All Aboard for Gild-edged Luxury on the Great South Pacific Express to the Great Barrier Reef

Not long ago, I gave myself one of the most special pleasures of my travel life — a trip on one of the world’s great trains through countryside I’d always wanted to see in Australia.

I was in the state of Queensland on the northeast coast, in the city of Brisbane, Queensland’s capital, a city of less than 100,000, with a river meandering through it. My wife and I spent several leisurely days in Brisbane, staying in the Heritage Hotel overlooking the green riverbank. Then, one day about midmorning we caught a cab to the rail station for a trip of three days and two nights aboard a train that, as some say, is a destination in itself: The Great South Pacific Express.

It sat silently with an almost anticipatory air, as its staff, liveried stewards, stylish hostesses, even its white-aproned chef, greeted passengers.

Strictly speaking, the train is relatively new — a replica, down to fine detail, of a train from a grand age of train travel: The Orient Express crossing between Paris and Constantinople in the 1880s, its cars filled with intrigue. Today, the Orient Express Ltd. runs its replica on a route that includes London, Paris, and Venice; now, in cooperation with Queensland Rail, it also runs The Great South Pacific in Australia.

A steward named Matthew showed us to our air-conditioned Pullman compartment, which was as practical as it was beautiful. Its design included two facing seats that Matthew would convert into twin beds. It had an en-suite shower, lavatory, and ward-robe. Its decor was as fine as any I ever expect to find on a train — turn of the century Edwardian to the last detail: red cedar woods and Tasmanian myrtle burl that shone. It had marquetry patterns, rich fabrics on both walls and seating. Above was a stained-glass clerestory ceiling.

Cool Drinks in the Observation Car

Just before 11 o’clock the familiar soft lurch told that we were underway, headed on a journey of two nights and days and almost 1,700 kilometers. Our itinerary took us up the country’s northeast coast with its tropical landscapes, its bushland, its mountains, and its rainforests teeming with exotic bird and animal life.

Most of it we’d see from our own compartment but also, for a change and a closer look, we’d walk through the next carriage to the Observation Car at the end of the train. There over a cool drink in its bamboo furnished, glass encircled lounge, or on its adjoining open deck, the life of Australia’s countryside lay open: long, lonely distances, clumps of trees, silent way stations and here and there a farm family looking back at us with calm, unblinking stares.

On most train trips, I realize anew that the train has something that a plane can never offer. It’s the special life on board. The train offers the possibilities of discovery, mainly people — interesting and pleasant, you hope — especially over dinner. Aboard the Great South Pacific, you can almost be assured they’ll be interesting for they are travel-minded. You meet them in a place made for conversation: a dining carriage probably unmatched in style and splendor.

When we entered the dining car, with its interior of embroidered silk panels and dark handmade tables and chairs, I remembered an article written years ago by Ray Bradbury. The American novelist recalled his special joy when entering the dining cars of old, in the first hour of dusk. He would hear, he wrote, the soft tingle of knives, forks, and spoons “swayed by the train’s glide around a curve….” Bradbury would delight in entering the Great South Pacific’s car. It’s almost breathtaking in beauty — its marvelous play of color: white linens that shine so brightly you blink, heavy silver upon which the soft golden lamplight of early dusk falls, fabrics of deep maroon and gold, set beside the hand-crafted maple and maple furnishing.

In A Sunburned Country

Both evenings we were seated with Australians. The first evening we were with John, a journalist and Judy, a magazine designer. The second evening with yet another John, this one a university professor and his wife Mary. Recalling those languorous, pleasant hours, and others with Australians elsewhere, leads me to agree with Bill Bryson, the travel writer, who in his wonderfully readable book on Australia, in a Sunburned Country, writes: The people are immensely likable cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted, and unfailingly obliging.

As the train slipped into the welcoming night, we dined on cuisine prepared by a chef of high pedigree. Craig Wheate had not only served in quality kitchens of Sydney but carried a seal of true sterling approval: he was recently chef at a Relais & Chateaux inn on nearby Fiji. One evening he told me he hoped his meals reflected the lively global variety of Australia’s nouveau gastronomy: “It draws on the best of European and North American style.” And it’s made fresh by products brought aboard every day. So, we had wonderful Tasmanian Salmon, smoked so delicately it lingers yet upon my taste buds, and seared fillet of Australia’s kangaroo, which resembled the venison I remember from childhood in Nova Scotia.

Precious Ecological Site

Australian wines are soft, full, interesting in structure and varied in complexity. John, the professor, introduced us to a 1996 Merlot from the region of Coonawara.

That night we slept reasonably, given the fact that the train’s trackage was a bit rough, and next morning after Matthew served us breakfast in the compartment we were on a way to a very special outing. The train stopped in a small speck of a town called Prosperine where a bus zipped us to a rural airstrip. We climbed up into a Canadian Beaver plane fitted with pontoons, raced down the runway and were soon aloft over one of the world’s most precious ecological sites: The Great Barrier Reef. (See The Great Barrier Reef article in Sept./Oct. 2000 issue of iTravelmag. ED). By morning the express slipped through the small city of Cairns, but our trip was not over yet. The train had almost 50 km. to go beyond Cairns. It thrummed through a mountain range, swept over a great gorge, passed beneath the thunderous Barron Falls, finally stopping in the towering silence of a tiny village called Kuranda.

The sylvan greenery that all but covers Kuranda glistened from a veil of night rain. It would make the end of our journey more memorable than if the sun had beamed. For we were entering one of the world’s most beautiful rainforest — the Barron Gorge National Park.

To see it, we didn’t go on foot, for that’s not allowed: it would damage an eco-system that is one of the world’s most precious. We boarded a cable car, built in 1995 by workers aboard helicopters to avoid disturbing the environment. It glides over the canopy of green for 7 km, so that you see a world much as our own world was millions of years ago hills filled with dense trees, scented glades in which hundreds of rare birds thrive alongside ferns, orchids, fruits, and flowers, and climbing palm trees.

In a few hours we were back in Cairns, settled in The Cairns International that overlooked the modern harbor called The Gateway to The Great Barrier Reef. I stood staring out the wide window at the life below. It struck me as I thought back over our days aboard the train that the Great South Pacific Express was much more than luxury and beauty. It played a deeply practical and revealing role in our travel life. It had taken us through a land we had never seen — a great, natural world of forest and bush, sea, and reef, and gave us the experience of a lifetime.

When You Go… Great South Pacific Express Fact Sheet

  1. Capacity: 100 passengers. Twenty-one air-conditioned carriages. Lounge car with piano and entertainment area (a trio plays nightly, with pianist, violinist, and flutist). One observation/bar car, with a large open-sided verandah. 13 sleeping cars with three types of sleeping accommodation: Pullman compartments contain upper and lower beds; State compartments contain twin beds; and Commissioner’s suites have double bed. All have en-suite bathrooms with private shower, basin, and toilet area.
  2. Dining: The train has two restaurants, with a brunch and four- and five- course dinners prepared by master chef Craig Wheate whose specialty is Pacific Rim cuisine. The menu might include ocean trout sushi with salmon, crab and mint rice paper rolls, and grilled fillet of macadamia-nut-crusted barramundi, local cheeses, and exotic fruits. Breakfast, served by stewards, is taken in the privacy of the sleeping compartment, as is afternoon tea.
  3. Attire: The atmosphere is one of relaxed refinement. During the day, smart casual clothing is appropriate. Jeans, shorts, and sandals are not recommended. In the evening men might feel comfortable with a jacket and tie, although the ambiance of the train provides a marvelous opportunity to display some glamour and style.

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