Oozing an alluring mix of beachside funk blended with well-heeled style, we call into Byron Bay, on Australia’s east coast, for our first Whistle Stop after disembarking from The Southern Spirit train.
While families gather on the beach, a melodic tune wafts across the breeze as a young surfer strums his acoustic guitar beneath the Pandanus Palm. The sun dips towards the horizon casting a burnt orange hue across the sand. I’ve just enough time for poking around the boutiques before joining fellow passengers for dinner at the trendy Why Not restaurant.
Later, retreating to our train and the Outback Explorer Lounge for after dinner drinks and conversation, I linger long enough to discern there are serious rail buffs onboard. Many have travelled on some of the world’s iconic trains, including Australia’s other ‘Big Two,’ The Ghan and The Indian Pacific.
Retiring to my cabin, Damian, my charming 30-something cabin steward, has left me chocolates to send me off to sleep. Not that I need much help, as the train gently lulls me into a semi conscious state, encased as I am amid crisply starched linen.
I’m onboard the über luxury Southern Spirit for six days of rail touring through Australia’s southeast between Brisbane and Adelaide.
Operating for a limited season from November to February, The Southern Spirit is a leisurely journey through four Australian states. Different to a regular long distance train which keeps to a strict point-to-point schedule, rail touring allows plenty of time to disembark in order to see, smell, taste and touch each new destination. It’s a little like a cruise, without all that troublesome salt-laden air.
After Byron Bay, our route takes us southwards via the towns of Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie and the Hunter Valley region before heading westwards into the heart of south east Australia. The city of Adelaide is our final destination, though the journey can be taken in either direction.
Day three and our visit to the Hunter Valley, with around 120 vineyards and cellar doors dotted across the rolling hills, coincides with harvest season. Known mostly for Semillon and Shiraz, we call into Tempus Two Winery, where we work our way through eight tastings from sparkling chardonnay through to a botrytis Semillon. Accompanied by a generously laden cheese platter, our host Madi is a font of knowledge, as she sniffs, swirls, swishes and spits her way through the selection.
Next door in the Smelly Cheese Shop, stocked to the ceiling with delectable goodies, the chilled fromagerie is wall-to-wall with cheeses begging to be taken home. Hungry day-trip visitors are three-deep at the delicatessen counter, where appetising baguettes, gourmet picnic morsels and gelato are being snapped up. For our intrepid group of train travellers, yet another three-course dinner onboard Southern Spirit beckons, so most of us leave empty-handed, sated as we are with the sumptuous meals onboard.
With little to do between Whistle Stop tours but sit back and relax, passengers easily slip into a regular pattern, much of which revolves around eating, drinking and socialising. After dinner there’s usually a game of Scrabble underway in the lounge, while others retreat to their private cabins.
Accommodation is in either luxurious Platinum Service or not quite so opulent (though perfectly comfortable) Gold Service cabins. The main differences between the two are mostly to do with cabin size and amenities, plus the inclusion of special luxuries for Platinum travellers (think turndown nightcap and chocolates, Natio bathroom products, fluffy bathrobes, and tea or coffee served in bed each morning). Naturally limited by carriage width, both are somewhat compact; though make exceptional use of limited space. All cabins have ensuite bathrooms, and this is where the real difference lies between the two. Platinum guests have swanky, spacious showers with glass screens along with a regular vanity basin and toilet. Gold Service guests, well, bathrooms are rather compact. Clever almost, given that both the toilet and hand basin fold down from the wall. Concealed when not in use, the floor space is then utilised as a shower stall with wrap around shower curtain.
During the day, cabins are set up for lounging, with sofas or lounge chairs the perfect spot to curl up with a book, or to watch the landscape brush past. At night, usually while we’re at dinner, cabin stewards transform each cabin into a cosy sleeper, with beds folding down from behind concealed walls. An added luxury for couples in Platinum Service is the option of a dreamy double bed to stretch out in. Naturally, panoramic windows in all cabins bring the great outdoors up close and personal, whether lounging on your sofa or reclining in bed.
I spend endless hours gazing out the window from a supine position. As we roll through small country towns I regularly spot binocular-toting train spotters (known in the rail industry as gunzels), cameras poised to secure photographic bragging rights. On online forums, intense discussions ensue about which trains have been spotted and where, inciting speculation about train schedules and whether trains are running on time. Or not. Train spotting is a serious business. Indeed, as we depart Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station, gunzel George, who is known to many of the onboard crew, waves enthusiastically, almost as though he is waving off his own loved ones. Trains incite quite some passion amongst their followers.
Day six, our last day onboard before disembarking in the city of Adelaide, and we pull into Ararat Station for a Whistle Stop tour of the Grampians National Park. Aboriginal occupation of the Grampians dating back 20,000 years is evident in the significant rock art sites scattered through the park, some of which are accessible to visitors. Most come to hike the walking trails through sweet smelling eucalypts or to enjoy the waterfalls and creeks that cascade down the dramatic cliffs. For me, however, it’s the wildlife I’ve come to see.
Wandering along the trails that branch out from Brambuk National Park Cultural Centre, I find myself surrounded by a mob of eastern grey kangaroos. Grazing on the verdant grass, aware of my presence, yet seemingly unperturbed, many of them are females, their pouches bulging with concealed joeys. Crouching low beside a young female, I’m close enough to count her eyelashes as I stare into her dark eyes.
Alerted, her ears twitch and rotate as she ascertains the level of threat I pose. Mesmerised, I resist the urge to reach out and touch her, reluctant to break the spell. Eventually, she rises and bounds away slowly, surefooted and graceful. From the panoramic windows of The Southern Spirit, kangaroos are spotted at dusk trackside, though none of those sightings are quite so delightful as this close up encounter.
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