A long-distance love affair

Anthony Dennis joins a first-class journey that meanders from coastline to outback, via key towns and cities.

My first discovery on the first night of a luxury train cruise from Melbourne to Alice Springs is that my "compartment" is much bigger than I expected. In fact, it's the size of a five-star hotel suite with a king-size bed, a bedside iPod station and three remote-controlled plasma TVs (one of which is located above the tub in the marble bathroom). Not even the Orient Express is this posh.

My "compartment" is, of course, stationary and elevated some 21 storeys above track level. I'm staying at the Crown Towers hotel but it's all part of the deal, this being a scheduled stop on a newly devised Australian rail cruise. The trip, The Coastal Epic, began a week ago in Brisbane, concluding in a week in Alice Springs.

I'm picking up the journey in Melbourne, a scheduled stop on the route, along with the rest of the passengers, who have also checked in. Our departure point tomorrow is Southern Cross Station. From here the Southern Spirit, a stainless-steel slither of a dozen or so carriages, will sweep across western Victoria to the Adelaide Hills, where we'll sleep on the train before heading off-train to Kangaroo Island for two days. Then it's back on the train (which averages 85km/h; maximum 115km/h), where we'll transfer to the infamous opal mining town of Coober Pedy with another night aboard and then on to Alice Springs.

The concept of the rail cruise, where getting from A to B is not the principal objective, isn't new. South Africa, for instance, has been running them for years with trains such as Rovos Rail. But for Australia this is, in effect, a new concept, though it's long been possible to create your own rail cruise on trains such as the Ghan and the Indian-Pacific, which, like the Southern Spirit, are operated by Great Southern Rail. GSR's plans to launch the Southern Spirit in 2008 were derailed by the global financial crisis but now it's back on track with two cruises this year and more planned for next year.

The next day, my on-board Platinum compartment with en suite bathroom and shower is, despite any fears, considerably larger than the wardrobe back at Crown Towers. You actually could swing a cat in here (but only just). In reality, by international long-distance train standards, my berth is generously proportioned and tastefully decorated, though a search fails to reveal a bathtub, TV or iPod.

In recent years, GSR has upgraded its passenger carriages and now they rank as among the best in the Western world. Some of the Platinum compartments even have double beds that fold away into plush seating.

Even though I've been catching long-distance trains both in Australia and overseas all my adult life, I still find myself one of the youngest passengers on the Southern Spirit. And what an incestuous bunch they are, having bonded the week before I boarded. Most of the 50 or so passengers are retirees, greyer than the average grey nomad, and are from Australia, though there are some from Europe and Britain. For most of the Australians, considering the cost, this is the veritable trip of a lifetime, the antipodean equivalent, more or less, of the Trans-Siberian; snow and ice for the most part exchanged for sand and dirt. In a week they've visited Brisbane, where they stayed at a luxury hotel, before heading to Sydney, then Parkes, Glenrowan and finally Melbourne.

Outside, it's the middle of summer. The Victorian countryside is parched; otherwise golden fields rendered near white by drought and heat. There are glimpses of distant ranges, wheat silos dotted along the track at monotonous intervals and, occasionally, a town.

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A three-course lunch with wine is served in the Queen Adelaide dining car as we head towards the Adelaide Hills. Unlike Amtrak, the main passenger rail operator in the US, which no longer provides a full dining-car service, all the meals served on the Southern Spirit are cooked in the train itself and they're first class.

It's all quite soporific but in the nicest possible way. There's not much more to do than read, eat, nap, read, drink and nap some more. And what's wrong with that, especially with such a comfortable compartment and a fully equipped lounge, complete with an espresso machine? I'm not even missing the plasma TVs. It's also the electronic equivalent of cold turkey for some passengers, like me, denied mobile phone coverage and wireless access. It'll do us good. At dawn the next day, the train has moved down the hills to the prosaic Keswick Terminal in Adelaide proper, and we are up fearfully early for a two-day excursion to Kangaroo Island.

The journey in the coach, punctuated by an incessant, though kindly, commentary from the driver and by stunning coastal scenery of the Fleurieu Peninsula reminds me why I detest buses but love trains.

Kangaroo Island is a wilderness wonderland that should be mentioned in the same breath as the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu and Uluru. We spend two days visiting, among other activities, local producers, including a sheep dairy, a honey farm and eucalyptus-oil maker and sampling the scenery of the spectacular Flinders National Park. We visit an Australian sea-lion conservation park and see a perfectly positioned, photogenic koala snoozing in a tree.

Soon enough we're ensconced back on the Southern Spirit and heading in to the outback, bound for Coober Pedy about 40 kilometres from the train lines. Eventually, we're met trackside by a fleet of vehicles and are taken into town for a tour. Disgorging this many elderly passengers in the middle of the desert is as delicate a task as off-loading a sheep carrier ship. But the train's staff manage the task with patience and courtesy and soon we're all off in an impressive willy-willy of red dust.

They clearly care about their visitors in these parts. We are shadowed by a vehicle towing a mobile toilet with Crap Catcher emblazoned on the back. It makes a welcome reappearance later at a dinner held underground in the Quest Opal Mine. Typical of this multicultural town, the bush-tucker-influenced meal is cooked by a Singaporean chef with the guests served by Korean waiters overseen by a man with an eastern European accent.

Yet again, the train remains in the sidings for the night. Personally, I'd rather sleep in my Platinum cocoon on a slow-moving train, lulled by its rhythms, with the rays of the moon seeping through the venetian blind. Alternatively, I'd settle for that suite a world away now, back on the 21st floor of the Crown Towers.

Anthony Dennis was a guest of Great Southern Rail.

TRIP NOTES

-The Southern Spirit operates two 4550-kilometre journeys a year. The Coastal Epic travels between Brisbane and Alice Springs, via Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. The Grand Tour travels in reverse from Alice Springs and Brisbane.

-Fares start from $10,590 a person in Gold Service and rise to $13,990 in Platinum Service. Fares include all meals, tours and transfers. The prices may be subject to change before next year's journeys.

-The next two rail cruises will be staged in early 2011. To register your interest, phone 1300 881 416, see thesouthernspirit.com.au.

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