* This article first appeared here in the Saturday Citizen
This was a different evening. While reclining comfortably in bed, with a glass of bubbly within reach is not a foreign experience for me, what did set this evening apart, was that I was sitting at 33000 feet. While I’d seen the drool-worthy photos of the lucky few experiencing a first-class long-haul flight, I didn’t think I’d ever be welcomed into their inner sanctuary – the unreachable land beyond the curtain.
I was invited to London to preview one of Sir Richard Branson’s new aircraft, and receiving my tickets, nearly doubled over when I saw them reflect that I’d be travelling Upper Class – Virgin Atlantic’s most prestigious cabin option. Coupled with the Clubhouse departure lounge (where you’re served chef-prepared meals along with nearly every tipple imaginable) and the Revivals Lounge in Heathrow (for a cooked breakfast and shower), it seems that that like Alice, I’d stumbled into a whole new world. After a night’s rest in my fully-reclined bed, I was refreshed and ready for an English experience.
1. High Life in the Capital
Regardless of what level of comfort they flew to London in, South Africans are no strangers to London. For those who like me, have done the tried and tested tourist traps, it was time to discover some new London experiences.
Since my visit coincided with a heatwave – no really – at temperatures of up to 39 degrees the capital city was turning up the heat, I decided to escape the mass of sweaty humans along the streets and adventure through the parks and waterways. The first stop was Hampstead Heath where I was delighted to discover and quickly dive into the ponds. The three natural ponds come with the invitation to swim in the wild, yet still being in the heart of London. After cooling down, Primrose Hill provides stellar views out over the city; pack a picnic and join the locals in soaking up the sunshine.
The city is dissected by many waterways and exploring them is a joy. Start at Camden Town and follow the Regents Canal as it carves its way through the city, eventually ending at the scenic Little Venice. For an outrageously fun experience, head to Canary Wharf and rent a Skuna Boat. Picture a floating hot tub, cruising down a canal, set to a comfy 38 degrees, with a selection of drinks on hand… it almost sounds too good to be true! Judging by the number of pictures snapped by onlookers, there was some undeniable envy about. There’s also a BBQ boat for those who prefer a drier option. skunaboats.com
I’d suggest you start your London food journey at the brand-new Park Row. In the centre of Soho, you’ll discover an unassuming entrance that at first glance, appears to be a mere lounge. But, as the steward touches a secret button, the bookcase slides open and reveals a large staircase that leads down and into Park Row – a sprawling Gotham City-styled underground bar where swanky cocktails, tantalising food, and live entertainment are all on offer. Just when you think it couldn’t get better, the venue is also home to the intimate Monarch Theatre where up to 20 guests experience a performance of fine dining, floor to ceiling visual projections, all lead by a charismatic host. Simply unmissable. parkrowlondon.co.uk
Having been open for less than a year, The Londoner Hotel has already become the talk of the town – and with good reason. This swanky five-star hotel has been branded ‘super-boutique’ and features an impressive 16 stories of bespoke rooms, eateries and even spaces. The Londoner occupies a very enviable central London location, looking over the historic Leicester Square, with eight of its stories underground. From rooftop views to the underground Retreat and wellness centre, the Londoner has set itself apart in every possible way. thelondoner.com
2. Seven Sisters Country Visit
After seeing the iconic cliffs feature in more than one film, I’d known for some time they had form the backdrop for my brief country sojourn. Trading the towering glass skyscrapers of London for the chalk cliffs of Seven Sisters Country Park was a welcomed exchange. Barely 90-minutes from London this striking coastline offers day trips or longer countryside escapes.First to drop off the bags – after discovering that Saltmarsh Farmhouse was the closest accommodation to the park I booked a room in the 16th-century and Grade 2 listed heritage property.
The effusive owner Nina has lovingly restored Saltmarash, curating an understated elegance with feel-at-home-chic. The house offers six distinct rooms, with a guests-only lounge and dining room downstairs. The manicured gardens are a haven with countless spaces to relax and unwind. Breakfast is included in your stay, with an option of adding on a tasting evening meal. The property is also home to the much-loved ‘Just Around The Corner Café’ with persuasive nibbles and treats.
