Queensland: On track for tropicsSave
Wander, linger, look out — just some of the reasons Pamela Wade feels free as a bird taking the overnight train from Brisbane.
By Pamela Wade
"Ooh, look: a bottle opener!" My husband was absurdly, on two counts, thrilled to spot this humble but essential tool fitted beside his seat. Absurdly because, well, bottle opener, and also because it wasn't one at all, it was the slot to take a support when the seat reclined into a lie-flat bed.
But it's easy to get a little over-excited when you first settle into your seat on the fancy new Spirit of Queensland tilt train from Brisbane up to Cairns.
That's a journey of 681km, or 25 hours; but we were getting off at Townsville, after just 18 hours. The mid-afternoon departure meant a night on the train and that was the justification for travelling RailBed class.
In airline terms, that equates to Business, and it's a comparison that's far from whimsical. In fact, from the amenity pack and comfortable headphones to the slightly absurd passenger safety video shown on the big-screen TV on the seat-back in front, that seems to be exactly the model.
Ushered to our seats by car attendant Cheryl, we were presented with a fruit cocktail and shown how to operate the leg rest, reclining seat, the TV and audio system, where to find the USB port and socket for our electronica, and were given the menus for our dinner and breakfast. Relaxing back on the leather, surrounded by woodgrain and glass, we stretched out our legs and, listening to the captain's - er, driver's - announcement, felt around for the seat belt.
Of course there wasn't one, but the aeroplane ambience was so complete that it felt strange and almost unsettling not to be strapped in.
This is one of several excellent reasons not to fly: to be loose in your seat and free to wander through the carriages, linger for a drink and a chat in the Club Car, even to slum it back in Premium Economy where the passengers look a lot more stretched-out and comfortable than their equivalents 30,000 feet higher.
Another reason is the scenery: from a plane, you see nothing. From the train, the big windows frame the extraordinary shapes of the Glasshouse Mountains, craggy volcanic peaks spiking up beyond the sugar cane and pineapple plantations. There are rivers, towns, lush countryside patrolled by flocks of whistling kites: always something to look at.
Food is naturally a major distraction, and it was quaint to see the trolley coming along the aisle for all the world as though on an aeroplane, the trays set before us with all the usual packets to open, the wine (just the one free glass, sadly) poured and the hot dish - Szechuan chilli prawns in my case - almost living up to expectation. Just like on a plane.
And then came bedtime: attendants moved through the carriage magicking each seat into a perfectly flat bed, firm but cosy with pillows, sheet and duvet.
Tucked up and kept private by the pod at the head, it was fun and soothing to lie in comfort listening to the wheel scrape and rattles as the train powered through the night at up to 160km/h, the occasional whistle adding the crowning romantic cliche to the experience.
Travelling this way gives a real sense of distance and scale. When in the morning I emerged from behind the complimentary eye mask to a new panorama of arid land populated by kangaroos and Droughtmaster cattle, I felt that this had been a real journey: albeit one requiring nothing more from me in the way of effort beyond keeping my balance in the shower as the train swung around a curve.
It's certainly a popular mode of travel for older people, many of my fellow passengers clearly having taken advantage of pensioner discounts. There are also early-booking deals available, so if time is less important than the quality of the experience, taking the Spirit of Queensland north into the tropics is an option well worth considering. Even without the bottle opener.
• The Spirit of Queensland operates five return services a week between Brisbane and Cairns.
The writer was hosted on the Spirit of Queensland.