How to experience a premium train journey across Australia's eastern states

Couple on a train

Blanche Clark

Posted March 22, 2023

Gourmet food, priceless views, stylish accommodation – treat yourself to a premium train experience on the Great Southern with Journey Beyond Rail, and see Australia's eastern states in a new light.

It’s amazing how quickly your life can go from hectic to holiday mode on a premium train journey. Within half an hour of the Great Southern leaving the train terminal in Brisbane, the electronic world ceases to matter.

Seated in the Outback Explorer Lounge, I watch lush green paddocks and hazy mountains framed by cumulus clouds give way to remnants of bushland as we sashay towards Coffs Harbour. Fellow passengers mark their change of routine with a glass of wine or Aperol Spritz, while I sip a cappuccino that's been made just the way I like it.

Over four days and three nights, I and 213 passengers will travel 2000km through four Australian states: past farms and regional towns, mountains and rivers, historic buildings, and wineries. My mobile phone will be merely a camera to capture the ever-changing landscape. It’s a sentiment shared by fellow passenger, Ali, an IT worker from Sydney.

“This is my escape,” she says. “I never get the chance to enjoy the scenery when I’m driving. Now I can stare out the window, and someone else is going to tell me what to do for three and half days, and nothing is going to bother me – no emails, no cooking – it’s sheer bliss.”

Great Southern train

The Great Southern travels between Brisbane and Adelaide during the summer months.
Image: Journey Beyond Rail

Part of a trio of iconic train trips

Journey Manager Zafer Tasci says those who have savoured Australia’s innate beauty on The Ghan and discovered why the Indian Pacific is still one of Australia's great train trips often travel on the Great Southern to complete all of Journey Beyond Rail's Australia by Train experiences.

“Train travel becomes a love affair for many people,” Zafer says. “They fall in love with the adventure and camaraderie, and these journeys are associated with a lot of iconic Australian history.”

Launched in December 2019, the Great Southern operates during the summer months, when The Ghan service stops because of the wet season. The same carriages are used for both trains, while the Great Southern opens up the Australian east coast to train lovers, and people who like to travel at a leisurely pace by making good use of railway corridors that are mainly used by freight. 

“Sitting in a carriage with a glass of bubbles in your hand is the best way to experience Australia’s wide-open spaces,” Zafer says. “These trips are special because of conversations you have, the friends you make, and the memories you take away.”

Dining in Coffs Harbour

Each Gold Service Twin cabin has a day lounge that is converted into two beds in the evening.
Image: Journey Beyond Rail

Creature comforts and on-board accommodation

There’s pleasure to be found exploring my Gold Service Twin cabin: the day lounge that will be converted into a bed; the compact ensuite bathroom; the switches for vanity, reading and night lights, and the closet where a safe and a hair dryer are secreted away.

The cabin provides a retreat for a nap or a read, while the Outback Explorer Lounge is the social hub of the train. Here I find a couple from Sydney on their honeymoon, two 30-something sisters from California exploring the world, and a retired farmer and his wife from Queensland who are on their way to visit their daughter in Adelaide. All of them have a passion for travel and stories of previous trips and must-see destinations are readily shared.

In the Art Deco environs of the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, our first lunch is served, with a choice of mango chicken salad, grilled swordfish, or spinach quesadilla followed by tropical treats or a honey macadamia parfait. The meal epitomises the amazing Australian produce that’s a quintessential part of this journey.

Dining in Coffs Harbour

Great Southern passengers enjoy a gourmet dining experience at Coffs Harbour. Image: Supplied

Off Train Experiences add to the adventure

On my Brisbane to Adelaide journey, the first stop is Coffs Harbour, where we feast on local king prawns, Sydney rock oysters and freshly caught fish, all the while soaking in the subtropical greenery.

When I return to the train, my bed is freshly made, and I fall asleep to the rocking of the carriage and the sound of the wheels turning on the rails. (Ear plugs are recommended for light sleepers.)

In the morning, there's a new landscape and a sensational breakfast before our second Off Train Experience in the Hunter Valley region. While others explore the harbour city, cruise around Port Macquarie or travel in 4WD vehicles to Stockton Bight Sand Dunes, I board a coach for a Hunter Valley wine tour.

Brokenwood Winery, which was originally co-founded by wine guru James Halliday, boasts one of the biggest cellar doors in the Hunter Valley. Our tour group fills three purpose-built pods, and the staff guide us through their signature Semillons and Shiraz. At Tulloch Wines, creamy Donarch chocolates are paired with lighter and sweeter wines, like the late-picked Verdelho, and it proves a great icebreaker before a lively lunch at another winery.

