I remember when the idea of taking a completely airborne vacation first came to me. I was flying to Buenos Aires from New York with a friend and, through some mix of divine intervention, shameless wheedling, and unexpected ticket-counter friendliness, we got ourselves upgraded to business. Ten hours later, on the descent into B.A., I grudgingly relinquished my Champagne flute and said to my companion, "This is nice. I'd be happy to keep flying."
It wasn't the first time I'd flown business, but it was the first time I'd seriously considered the difference between economy and the finer classes. It's more than a bigger seat and better food, something like a paradigm shift, that turns a long flight from a test of endurance into a pleasurable experience. But could flying first-class on its own—no sightseeing allowed—be a vacation in and of itself? In an effort to answer that question, and to gauge the current state of high-end air travel, I decided then that one day I would circumnavigate the globe in first class, making as few stops as possible over the course of three days, without ever leaving airplane or airport.
Two years later I was still fumbling with the logistics, the most difficult being putting together an itinerary that didn't require hideously long layovers or crazy connections. Airlines, you will not be shocked to hear, are not set up to ease the passage of a single person flying one-way legs around the world.
I decided I would fly three world-famous first-class carriers: Singapore, India's relaunched Jet Airways, and Virgin Atlantic. My route would total nearly 35 hours in the air from San Francisco to New York via Seoul, Singapore, Mumbai, and London.
Singapore Airline's first-class lounge in San Francisco does not dazzle, but that hardly matters once you're aboard the Boeing 777-300ER, settling into what is not so much a seat as a personal lounge: It comprises a reclining love seat across from a second padded bench that I can barely reach without stretching, both swaddled in caramel-colored leather and surrounded by a mini cabin of burnished wood. For entertainment there is a 23-inch LCD television featuring more than 30 on-demand movies, dozens of shows, and a bunch of games I didn't even get a chance to sample. It would be an exaggeration to say the space is about the size of an old studio apartment of mine, but only a slight one.
Within minutes an attendant with a sharp suit and a big, toothy smile is filling a flute with a bottle of Dom Pérignon cradled in his arms like an infant. He has barely left before a beautiful woman in green silk steps into the void. Her name is Alyce, her accent a mellifluous form of British-accented English.
"Mr. Dean, would you like some pajamas and a toilet kit?"
In the seat next to me—and "next" in this cabin means that I would have to speak loudly just to get his attention—an Asian gentleman has already kicked off his shoes and put on his tan Givenchy pajamas.
A few minutes after takeoff, Alyce is back. "Mr. Dean, I've got some socks and slippers for you." She also has some satay and a wickedly hot towel.
If there's a signature amenity of first (or business) class, it's surely the hot towel, a luxury presented seemingly hourly and with the ritual of a knighting: the steaming cloth delicately arranged atop a sterling-silver tray. All the better to prepare my hands for malossol caviar and royal smoked salmon, followed by Cantonese-style lotus root soup with peanuts and pork, followed by an amuse-bouche (referred to as "a surprise" by the attendant) of watermelon gelatin, followed by Korean-style fish fillet with spicy sauce, all of it served on Givenchy china and accompanied by a 2005 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand recommended by the wine specialist, who felt the 2003 Domaine Laroche Chablis Premier Cru Les Fourchaumes Vieilles Vignes didn't pair so well with the peppery bite of the fish. Dessert is berry compote topped with vanilla rice pudding. I skip the cheese plate. And the Godiva chocolates.
We're not even an hour into the flight, still 5,000 miles from a stop in Seoul, and already I'm worried that it won't be enough time.
Two movies later I ring Alyce for assistance in the transformation of my cabin from lounge to bedroom. In barely a minute she has origamied the chair into a giant bed that could easily accommodate another person. I fluff the three soft pillows, tuck myself under the duvet, and commence a nap that carries on undisturbed until we are an hour out of Seoul.
Naturally, it's time to eat again.
"Would you like some wine with dinner, Mr. Dean?" Alyce inquires.
Seoul to Singapore brings a new crew and new concerns about my routine. I order a Bordeaux and consider for a second that this may be inappropriate. Back home it's morning, but who cares? I'm on vacation!
I manage to fight off the next meal for a few hours, waiting to order it until I'm good and hungry again. There is more caviar, some lobster, and the creamy, ducky goodness of pâté. Ho hum.
