The Daily Telegraph - Travel
The lounge you’ll never want to leave
John O’Ceallaigh checks into Etihad’s new first-class sanctuary at Abu Dhabi airport to sample luxury taken to new heights
No doubt there were security protocols to fulfil before Etihad staff were permitted to bring three pairs of gold-plated scissors airside for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. But when your company is unveiling what it claims to be the world’s best first-class airline lounge, it’s worth ensuring that absolutely everything looks the part.
Opened on Monday at Abu Dhabi International Airport’s Terminal 3, Etihad’s First Class Lounge & Spa is the airline’s most significant play for the world’s most discerning (and lucrative) flyers since it launched The Residence – a three-room “better than first-class” cabin aboard its A380 aircraft. As before, it should provoke in rivals a “why didn’t we think of that” sense of frustration.
Etihad, named the world’s most innovative airline in the ULTRAS (the Telegraph’s luxury-travel awards) last month, seeks to “reimagine” the flying experience, which in the case of this lounge meant looking to the world’s best hotels – not existing airport facilities – for inspiration.
For Etihad chief executive Peter Baumgartner, “It is no longer enough for [premium] guests just to enjoy a pleasant journey… if we want to retain our position as an industry leader”. With the lounge serving as “the gateway” to the brand, he wants visitors to feel like they are relaxing at Claridge’s or The Ritz rather than killing time before a flight.
A battalion of staff, including a maître d’, concierge and mixologist, is on hand to ensure this happens. After bypassing a reception area, guests will be greeted by name at the lounge proper, a 17,900 sq ft area with 16 different zones. The most expansive of all is the dining area, an attractive members’ club-style facility with a 24-hour à la carte restaurant, a casual eating area, a cake buffet and two bars.
Etihad’s assertion that cuisine will rival that of well-regarded finedining restaurants is made credible by its partnership with one. I ate from an impressive Emirati tasting menu developed in collaboration with Mezlai, the restaurant at Abu Dhabi’s gilded Emirates Palace hotel. It features the likes of roasted lamb with saffron rice and chickpea stew.
Alternative breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes – conceived by an executive chef previously employed by the Shangri-La hotel group, and all available to order at any time – include red snapper and king scallops with squash blossom and caviar sauce, and coconut crème brûlée with caramelised pineapple.
The bar menu features cocktails inspired by, and named after, Etihad’s most popular destinations. Among them is the Los Angeles – which, in homage to the city’s Mexican population, is made with tequila and comes topped with freshly spun candyfloss. The gin-based London cocktail, meanwhile, is infused with rhubarb and blackberries; and the Abu Dhabi, containing coffee and