By Michelle Chaplow
The joys of flying First (it’s the journey that counts).
A very wealthy friend of mine once said to me: “Michelle, right now, in your profession as a luxury hotel photographer, you are in the very best travelling space.” I was curious to know why, since he flies around the world in First and Business Class, as and when he wants. It was, he said, because he could still remember when flying in first was a big thrill for him; he often looks around at his fellow passengers in the first class cabin, obviously enjoying every second, and feels almost envious.
My first experience in Business Class was a transformative one in my travelling life. Twenty years ago, coming back from New York, the flight was overbooked and (don´t ask me how!) I was upgraded from the cheap seats to Business. I was so impressed that, then and there, I signed up for the BA frequent flier programme. That one upgrade from NYC, two decades ago, has proven to be a sound investment for BA, as I have been a loyal Executive Club member to this day and am now the proud owner of an Executive Club Gold Card. Although I have flown in Business Class many times, I have only flown once in First. My very recent inaugural First Class flight involved a trip to the inner sanctum of BA passenger experience: the Concorde Room, the elite room in T5 one up from not only the club lounge, but one up from the first class lounge, this is it. BA’s website says, “The Concorde Room is the epitome of elegance, and available at Heathrow Terminal 5 and New York JFK”.
The journey from Andalucia to the Concorde Room
I live midway between two airports: Malaga (AGP) to the east, and Gibraltar (GIB) to the west. I always try to fly BA, and since BA have now ceased flights from Malaga to Heathrow, I try my best to fly out of Gibraltar, in spite complications with crossing the border. It has a great little new terminal, with wonderful unobstructed views of The Rock and at the moment only 4 scheduled flights per day. Flying out of Malaga, with no flights to LHR, means that you have to endure the journey from Gatwick to Heathrow.
In a mad moment, swayed by prices and timings, I decided to fly out of Malaga via London Heathrow to Dubai. Nothing wrong with the BA Club flight to Gatwick – very comfortable and most enjoyable. The “fun” commenced on arrival in Gatwick North Terminal, where a bus had caught fire and all passengers were given instructions to go to the South Terminal to connect to Heathrow.
To cut a long story short – bought the ticket, joined the bus queue, got to the front of a long line, only for the driver to say I couldn´t board the bus as I had to validate the ticket that I had just bought. I´m British, with two decades in Spain, well out of the quirks of the London airports public transport system; God help a true foreigner. The bus took over four hours, due to roads blocked, which was compounded by a less-than-fragrant onboard bathroom, thanks to travel sickness of one very pale-looking passenger. Four hours on a journey that should take just under one hour. A whole load of bemused passengers, many stressing about missed connections.
Heathrow Terminal 5 First Class check in
At last we pulled into Heathrow T5. Entering the departure area, and I was relieved and delighted to see in the distance a huge sign saying “First”: that was me. It was a special occasion – my trolley was instantly taken from my hands, I was escorted to a huge comfy armchair, and check-in happened without me – no struggling to lift heavy bags onto the belt, no disapproving overweight luggage looks. I had instantly erased from my mind the appalling inter-airport bus journey. Security was a dream – no queues, no job’s-worths or power-hungry faces; they even asked if I needed help taking my laptop out of its case and carefully placed my hat in its own little tray. Then I turned right, and saw a discreet white door leading to the Concorde Room.
The British Airways Concorde Room.
This is the inner sanctum of T5 – only First Class passengers and Gold Card members with 5000 tier points are allowed.
A mature, highly-professional BA staff member welcomed me and immediately asked if the concierge could store my hand luggage for me. I have no idea how big that the lounge was, but seemed huge, especially considering the m2 real estate value at T5. I wanted to explore it all, but in true British style, I needed a cup of tea first, and to my delight Victoria sponge cake was on the menu – a long-lost memory from my childhood that only resurfaced recently, when I had afternoon tea at the Savoy Hotel with my old friends Heather and Amanda. It was such a treat to enjoy that traditional teatime favourite with them, and here it was again making another very welcome appearance.
There were so few people in the lounge – the other VIP lounges can be very busy, but this was more like a luxury hotel, with come-sit-on-me sofas, artworks, glossy mags and the most amazing light and airy terrace area for spotting all those beautiful planes. Heavenly. Of course some frequent-flying Concorde Room regulars were there too, just doing their own thing. I wanted to explore, and thanks to the concierge, I was free of carry on camera gear, so what next? The champagne bar?
My three favourite drinks are tea, water and champagne, so why not? And the spa, how could I forget the Elemis Travel Spa – if it’s anything like the Club Lounge, you need to book. But my appointment was made for a facial and massage at the exact time I requested. There were dining booths, showers and a wonderful world of gift shopping outside: I had four hours in the lounge and knew that it wasn’t going to be enough.
A Quintessential, well-travelled travel adviser was on hand to make those last-minute bookings; although my trip was all already sorted, I could see why guests would appreciate her advice and assistance. My next move was to step out of this privileged First Class space and back into the T5 shopping world. I have never shopped so quickly – I needed a special gift from Harrods, and some other bits and bobs from Boots that you can’t get in Spain. On my return, the shopping was taken from my hands and carefully stored with the concierge.
I was now ready to have my private dining experience in the high-backed leather booths in earth-toned colours, with quality fabrics and tableware. This was my own little restaurant – the waiter could not have been more helpful, and even though I only wanted a salad and a glass of champagne, it was my own personal banquet. Sometimes there is nothing better than travelling alone for sensations – you can be totally focused on the moment; an extra-special non-sharing event. I felt zero guilt in this personal indulgence, as I knew I would share the experience with friends and readers later, but instead Irelished my surroundings as I dined, admiring the light falling on the beautiful chandeliers. Next a shower, followed by a facial perfectly customized to hydrate the skin before a flight, and then a relaxing massage, in the Elemis Spa. I was now prepared to float on board flight BA0109 to Dubai.
The LHR to DUB flight – the inflight cuisine.
Once on board, the flight attendant asked how I would like to organize my flight – would I like to sleep? Have a meal? A snack? Seven and a half hours was far too short – I slept like a baby, I nibbled on culinary delights, fresh produce, the new BA “height Cuisine” dishes such as mint, dill and lemon-cured Shetland salmon gravadlax with vegetable caviar, and salad of seared tiger prawns in parsley and garlic butter with Mediterranean vegetables.
Typical summer-season meals in Business Class on British Airways include British fillet of beef with herb crust, summer vegetables, chargrilled fondant potatoes and a horseradish, dill and chive sauce; breast of corn-fed chicken with English summer truffle and tarragon sauce, samphire, wild mushrooms and baby carrots; and summer pudding with mascarpone cream. I was also introduced to the most exquisite British made Lauden Chocolates, an instant fatal attraction.
The First Class sleepsuit
I once saw an eccentric-looking man with Einstein-style hair walk into Economy wearing his First Class sleepsuit, to pass a message to another passenger. It was an amusing scene and the flight attendants were quick to guide him back “home”. With my sleepsuit on, on my flight to Dubai, I was going nowhere. The mattress, the crisp cotton duvet, the cute amenity pack, the space – a 6ft 6in bed.
I never even turned on the inflight entertainment; I was more than entertained, and when the plane arrived, I really did not want to leave. I´m all for bringing the glamour back into travel, and it was certainly there in my outbound trip to Dubai.
Do you have any Concorde Room or First Class flight experiences that you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them.