I've already lost count of the hot towels.
When we arrive in Singapore it's 12:24 a.m. and 83 degrees, not that it matters because heat is only an issue when you have to go outdoors. Changi Airport is a shiny complex of fancy shops, restaurants, and such amenities as a rooftop swimming pool, a full-service gym, and free Internet terminals. Workers are pulling down the last storefront gates as I pull my roller suitcase—full of clean clothes, the need for which is now mostly obviated by the fancy pajamas they keep giving me—toward the Silver Kris lounge, where I will shower and catch some rest while waiting for the relatively short morning flight to Mumbai.
One of the most troubling things about this vacation is that I am traveling to distant places I've never before been and yet don't get a chance to set foot on terra firma. When people later ask me if I've been to India, I'm not sure what to say. Sort of, yes. And also no.
Like everything in India, Jet Airways is growing, and fast. It recently purchased 20 new wide-body airliners from Boeing and Airbus and in May added first-class service between Mumbai and London and in August between Mumbai and New York via Brussels. I am whisked by one of Jet's officials from my arrival gate through the hot, dirty, and (in spots) smelly terminal—which, to be fair, is under renovation—to one of those planes: a spanking new Boeing 777-300ER staffed by a cadre of attractive young Indian women in long canary-yellow Nehru jackets.
Jet's strategy is in part to target the high-end market dominated by Asian airlines like Singapore and Cathay, and the company's ambition is bold—to crack the world's top-five airlines. Its business class, called Première, has partially walled-off pods with seats that fold down to 73-inch-long lay-flat beds. Up front, eight lucky passengers, one of whom is me, get something even more ridiculous: a cabin with sliding doors and a seat that converts into an 83-inch bed that could comfortably fit an NBA power forward. Each "suite" has a 23-inch LCD screen featuring on-demand and a personal closet for hanging up whatever clothing is replaced by the tan pajamas delivered, like everything else, on a silver platter.
By this point I have given up any effort to keep track of what time it is. My laptop is set to New York, my watch to San Francisco, and my brain to a time zone that resists definition. In First-Class Land, it is always time for Champagne.
For the next nine hours my plan is to drink Dom, eat Indian food, and watch movies. As all these things are likely to induce sleep, I will then convert the bed, shut the doors of Suite 1K, and take a nap until it is time to eat again.
I wake to a flight attendant with a pixie cut smiling outside my suite. "Shall I make you up a chair, Mr. Dean, or would you like to keep the cozy bed?"
Triangulating my various timepieces, I figure I've been out for at least four hours.
"I think that's enough sleep for now," I tell her.
"Would you care for some tea? A nice Indian masala? It has lots of herbs and spices that are good for the system."
After tea there is popcorn presented in adorable little yellow-and-white-striped boxes, followed by yet another meal called a light snack but composed of four courses. Another day of this and I'm going to have to start jogging in the aisles.
Out the window England appears—tiny patches of forest dot a landscape of rolling fields bordered by stone walls and hedgerows. Red-roof cottages cluster into villages.
I have to hand it to Jet's customer service. We, the first-class customers, are loaded onto one of those airport golf carts that beep incessantly and whisked what seems like a mile through the corridors to our transfer points, leaving the huffing, puffing, sleep-deprived hoi polloi of economy in our wake.
While most people amble toward security, I'm off to the Virgin Clubhouse, a year-old, $22 million, 27,000-square-foot facility that's more like a private club than a lounge. Among its many amenities are a Bumble and Bumble salon, a spa, a game room, a rooftop garden, and a sit-down restaurant.
I check in at the Cowshed spa, arrange for a haircut and a shave (including a shoulder and neck massage and the application of many good-smelling products, some of which tingle) and book a private shower room. If there's time I'll steam in the sauna and have some bubbly in the hot tub. Forty-five minutes later I'm a new man, but they're calling my flight over the PA. No time for the hot tub or a game of pool, and I head for the door feeling let down. What Virgin's done here is pretty remarkable. They have created something that actually makes me want to hang out at the airport. I am famous among my friends for allowing the minimum amount of time possible to get to airports, but I can actually imagine leaving hours earlier than normal if I had this place to look forward to.