… in which Gregor Stronach encounters his first pod

Fellow Travellers

It was a genuine pleasure to be waited upon by the very accommodating staff aboard the Emirates ‘castle in the sky’, I shall admit. But it rapidly became apparent that one of the options for the private cabins in First Class is there for a reason.

That option is comprised of two very simple elements. The first is a privacy screen between the individual passenger pods. The second is the ‘Do Not Disturb’ button, which acts to keep the other First Class passengers out, and the pleasantness of your immediate surroundings in.

I mention this largely because, once aboard the aircraft, my natural journalistic desire to explore and document what I could find sent me seeking every available nook and cranny to which I might have access. The level of service, and the sheer opulence of experience aboard such a flight is legendary after all.

Within minutes of take off, I found myself quietly and obsessively flicking through the more than 2000 channels of in-flight entertainment on offer – and suddenly understanding why I have always felt uneasy about paying a monstrous amount of money each month for platinum-level cable TV.

As someone who has spent their life devoted to the idea of living a sybaritic lifestyle, it was quite confronting to realise that there is actually such a thing as “too many options”. Incapable of reaching a decision (because there could be something even better on the next channel…), human interaction seemed like a much better proposition than coping with the sensory overload of 2000 different channels. And, not wishing to bother the help, it was time to find the private bar, located a few short strides from my seat.

It was precisely as you’d expect for a private bar – well stocked and plentiful… and entirely free. I rubbed shoulders with my travelling companions, including the very charming Siegfied Lemke, the self-professed “Cheese Baron of Eagle”, whose property just outside of Eagle, Wisconsin turns out some of the world’s best dairy products. An affable chap, he enjoyed a good chat – and talked me through the cheeseboard that arrived after he slightly raised one eyebrow and gave an almost imperceptible nod to the bar staff.

Before long, I was very discreetly tapped on the shoulder and informed that I was now free to enjoy the delights of the inflight Shower Spa, which allows those in the good seats to bathe for five minutes beneath a raging hot showerhead at 40,000 feet.

In some ways, it was blissful. And, to be fair, something of novelty – until I wondered about where the water was coming from, how the aircraft could possibly hold the added tonnage of a body of water large enough for a five minute shower and still be capable of getting off the ground.

Which then lead to the realization that the water cascading down upon me was likely to be coming from a very, very small tank wedged somewhere between the economy class lavatory and my suitcase, and passing through the most lightweight and flimsy filtration system ever devised.

Drenched in partially recycled waste water from the showers of a thousand Arabs, I decided to repair quietly to my comfort pod for a bite to eat, and a well-earned sleep.

Arguably the finest of the perks of this mode of travel is the on-demand food service. Somewhere aboard the aircraft, presumably wedged somewhere between the cockpit and the showers, is a full-service galley, which is airplane for “kitchen”. Once again, I began to wonder where on this aircraft the owners had managed to find the space to accommodate these elements.

Virtually every other aircraft I have ever flown on has been designed to minimise the amount of space and weight consumed by anything other than paying passengers – who themselves are, more often than not, packed in cheek by jowl, like live export cattle setting sail for a swift and brutal death at the hands of inexperienced Indonesian abattoir workers.

Yet here, aboard this Emirates flight, there’s a galley staffed by what could only be the world’s most patient chefs, whose task it is to prepare food at the whim of their in-flight guests, at all hours of the day and night.

The menu is surprisingly extensive, and features some remarkable feats of culinary fare. I am reliably informed that the food served on board the aircraft is all “locally sourced” – a claim that could only be upheld by some form of miracle, as the last time I checked, there are absolutely no oysters, nor beef cattle, 40,000 feet above the Indian Ocean.

I chose, for this meal, to sample the Wild Iranian caviar and grilled scallops from the appetiser menu. The caviar, chilled to absolute perfection, was served with the very traditional accompaniments of finely diced onion, chopped boiled egg, sour cream and lemon alongside perfectly crispy Melba toast and a pair of delicious soft blini pancakes. It was not, however, particularly wild – preferring, it would seem, to perch upon the plate and steadfastly refuse to do anything other than look like caviar.

My scallops arrived within seconds of the caviar disappearing, presented on bespoke Royal Doulton bone china tableware that is truly exquisite. I could only wonder at how lightweight and brittle they seemed – and that, in the event of turbulence, the kitchen would end up resembling the floor of a Greek wedding.

The scallops themselves were divine, accompanied on the plate by a lurid yellow saffron crème fraiche, atop a marinated vegetable salad. My palate prepared, I perused the main course menu carefully, before settling on the beef roulade and a glass of red.

The roulade was absolutely spectacular, stuffed with turkey and smothered in a rich red rosemary jus, which leeched into the fluffy mashed potato to give a marbled effect that was almost too pretty to consume. The meal had been matched by the crew to an exquisite 1998 Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru Burgundy, which I sipped at contentedly while marveling that the team at Emirates headquarters in Dubai can really pick a decent wine, despite the fact that they’re forbidden to drink by their particular religious affiliation.

Dessert arrived in the form of a selection of Arabic sweets, the undisputed highlight of which was chocolate hazelnut mafroukeh, which was as much of a mouthful to pronounce as it was to consume. It was coupled with a delightful 1974 Graham’s single vintage Tawny Port, bottled from production of just six barrels, and worth every penny that I didn’t pay for it.

Having consumed what could only be defined as an elegant sufficiency, I called for the help. Within seconds, my comfortable private dining pod had been turned into a slightly more horizontal sleeping pod. While it is a genuine luxury to be able to lie down to sleep on an aircraft (without resorting to trying to snooze in the aisles, a pastime I would not recommend in this age of heightened security), I found the mattress to be slightly too thin, and somewhat lumpier than I had hoped.

Nicole Kidman had lied. But then again, she once married Tom Cruise, and adopted a number of children shortly thereafter… so I’m guessing lying is something she knows something about…

I slept the sleep of the damned and the blessed, before being woken gently and informed that Dubai was mere moments away. We arrived, disembarked, and I milled about pointlessly in the terminal for just over an hour, before boarding the second leg of the flight to Lagos, the bustling city on the coast of Nigeria, and the next stop on my adventure.

 Tomorrow – Into Africa