Recharged and ready it was off to explore the cliffs. The walk is up to 16kms return – you can simply turn around when tired. The path descends and then ascends one grass-topped hill after another, each time offering another unique view of the coastline. There are beaches to swim at, two cafes for a much-needed drink, and of course, views for days. saltmarshfarmhouse.co.uk
2. Dublin Dalliance
It still takes many South Africans by surprise that we’re able to visit Ireland on the green mamba without a need for a visa. While you may not cross the border into Northern Ireland (there are no actual border posts) there is plenty to explore in the South.
My visit centered around the capital Dublin, and you can bet your bottom Euro that my first stop was a visit to St James Gate – the home of Guinness. Despite the crowds, it’s an impressive visit with several layers of displays guiding you through the history and process of making the famous ‘black stuff’. Take the journey a step further and include the ‘Academy’ add-on, where you learn the 6 steps to pouring the perfect Guinness.
The city is best explored on foot – wander along and get happily lost inside a maze of streets and lanes. When you’re ready, turn on Google Maps and ask it to steer you to Loose Canon Wine Bar for enticing platters and a selection of unique wines. Around the corner Murphy’s Ice Cream parlour hits the sweet spot, and then perhaps most iconic, is The Temple Bar. Expect plenty of beer and cheer – it’s a firm favourite with tourists and locals alike.
When it came time to rest the weary legs, I chose The Mayson Hotel – an urbane offering, with classy dining options and superbly outfitted rooms to match. While embracing Irish heritage, it matches it with a chic and contemporary coat. The crown offering are the Warehouse Suites which feature brass tubs that gaze out over the River Liffey below. There are several stylish dining and drinking options and underground, Ireland’s foremost boutique gym, where I was brave enough to try my first Power Climb class. Let’s just say the heated pool and sauna came in handy after workout. mayson.ie
Virgin Atlanic A330neo
- Can you tell me a little about the addition of the A330neo to the fleet?
The A330neo plays a significant role in our multi-billion-dollar fleet transformation, demonstrating our commitment to the planet. We know the most impactful thing we can do as an airline is to fly the cleanest, greenest, youngest fleet possible and the A330neo is integral to achieving this goal. It’s truly a plane for the future. When it comes to innovating for our customers, we never stand still. Our desire to create memorable experiences means we’ll continue to imagine with fresh ideas. We care about every detail of the cabin design and every step of our customer’s journey. The Airbus A330-900neo will feature the latest generation Upper Class cabin, including its iconic social space and new innovation, The Retreat Suite really taking our customer proposition to new heights.
- What has the response been to reinstating the London Cape Town route?
We are excited about our return to Cape Town. There has been a significant uptick in international passenger volumes at Cape Town International Airport and we couldn’t be more excited that our UK market now has capacity to expand even further. The UK has traditionally been the largest air passenger market for the Western Cape with a compounded annual growth rate of 5% per year recorded between 2015 and 2019. Having the additional capacity between Cape Town and London-Heathrow over our summer months is proving very fruitful for Virgin Atlantic. This service will make it even easier for our customers to travel for business and leisure between South Africa and the United Kingdom as well providing seamless connections via Heathrow to Europe and North America.
- How is Virgin addressing some of the travel challenges that have arisen in the these post-pandemic times?
As customer demand increases and passengers return in greater numbers, we’re working hard to ensure that journeys continue as smoothly as possible. This includes pre-emptive measures to uphold operational and staffing resilience, always putting the health and safety of our customers and people first. We introduced a holding pool scheme during the 2020 restructuring, which meant we were able to bring back more than 1000 of our cabin crew and pilots as demand returned, reducing the need for new airside passes to be processed. Since the start of 2022, we’ve onboarded 400 new cabin crew and 30 new pilots. 5000 applicants applied for those crew roles, which shows there are no issues attracting talent, and we saw record applications from candidates with ethnically diverse backgrounds, alongside those with disabilities.
Corneel Koster, Chief Customer and Operating Officer, Virgin Atlantic