For Richard Boyce, a Brand Manager for Cruise Express, diversifying the company’s portfolio to include Australian rail journeys as well as mainly international cruises has been a passionate labour of love.
He’s also a member of the Lachlan Valley Railway, a group of enthusiasts who volunteer much of their spare time to rescuing, renovating and maintaining heritage rail rolling stock — and he looks after the on-board management of the trips from the Cruise Express side and makes a more-than-handy tour escort as well.
I recently joined a Cruise Express journey from Sydney to Griffith to partake in a long weekend of festivities associated with the Taste of the Riverina, an annual event in which local wineries, providores and accommodation houses celebrate the region’s excellent produce — and do so in a beautifully multicultural way that could only happen in a place with serious Italian roots.
Cruise Express went out of its way to ensure that the 80-or-so guests were indulged in a sea of experiences that they just couldn’t have possibly arranged themselves.
Normally when I travel I’m the one observing. In this case I, or at least the heritage train I was on, seemed to be followed by an eager crowd of trainspotters perched on cuttings and at level crossings. Many cars became quite well known by their constant presence on neighbouring roads.
We were riding in a series of S Type carriages built in Granville in the 1930s, one of which had been altered to incorporate a buffet car in 1963.
My compartment took me back to the late 1960s when I regularly caught the overnight between Sydney and Orange. It was a whimsical experience that took some 12 hours interspersed with morning and afternoon tea, plus lunch in the hitoric dining room at Junee, once a hub of the NSW Railways.
The carriages were pulled by diesel locomotives built in the 1940s and 1970s, not exactly steam-era stuff but interesting enough to bring out the spotters. We left the heavier 4204 to wait for us in Cootamundra because it was too heavy for the lighter tracks beyond, and continued just with the lighter 4716, which had been designed for the many branchlines in the Hunter Valley coal fields.
In Griffith we had some memorable one-off experiences, starting with a visit to Corynnia Station, a huge cotton-and-sheep property where owner Bruce Armstrong is quite happy to tell it like is on his bit of land, while considerably showing more than useful knowledge of latest trends in technology, especially as it applies to farming.
While Bruce is as laid-back as you’d like, his wife Julie runs the grand homestead and its wonderful gardens as a B&B farmstay and prepares lunch for our group — including hand-squeezing more than 300 oranges — and definitely has the smarts in dealing with media people.
But the absolute highlight of the trip comes the next morning when local Italian farmer Peter Piccolo gives us his amusing and highly informative take on living in the Riverina — and on having a family who love pitching in and who obviously mean absolutely everything to himself and each other.
One of his sons Luke is recognised as a leading Australian chef and runs one of Griffith’s top restaurants, but that story will have to wait, simply because Limone can’t take our numbers.
So, we’re left with some excellent pasta he’s prepared in conjunction with his Nonna — and an informal cooking class during which he confessed that the prime requisites for being a great chef are imagination, hard work, and never believing that you can cook better than your grandmother does.
Other stops included the Rivcott cotton gin at Carathool, McWilliams Hanwood winery (which cleared out much of its imposing barrel hall to accommodate us for dinner, the first time in three years that had been done), Calabria Family Wines, De Bortoli Wines, Zuuca Handmade Italian for an exciting Sicilian dinner, and the Temora Aviation Museum for a thrilling Spitfire fly-past.
John Rozentals was a guest of Cruise Express.