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Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Ghan: nothing like the romance of train travel to rekindle a love for travel

There's a certain romance about train travel that's hard to imagine if you're sleeping upright in cattle class on an overnight interstate train trip in Australia. Ugh. But Australia now has something that comes close to the likes of the luxurious Venice Simplon Orient Express in the romantic train stakes - the new Platinum class service on The Ghan. Named after the Afghan cameleers who trekked the same route from South Australia to 'the red centre' in the Northern Territory with their camel trains in the 19th century, the shiny silver Ghan takes two days and nights to travel the 3,000 kilometres between Adelaide, Alice Springs, Katherine and Darwin. And then it trundles all the way back again. While you can travel on the Red or Gold Service, sleeping upright or on bunks in a snug sleeper cabin, respectively, the spacious Platinum class rooms (pictured) with flat beds, offer a level of comfort that's incomparable to other trains in Australia - as we were lucky to find out for ourselves recently! I'd spent my birthday working until the wee hours of the morning emailing files and maps to editors in London before we hit the road for a few months, and the next night Terry and I were hastily packing until the wee hours of the morning, trying to anticipate what we were likely to forget - aside from sleep and our senses of humour. So perhaps we appreciated that welcome glass of champagne a little more than the other passengers. And the bedside nightcap after dinner. And the coffee delivered to us in bed soon after dawn. There’s an endearingly old-fashioned restaurant car where three course meals were served with a smile (the staff are incredibly warm and friendly) and a smart-looking lounge bar, but our spacious rooms with private bathroom (including shower and toilet!) were very difficult to leave. Our two single beds were made up and stowed away while we dined, leaving plenty of room for us sit back and put up our feet and take in the changing scenery from either side of the train. Not that we had much time to enjoy it. Whistle-stop tours en route range from an early morning hot air balloon ride across the arid Alice Springs desert to an exhilarating helicopter flight over spectacular Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park. We chose the latter - and it was thrilling! My main complaint about The Ghan? Not enough time on the train; I probably could have done without the tours. I enjoyed gazing at the stars from my bed so much and got a such a kick out of waking up with sunshine in my face, that I would have liked to have spent more time on board and spent longer watching the scenery change.


Sandy O'Sullivan said...

You know when you were asking about the whole art of travel/focus on the actual travel question a year or so ago... the Ghan was something I was thinking about. I suppose its because you have movement and freedom and time, and yet its not the trapped feeling that a cruise has. I think great train travel is a wonderful thing.

The sexy bloke (sexy bloke that he is!) with the champagne has got to be at least half the draw though, and I'm not certain they still include those with the cheaper tickets.

Lara Dunston said...

Hey there, Sandy! Thanks for commenting!

I'll be sure to let Terry know a certain girl finds him sexy - aside from me!

Totally agree with that sense of freedom, movement and time that a train enables - it's that 'wide open road' feeling without the road. Yeah, as much fun as the helicopter was, I would have been happy staying on board and getting more of that. I felt that I'd just began to get into the groove when we had to get off again.

Dave said...

I recently did the Indian Pacific (cross-continent, but the other way). I can't say I found the experience quite as enthralling, but then again I was travelling solo.

Stopping at Cook (pop: 2) in the middle of the Nullarbor and crossing the Blue Mountains on the last morning were worth their weight in gold, however.

Did you find that there was a heavy slant towards the older clientele on the Ghan? Or is it just the Indian Pacific?

Travel Muse said...

Lara -

So glad to have you back! Looks like a lovely trip you had on The Ghan. I'll have to try it myself one day. Hope you're beginning to relax.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Dave - thanks for your comments! We're actually trying the Indian Pacific in the New Year, so I'll let you know what I think. I definitely think these kinds of travel experiences are better when you can share them with someone.

The Platinum class certainly made the experience special, although I have to admit I love train travel and just love staring out the window at nothing in particular but the passing scenery.

Yes, you're right the passengers were older. As we approached the hosts to check in and find out what carriage we were on, the woman said "You must be Lara Dunston." I was stunned. I said "How did you know?"
She said "Cause you're about 20 years younger than everyone else!" I said "But I just turned 41!" thinking she must have meant I just looked younger, but she said "Yep, that's right!" And, yes, most passengers were around 60 and older. It didn't bother us - the company was lovely, but it made me wonder... do older people just prefer slow travel, because they've got to the point in their lives where they're happy to take things more slowly and appreciate things more, or was it a question of money? It's an expensive experience although the guests in our carriages didn't mind paying for it.

Hi Travel Muse - thank you for the warm welcome! Unfortunately I haven't had much of a chance to relax yet - apart from a couple of hours on The Ghan - still pretty busy, but who's going to listen to a travel writer complain, right? ;) You should do The Ghan one day. I think you'll like it.

jen laceda said...

Hi Laura,
I, for one, love trains!!! Reminds me of colonial times -- to me, it's the height of romance. Now, if only I could get my hands on one of those vintage, hard case leather luggages.