigolo taking a breather between cons.
Before long, I wandered down to the Platinum Club car for a light lunch of grilled chicken over couscous with a mint-yogurt dressing. Design firm Woods Bagot recently redid the interiors to include a swanky lounge space with tufted leather banquettes and a more formal dining area. Inspired by the Outback landscapes through which Journey Beyond’s trains travel, the palette of moss-green upholstery, ash paneling, and lustrous quartzite tabletops mirrored the eucalyptus groves we were chugging past.
That evening, we pulled into Coffs Harbour and transferred to the Pacific Bay Resort, where the basso profundo intonations of a didgeridoo beckoned us to the beach for cocktail hour. Under open skies, we dined on platters of king prawns, rock oysters, and locally caught Goldband snapper. I arrived back at my compartment to find a double bed turned down and dressed in white linens, with South Australian Haigh’s chocolates on the pillow.
DAYS 2 & 3
The next morning, I was out on a boat tracking a nursery pod of dolphin mothers and their calves frolicking around Port Stephens. The afternoon included a 4WD jaunt among the coastal Stockton sand dunes of Birubi, their peaks obscured by a heat haze.
Back on the train that evening, I compared photos with my new friends, a pair of lady travel buddies from South Australia named Jan and Rhonda as moonlit Pacific coves blurred by on one side and the lights of Sydney’s western suburbs faded away on the other.
The next afternoon, over a private lunch on the 89th floor of Melbourne’s Eureka Tower, I met Dave and Jocelyn, two avid cruisers and foodies who had ridden the rails on Journey Beyond’s other itineraries, including The Ghan and the iconic Indian Pacific from Sydney to Perth (most of my fellow passengers, I found, were repeat customers).
I sat with them again at dinner at Provenance Wines, located in a former 19th-century paper mill near the coastal town of Geelong, just southwest of Melbourne. We shared heaping plates of baked salmon with fennel and citrus before apple-blackberry tarts with cider-caramel sauce, all paired with the house wines.
Our Platinum Club host, Nick, was waiting back at the train with thimble glasses of Penfolds Father 10-year tawny. I took mine to go as a nightcap.
Instead of the lavatory lineup and electronics stowage of an initial descent, I spent my final moments aboard the Great Southern lingering over a breakfast of farm-fresh eggs with grilled bacon and bush-tomato chutney. There was also plenty of time to hug new friends goodbye on the platform in Adelaide before we went our separate ways.
To me, that was what the Great Southern truly represented—a chance to slow down, to savor, and to seek out a new perspective on a destination I know and love.
We rode the Great Southern via Journey Beyond on its Brisbane-Adelaide itinerary, which runs four days and three nights (and three days and two nights in the opposite direction). Most trips accommodate 214 guests: 60 in Platinum Service, 138 in Gold Service Twins and 16 Gold Service Singles. The 2020-2021 season runs from December 4, 2020 through January 25, 2021. Fares include meals both onboard and during complimentary off-train excursions, as well as cocktails, beer and Australian wines. Prices range from AU$1,779 (US$1,223) to AU$8,279 (US$5,691) per person depending on the itinerary and class of service.