My co-pilot’s voice was calm. “Watch out for that mountain,” he said as I squeezed slightly on the joystick and the plane banked to the left. I peered through the low-lying clouds, eager to catch a glimpse of the runway. Not much longer and the landing strip at Hong Kong should come into view. The clouds parted, and there it was, a tiny dot in the middle of the South China Sea.
“Prepare for landing,” I said, hearing the passengers and crew moving around behind me. My left hand felt clammy on the stick and my mouth was dry as I turned off the autopilot. I was in charge now.
My take off at London Heathrow had been textbook perfect, and up until now the journey had been smooth and trouble-free. I glanced at the altimeter then down at the lights to the side of the runway. There were two white and two red and that’s how they needed to stay for a perfect landing. “Good,” my co-pilot Simon Axby said as I edged nearer the runway. My sweaty hand made tiny movements to line up the giant A380 with the runway lights. “Perfect approach,” he reassured me.
My heart was thudding so loudly it was hard to hear his softly spoken encouragements. “You can do this,” I told myself, nudging nearer and nearer to that tiny strip of concrete. I pushed the stick forward, eager to keep the plane’s nose down – I didn’t want it to bounce and risk doing any damage – when suddenly a voice boomed, “Retard, retard!”
I thought it may have been a crew member being rude about my first landing attempt, but it was actually the plane’s autosensor telling me to pull back. I jerked back on the joystick, but I pulled too hard and the plane started climbing.
“Get it under control,” Simon warned as the autosensor’s strict male voice barked instructions. I tried to focus as the runway lights all turned red, but fear was rushing through me, and I froze. “We’re going to crash,” one of the passengers yelled, but Simon had already grabbed hold of his controls and managed to bring us down safely with a thud on to the tarmac. Our passengers clapped and I slumped into my seat, relieved. We’d survived – just.
Outside I could see fire engines and ambulances rushing towards us but I knew that thankfully they wouldn’t be needed. Clambering out of my seat, I pulled the door open, but I wasn’t in Hong Kong. I was in an A380 flight simulator at Heathrow.
Luxury in the sky
Even though it felt a bit like an extremely sophisticated computer game, this was, in fact, a £10 million [Dh56.9 million] simulator that is used to train British Airways’ top pilots to fly the A380.
And even though he acted like a pilot, Simon is actually the engineering team leader for BA. Using the latest technology, he puts the pilots through their paces, flying to any airport around the world that can take the bigger aeroplane, and conjuring up with the flick of a few buttons myriad weather conditions and adverse situations (bird strike, engine fire, snow storm anyone?).
I was one of a group of journalists who’d been flown (on real aeroplanes) into London to see the delivery of BA’s first A380, and one of only three journalists to ‘fly’ the simulator at BA’s flight training centre near Heathrow. Needless to say, I didn’t think I was about to get my wings any time soon. But the next day I was back at Heathrow to watch the real A380 land in a ceremony rivalled only by the arrival of Prince George, the newborn son of Wills and Kate and the third in line to the British throne.
Stepping aboard the A380, I could see what all the fuss was about. It is fuel efficient, quiet, has a paperless flight deck, can seat 500 passengers over two floors and is, quite frankly, in a different class to other planes. All leather upholstery and state-of-the-art, anyone who gets to fly in one of these is going to arrive in style at their destination – the journey might even be the best bit of their holiday.
This is the first of 12 A380 airbuses – an order worth £5 billion – which means more luxury in the sky for passengers travelling from London to Los Angeles and Hong Kong, which is why I decided to ‘land’ there. So after trying a First Class seat/bed (a distant dream even for a seasoned simulator pilot like me) it was time to leave Heathrow to explore Central London.
After all the excitement I decided to head for a relaxed afternoon tea at The Connaught in Mayfair. Originally two Georgian houses and named after Queen Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, the first Duke of Connaught, the five-star hotel was once owned by the Savoy Group and it shows. Elegant and effortlessly sophisticated in a quintessential English way, this is London luxury at its finest. There’s a roaring log fire, wood panelling and crystal glass and heavy silverware to enjoy your refreshments with.
On the menu is an array of sandwiches, including cucumber and egg mayonnaise – with the crusts cut off, of course – which are delicious, and scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream. It was all served with plenty of tea (I chose English breakfast even though it was mid-afternoon) and the charming company of Paula Fitzherbert, the hotel’s PR director.
Sitting in the light setting of the hotel’s brasserie restaurant, Espelette, we feasted on macaroons, and dainty cakes while looking down on the bustling Mount Street outside in the heart of Mayfair village. Luckily, I hadn’t booked dinner for that night as I left absolutely full. Instead I headed back to our hotel, the Athenaeum, to relax.
A girl about town
Situated opposite Green Park, the five-star Athenaeum Hotel is perfect for exploring London. Inside it’s a luxurious sanctuary from the hustle and bustle, but when I stepped outside on to Piccadilly I was right in the heart of the city.
There’s a concierge on the door, complete with bowler hat and umbrellas at the ready in case it began to drizzle. But I didn’t care about the weather. Staying here, at the Athenaeum with the wisteria growing up its exterior walls, made me feel like a girl about town, so I set off to do all the usual tourist things – like travel on a red double-decker bus, the tube, a black cab, and stand outside Buckingham Palace and Downing Street.