A Hunter Valley winery tour is among the choices of Off-Train Experiences. Image: Supplied
Sandboarding on the sand dunes at Stockton Beach is a fun Off-Train Experience. Image: Supplied
The Edge suspends thrill-seekers in a transparent cube outside the Eureka Tower. Image: Supplied.
The Hawkesbury Region provides mesmerising views as the train travels towards Sydney. Image: Supplied
When the train stops near Melbourne, there are four Off-Train Experiences to choose from, including the Old Melbourne Gaol . Image: Supplied
You can start or end your Great Southern journey in Adelaide. Image: Getty

Beautiful scenery and life-long friends

Back on the train, some retreat to their cabins for a nap, but the beauty of the Hawkesbury Region keeps me glued to the window. Moored boats and the large piles from a former bridge catch the late afternoon sun, and there’s the quiet thrill of seeing the engine and front carriages half a kilometre ahead as the Great Southern follows the curve of the track.

I strike up a conversation with Judy, who hails from the Bellarine Peninsula, and ask what attracted her to travelling on the Great Southern. “Having been on the Indian Pacific, I know how much they spoil you,” she says. “It’s amazing value. You meet interesting people, and learn from them about places to visit, and you make lifelong friends.”

After a dinner of bluefin tuna, and vegan-friendly falafels with roasted baby carrots and beetroot in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, I retreat to my cabin to read, but quickly fall asleep as the train slips past Wagga Wagga and Walla Walla.



Meal on Great Southern train

Every meal served on the Great Southern train is exceptional. Image: Supplied

Foodie experiences and a new perspective

I wake to find the train idling outside Albury, and life feels carefree as I devour raisin toast with crème fraiche, figs, and pistachios in the restaurant car. The countryside is distinctly Victorian from Wangaratta to Seymour, with blonde-tipped grasses and brown hills marking the end of summer.

In Melbourne, three groups separate to explore the MCG, Old Melbourne Gaol, and laneways before regrouping for lunch at Eureka 89.

Along with enjoying a 360-degree view from Melbourne Skydeck on the 88th floor of Eureka Tower, thrill-seekers take advantage of the complimentary admission to the Edge. Being suspended 300 metres above City Road in a transparent glass cube is, I discover, not for the faint-hearted. At the same time, another contingent is enjoying a well-grounded lunch with live music at Clyde Park winery in the Moorabool Valley, near Geelong.

Savouring the final moments

The atmosphere for the last night on the train is festive, with pre-dinner cocktails in the Outback Explorer Lounge, and easy conversation in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant. Victoria's Western District and Grampians National Park glide by in the background. Even after two courses, there's room for the Murray River salted caramel and hazelnut ice cream.

The next day I rise early, soaking in the sweeping views of Adelaide Hills. The CBD looks like a tiny bar graph in the distance. In the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, I admire the pressed ceiling and ornamental cornices one last time before tucking into a delicious concoction of avocado, roasted pumpkin and haloumi. By the time we reach our destination, I’ve added The Ghan to my bucket list.


Woman staring out train window

Relax and watch the world go by on the Great Southern train journey. Image: Supplied

Everything you need to know about the Great Southern train journey

What months of the year does it operate?

Journey Beyond Rail operates the Great Southern in December, January, and February.

  • Adelaide to Brisbane is a 3-day, 2-night journey with Off Train Experiences in the Grampians, Canberra, and Coffs Harbour.
  • Brisbane to Adelaide is a 4-day, 3-night journey with Off Train Experiences in Coffs Harbour, the Hunter Valley region, and Greater Melbourne.

How big is the train?

The average train length is 711m, with 28 carriages. Its average speed is 85km/h.

How far does it travel?

The Great Southern travels along more than 2000km of tracks across four Australian states. The trip from Adelaide to Brisbane also runs through the Australian Capital Territory.

When is the best time to go?

December, January or February. The Great Southern runs during the summer months. The weather can vary along the way, with hot and humid days in Brisbane, slightly milder weather in Melbourne, and a drier heat in Adelaide.

What should you take with you?

Bring a small to medium (10-15kg) carry-on bag with smart casual clothes for three to four days. Larger luggage is stowed at the rear of the train and not accessible for the duration of the train trip. Include comfy walking shoes, a long-sleeved shirt, sunscreen, insect repellent and a hat for Off-Train Experiences, plus one or two warm items for cooler nights.

What are the sleeping arrangements?

There are 42 Platinum beds and 154 Gold beds with single and twin options. Hospitality Attendants convert the day lounge into beds when you’re dining. For those in Gold Service Twin cabins, there is a ladder for access to the upper bunk and railing for safety. In the Platinum carriages, the day lounges convert into a double bed or twin beds.

What can I do in Adelaide?

Adelaide is fast becoming one of Australia’s leading cultural and lifestyle destinations, brimming with exciting experiences, cultural events, and boutique shopping precincts, as outlined in this ultimate guide to Adelaide.

What can I do in Brisbane?

There are plenty of must-do activities to put on your Brisbane bucket list. From catching a ferry across Brisbane River, to visiting Mount Coot-tha, there’s no shortage of major attractions.

The writer was a guest of Journey Beyond Rail

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