Sparkling riesling at 7am is a bold choice. But as guests gather excitedly in the early morning sunshine before Taste of The Ghan’s inaugural departure, the bubbles quickly prove so popular that the waitstaff are forced to find backup supplies.
The iconic train ride usually traverses Australia’s red centre from Adelaide to Darwin on a three-day journey that captures the glamour of train travel’s golden age. But with interstate travel still hampered by border closures and the risk of snap lockdowns, this day trip to the Clare Valley is the latest of many pivots in the travel industry.
“Most of our iconic long-distance train experiences have been affected at some point throughout the year, which is why we were so excited about getting The Ghan back on the tracks,” Pete Egglestone, chief commercial officer for The Ghan operator Journey Beyond, said in a press release.
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“We think the Clare Valley is a pretty special part of South Australia – it is one of the country’s oldest wine regions after all. And we like wine.”
The limited-edition trip went from concept to fruition in just two months and within days of being announced the “Platinum Service” carriages were sold out, with Gold following soon after. Helping fuel the excitement is wine writer (and Clare resident) Nick Ryan, whose role as “roving raconteur” sees him answering any questions and spruiking the region he calls home.
“I often say Clare is the most Australian of the wine regions,” he declares. “Instead of a monoculture with vines as far as the eye can see you have fields of canola, barley and wheat alongside grazing paddocks full of fattening spring lambs.” Add in creeks lined by giant, centuries-old gums and picturesque villages of houses built from local bluestone and you have an incredibly scenic region.
But first, Bloody Marys and more bubbles await as we’re ushered onboard the famous train. The benches in the saloon car provide plenty of room to spread out and chat with fellow guests before sitting down to a much-needed breakfast. As the train rattles through Adelaide’s northern suburbs and into the open countryside beyond, we have a chance to admire the art deco Queen Adelaide restaurant carriage where white tablecloths, monogrammed furnishings and a generous breakfast await.
The railway line running through the Clare Valley was ripped up in the aftermath of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires and famously turned into a scenic cycling trail, so our trip on The Ghan ends at an isolated railway siding before a 45-minute coach ride takes us up into the valley.
On the way, Ryan points out vineyards owned by notable winemakers and imparts other gems of local knowledge, including the local spot serving up “the best egg and bacon roll in the world” (the Watervale General Store). He also explains that the valley’s elevation is a key part of its appeal as a winemaking region, bringing cool nights that lengthen the ripening season and encourage the mouth-watering acidity Clare riesling is famous for.
Few regions are as inextricably linked with one varietal and after following a winding road flanked by gently sloping meadows studded with flashes of golden sour sops we have a chance to taste some for ourselves at Pikes in the Polish Hill River sub-region – alongside shiraz and cab sav – and Watervale, where a long lunch outside O’Leary Walker’s cellar door provides plenty of opportunities to enjoy views of the surrounding farmland and vines wreathed in a canopy of early spring growth that stands out against the rich red earth between the rows.
Back on the train after lunch, we’re plied with fortifieds, dessert and cheese platters. And the cabins, which are already made up for their next three-day journey, are beginning to look quite inviting. Sadly they’re off limits for this day trip that does indeed offer just a Taste of The Ghan.
Tickets are available for Taste of The Ghan on November 12 and 26. Prices start at $550. Book online
The writer was a guest of Journey Beyond.