I was invited to the Apollo Victoria Theatre to see Wicked, the play about the witches of Oz long before they met Dorothy and her ruby slippers. So it was off for a quick supper at Carrara at St James – yes I broke my vow not to eat any more, but this was just a light bite – before the show.
Strolling up the restaurant’s sculptural Final Encore staircase, designed by artist Mark Humphrey and built in Italy from white Carrara marble, I certainly felt like I was making a dramatic entrance, and working up a teensy appetite.
The menu is English with Italian influences, which was a perfect marriage of tastes. So you could choose a rabbit terrine with pickled blackberries, fish and chips or go the Italian route like I did and have the best-tasting bocconcini mozzarella, cherry tomato and pesto salad with an open wild mushroom lasagne this side of Rome.
The pre-theatre menu is for people like us, who wanted a tasty bite before watching a play. I overdid it a bit and wouldn’t have any room for an ice cream at the theatre, but that didn’t matter as I was too engrossed in the musical to care about snacks.
Brilliantly acted, beautifully sang and with an intriguing storyline that actually makes you like the wicked witch, the evening flew by.
A royal welcome
The next morning I was up early for a visit to Kensington Palace, home of Prince William, Kate Middleton and their newborn son George.
Once the home of the late Princess Diana, Kensington Palace has been a royal residence since way back in the late 1600s. Queen Victoria was raised there, Queen Mary II died there, King George II met the king and queen of the Cherokee Indians there – it really is like walking into history. While the wing where William and Kate stay is still private, the historic state apartments are open and have been transformed into exhibits and art installations that bring history to life.
There are different routes to look around the apartments, so you just have to choose which one to follow. There are experts dotted along the way who will answer questions and give you a personal talk about the room, monarch and exhibits.
I spent 20 minutes discussing Queen Victoria with a chap in a historical costume after seeing her dresses on display and being shocked at how tiny she was. The abridged history on the life and times of the queen most famous for saying, “We are not amused” certainly made my trip to the palace worthwhile.
But seeing the Grandmother of Europe’s petite clothes, with a waist no bigger than a seven-year-old’s, wasn’t as moving as the room full of portraits of the late Princess Diana.
Kensington Palace was the place where the public showed their grief after her tragic death, laying tributes at the golden gates at the south of the building until every railing had been covered. A new exhibition of her dresses opened just after I visited, which has attracted thousands of people. As I stared at her portraits by famed photographer Mario Testino, it was strange to think it has been 16 years since she was tragically killed. But it was nice to know that Prince William and his family are living there now, bringing happiness to the palace and boosting the British economy with ‘royal baby fever’.
So, in keeping with the royal theme, I headed back to the hotel to pack my bag then scooted over to the Café Royal on Regent Street – my base for the rest of the trip.
Stepping inside, I gasped. Newly converted from the famous restaurant, and a grade-one listed building, it was easy to see why the likes of poet Oscar Wilde, writer Virginia Woolf, playwright Noël Coward and former Prime Minister Winston Churchill made this the place to see and be seen.
Originally founded in 1865 by a bankrupt Frenchman who arrived in London with just £5, the Café Royal soon became part of the capital’s high society with fans including Elizabeth Taylor, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, the late Princess Diana and novelist Graham Greene. Known as much for scandal – murder, adultery – as its famous patrons, the glamorous restaurant was transformed into a 159-room hotel last year.
I was ushered past the original radiator grills, which are also listed, up the tiny lifts to my suite, which was so modern I reeled back, shocked. I’d been expecting a glitzy, golden room in homage to the hotel’s heritage. Instead I walked into a contemporary urban suite, complete with a Bang & Olufesen TV, which swivelled and followed me as I moved around the room. My bathroom was almost as big as my Dubai apartment and the bed was comfortably big enough to sleep six. It was a clever juxtaposition by architect David Chipperfield, and I loved it!
By contrast the Grill Room downstairs – also listed – has been restored to its former ornate glory, with Louis XVI decor and a dress code asking diners to be “celebrative and sophisticated”. That meant high heels and a glamorous gown, so I happily dressed up to meet friends for dinner.
The menu was typically British but with plenty of finesse and there were tasting dishes to share, along with a feast of oysters, lobster cocktail and Oscietra caviar. The food was amazing, the service impeccable and the surroundings exquisitely opulent. Needless to say we sat up chatting and watching the fabulous entertainment – a singer and dancers in keeping with the high-society theme – and I reluctantly went to bed at one in the morning knowing I had to get up early the next day. I would have ignored my alarm if I hadn’t had a special day planned: Wimbledon.
A winning combination
Rushing past the pretty bunting strewn across the city to celebrate 60 years of the Queen’s rule, I hoped to see another British success: a British Wimbledon champion.
Sadly I didn’t get to see Andy Murray lifting the trophy on centre court, but there was plenty of tennis action on court Number One, along with traditional strawberries and cream. I was stunned by how orderly and quiet the venue was – hardly a peep from the crowd except when a favourite won game, set and match.
The day sped by and it was back to the Café Royal for one last evening before heading back to Dubai. I didn’t want to leave the glitz and grandeur of my new home, but at least I’d had a taste of the best of British – and could savour more as I’d been booked business class on the flight home.
Reclining on my bed in the clouds, I wondered what would happen if something happened in the cockpit and the infamous plea went out over the loudspeaker: does anyone know how to fly a plane? If it did I would have to volunteer my services – well a simulator’s almost the same isn’t it?