Riding the Australian Rails
by JONATHAN LERNER
Minimalism is the prevailing aesthetic in Sydney these days.
In the new Olympics suburb, the latest office towers and residential developments, and the city’s proliferating restaurants and wine bars, the look is the same: clean, hard and futuristic. But romantics needn’t fret: opulence is alive and well on Australia’s spanking new luxury train, the Great South Pacific Express.
Arriving in Cairns, one of the train’s boarding points, I was delighted to find that this, the newest of the world’s luxury excursion trains (in service since April 1999), looks like it just rumbled in from a century before. My home for the two-day, 1,050-mile journey south to Brisbane conjured images of drama and intrigue. All that was missing were those romantic clouds of steam.
Managed and partly owned by the venerable Orient-Express team, the 20-carriage, 19th-century–style train runs along Australia’s east coast. Travelers can opt for the one-night trip between Sydney and Brisbane, the two-night journey between Brisbane and Cairns, or combine both. The longer trips are preferable, since they allow time to savor the experience and to take several side trips.
I was shown to my cabin in one of the train’s crimson-and-cream painted carriages by Peter, my steward for the journey. A chilled bottle of champagne and a cut-glass flute (as well as my luggage) were waiting for me. Peter left with a shirt of mine to press before dinner, and I settled in to sip and marvel at the genteel luxury of it all.
Once alone, I set about unpacking. I was in a “State compartment” — the middle of three available sizes — and was traveling alone, so I didn’t have much trouble stowing belongings in the limited cupboard space. Passengers sharing accommodations, especially in the smaller “Pullman compartments” with an upper and a lower berth, had to do more of a dance to fit. Two huge “Commissioner’s compartments” are also available, featuring double beds and space to spare.
Passengers are urged to pack a single bag for the train, and to send additional things to the baggage car. But since dressing up for dinner is a must, this can be a challenge.
The decor in the train harkens to a time when traveling by rail offered the utmost in comfort and elegance. Polished to a sheen, the walls were paneled in rosy Tasmanian myrtle and flamed Queensland maple, with delicately fluted moldings punctuating the design. The hand-painted, patterned metal ceiling was illuminated by stained-glass clerestory windows. Hardware and fittings were in heavy, ornate brass — including the grilles that disguised air conditioning vents. The sofa and chair (which converted to two lower berths) were upholstered in a rich, striped silk, patterned in gold.
A lavish antique style prevailed throughout the train. In the dining car, walls were upholstered in embroidered silk, and the furniture was inlaid with mahogany. Fringe on every lampshade danced with the motion of the train. At the rear of the last car, an outdoor observation platform was outfitted with sinuous, 19th-century–style wrought-iron railings, and striped, fringed canvas awnings. Here, I spent satisfying hours watching the hypnotic landscape of Australia’s tropical Queensland landscape roll by at a stately pace.
At first, I wondered if the frilly, old-fashioned décor would grow tedious, or feel like a phony re-creation of the past. But the magic of a train journey is precisely that it disconnects us from jet-age reality. By choosing this mode of travel — which, after all, requires two days to cover the distance of a two-hour plane flight — I had already traded the frenzy of modern life for old-fashioned luxury and service. Consequently, the train’s elaborate décor was just right — sumptuously anachronistic.
For dinner, I had chosen the second seating, and waited in the lounge car with a drink. There, a pianist played jazzy tunes on a baby grand, accompanied by a violinist. When the violinist took a break, the musician played her own preference, Chopin.
In the dining car, meals showcased modern Australian cooking — a fusion of Mediterranean and Asian flavors. That night, I started with slices of tender kangaroo steak on a bed of barley risotto and wild mushroom compote, with an apple-balsamic sauce and pistachio oil to top it. My main dish was grilled coral trout with coriander pesto and an anise-tomato-chile jam. For dessert, I skipped the sweet passionfruit cream tart, and went straight to the tray of wonderful domestic cheeses. Examples of the country’s boutique wines — the vast majority of which are never seen in the U.S. — helped wash it all down smoothly.
One of the best things about a train trip is waking up, raising your blinds, and gazing out on totally new scenery. The next morning, I found us passing velvety fields of sugar cane, green orchards, and scrubby cattle spreads — where some passengers glimpsed mobs of kangaroos — with a low ridge of mountains in the middle distance. Peter arrived with the coffee I’d requested. The tray also bore a plate of hot pastries and a glorious fruit salad. I never made it to the dining car for breakfast.
Later that day, the train stopped in the sugar-mill town of Proserpine. With the liveried staff lined up to wave us off, we were bussed to a waterfront airstrip and then flown by seaplane and helicopter to the Great Barrier Reef — a dramatic jaunt over the rocky Whitsun-day Islands and back into the present.
A haven for snorkelers and divers, the reef lies about 35 miles off the coast. Only the vague hump of an island was visible from where we landed, at a slightly surreal floating complex called “Reef World 2.” The complex consists of two big pontoon platforms housing restaurant buffets, sun decks and changing rooms, and six helicop-ter landing platforms. A roped off area along the complex’s edge provided snorkeling space, and for those preferring to stay above water, a glass-bottomed boat makes circuits over the reef. And of course, diving facilities are available.
After our day in the sun, we returned to the train to find the crew once again lined up to welcome us “home.” As we began rolling south again, there was time for a relaxing sunset drink in the observation car, followed by another great dinner, another night rocked off to dreamland, another gleaming, early-morning coffee tray.
On the last leg of our journey, we enjoyed a glamorous farewell brunch. Outside, the weird, extruded ridges of the Glasshouse Mountains passed by — and suddenly, Brisbane: hurried farewells, a limo ride to the airport, and back to the Third Millennium. As the urban bustle enveloped me again, I thought fondly of the leisurely, indulgent pace on the Great South Pacific Railroad — and my journey back in time.
Fares for the Great South Pacific Express run as follows: Sydney to Brisbane: $880–$1,480. Brisbane to Cairns: $1,600–$2,650. For more information and reservations — Tel: 800-524-2420; E-mail: reservations@GPSE.com; Website: www.GPSE.com
NOTE: Due to an inconsistency in the track gauges between the Sydney/Brisbane and Brisbane/Cairns routes, the GSPE’s wheel assemblies must be switched out in Cairns — a process that takes 16 hours or more. Passengers combining both legs of the trip will need to detrain and spend a night in a Brisbane hotel.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under “Australia.”