Getting there really can be half the fun

The long haul to the northern hemisphere and Europe becomes less attractive – and for some, less possible – every year, but there is a way around it.

Add first or business class to your bucket list and it opens up a whole new world of travel possibilities.

For decades, I’ve lined up and been herded into cattle class pining for just an extra 10cm so I could remove my knees from my throat and arrive without an aching back, burning eyes and feeling like I’ve just been put through a wringer.

And so it was, that I set off for Dublin, dreading 24 hours of hell to get there and thinking that I was getting way too old for the pilgrimage north, despite the lure of adventure waiting at the other end.

Enter Etihad Airways business class.

Based in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, it breaks the trip up nicely. That’s roughly 14 hours from Brisbane and after a short break, another seven hours on to the United Kingdom.

The break in Abu Dhabi is just long enough to stretch the legs, and makes a single long-haul of 17 hours from Perth look somewhat unattractive.

And Etihad’s business class removes the pain of hours in the air. 

Prepare for space, grace and comfort.

For the first time, I was actually looking forward to a flight – and I wasn’t disappointed.

From a rest in the lounge prior to departure to a champagne before takeoff, what’s not to like? The holiday can begin at departure not on arrival.

And so it was that I settled into my clever little business class pod, a warm refresher towel at my side, preparing for takeoff. 

As in the golden age of air travel, the steward/ess is there to ensure comfort and ease, rather than working on how to cram more bags into the overhead locker and settle kids.

Introductions are polite and smiles welcoming.

“Thanks Natasha, I would like a glass of champagne before takeoff and yes please, if you could give me a moment to read the menu.”

But best of all is the space. Lots of space, that most envied of commodities on any flight.

A cupboard to place the phone, iPad and book; bench space; room to stretch out; privacy as pods are alternated to avoid neighbours; mood lighting and fingertip controls for entertainment – and to adjust the chair as much and as often as you like (with a massage option to boot).

There’s a USB charger, so everything can be ready to go on arrival and headphones attach magnetically so there’s no risk of strangulation if you nod off.

I usually promise myself not to watch a movie to kill the time because focusing on the little screens on the seatback simply enhances jetlag with tired and scratchy eyes at the other end.

But when the screen is big enough to casually watch from a recliner, it’s a different story.

After takeoff, another glass of champagne arrives, along with a bowl of nuts. Not a packet, but a bowl, and they are warm almonds and cashews.

There’s a gift pack with all the essentials – socks, eyeshade and earplugs, along with moisturiser, lip balm and a toothbrush kit – in a toiletry bag with a pattern “inspired by the mosaics at the Sheikh Zayed grand mosque”. A very nice touch.

We are winging over Outback Queensland when Natasha drops down a table that doesn’t pin you to your seat, covers it with a crisp linen tablecloth and delivers metal cutlery, a linen serviette and a black and silver tray tastefully laid out with hot garlic bread, fresh salad and fresh tuna that melts in the mouth. There’s a sprinkling of chives over fresh vegetable slivers.

The salt and pepper shakers are real, no paper sachets or disposables here. I’m doing my bit for the planet as well.

Yes, dining is more like a fine restaurant than the usual plastic tray of bulk catering.

“Sparkling or still water? A twist of lemon? Ice?”

A “dine anytime” menu gives the freedom of choice. Depending on body clock and flight time it might be a three or four course dinner, pastries, cereals, freshly scrambled egg, a steak sandwich with “red onion compote, melted cheese, mayonnaise and rocket” or a lamb and rosemary pie. Among others.

The beverage list is equally full of choices, all of them tempting. Even the orange juice is freshly squeezed.

Never has a 14-hour flight been so good.

After dessert of a lemon citrus tart with berry coulis, it’s time to settle in for the duration. Perhaps a movie and then a good sleep. The latter is in fact possible.

Push a button and the seat drops down into a flatbed. Add a pillow and plush blanket and it’s possible to get a straight seven hours – without a pain in the neck.

Then freshly brewed coffee is waiting, along with warm pastries.

It’s hard to imagine there is no rush to get through that nightmare journey to the northern hemisphere, but sitting here in Etihad business class, I have no cause to impatiently wish away the hours as is my usual practice.

You don’t have to worry about dressing for business class either. A pair of jeans and hiking boots worked for me and, it appeared, for most of the other blessed upfront travellers as well.

On arrival in Dublin, I can see bleary eyes, tired faces and cramped bodies but I’m first off the plane and feeling as fresh as a daisy.

The only real danger, of course, is that it may be difficult to turn right rather than left when you next enter a plane but at this time of life, we owe ourselves a little luxury, even if it is for only one leg of a long flight.

Best of all, I now know that I don’t have to give up long-haul travel any time soon. When there’s room to move and have a decent snooze, it is physically and mentally possible to go the distance.

The days when air travel was gracious may be over – but they don’t have to be.