Introduction, Context and Planning
Although I took this trip back in 2014, 2020 marks 10 years since my first visit to India and if it weren’t for the current pandemic I’d be in the process of planning another Indian adventure as we speak! I started the planning for the journey that follows at the beginning of 2011 not long after we returned from our initial travel to India. During that adventure we traversed the famous Golden Triangle along with a few other less trodden paths in the North of the country. Almost immediately upon returning home we vowed to visit India again and spend time in the more tranquil South of the country. A little over three years later we finally put those plans into action! If you want to read about my North Indian adventures with a hilarious cast of characters and budget hotels you can do so here on my old Blogger site.
Initially for convenience we had considered booking one of the numerous small group tours for our South Indian travels, all had their pros and cons be it the cost, itinerary or level of luxury offered. After comparing them all with the finest toothed comb we could find it became obvious we could do much better by going it alone, stealing the best bits from each of those tours we had researched. Not only that but we had also saved up a fair few Avios thanks to some clever planning and generous sign up bonuses finding ourselves with enough points to fly in First on British Airways from London to Mumbai using our AMEX companion voucher.
To be honest back in 2013 I wasn’t in the best of places mentally and this trip was the only thing that was keeping a bad bout of depression from taking root. I’d stopped enjoying my work and developed a taste for excessive volumes of poor quality junk food. I had also taken up voluntary isolation from what few friends I still had left. My hobbies and socialising had been reduced to watching plane vloggers and gamers on You Tube and whatever hours I had left were spent glued to my PlayStation. Honestly, as soon the new year fireworks went out on the early hours of January 2014 there was nothing more I wanted than those two and a bit weeks in India, completely cut off from the world at home. So come with me on one of my favourite trips of all time to South India; filled with ancient temples, sprawling markets, delicious fresh food and stunning sunsets from the quiet coast of Kerala to the mad metropolis of Mumbai.
Whilst this trip took place in early 2014 I don’t feel too much has changed in that time outside of the current COVID 19 related issues. Before I get started there are a few things that might look a little different if we had taken this trip more recently:
- British Airways opened the First Wing allowing an improved check in and security experience with access directly into the lounge in April 2017
- The Concorde Room had a minor refresh in November 2017
- Our wonderful in-laws returned safely from their overland France to India trip by tandem bike and now have a wonderful little girl, who if you follow this site you’ve probably read about
- Mumbai Airport opened its brand new international terminal in March 2020 just weeks after our departure from India
- Jet Airways sadly went bust in April 2019
- It was much easier to obtain multiple AMEX sign up bonuses until early 2019
- Uber was brand new in the UK in 2014 and awash with opening offers and without the bad press you often see today
- Anne-So and I were both living and working in London with all stress that it entailed
The Adventure Begins
Getting up at 05:30 on a Monday morning is never anything less than horrific, whether you’ve just suffered a full week of work, or spent the whole weekend enjoying a lie in or two! Anne-So and I struggled out of bed that dark January morning. Whilst there wasn’t time to make my usual morning coffee there was at least a big pot of excitement about to boil over. Despite the tiredness I was bursting with anticipation at the adventure to come. About 15 minutes before we planned to leave I sprawled out on our flimsy sofa, struggling to keep my eyes open and booked us an Uber Lux to Paddington. Normally we are not the kind to spend money on a car service when good quality public transport is available, but with a healthy bounty of Uber credit on our accounts it felt wrong to a start such a luxurious trip in any other way.
My confirmation text came through immediately and ten minutes later we got a call and text confirming our car would be with us shortly. We bumped our bags downstairs and just as we’d opened the door there was a gleaming black Audi A8 sat waiting outside our flat. Our friendly driver seemingly unaware of the early hour loaded our cases into the boot and we slipped off silently in the early morning darkness. Our car glided through the back streets of West London avoiding the pot holed paths usually trodden by the large red double decker busses giving us the smoothest, most luxurious ride imaginable.
Barely a minute after stepping out of our Uber the receipt came through and it was easy to understand why their service was growing so quickly. There was no need to carry cash, worry about tips, or any of the usual fuss associated with hailing a black cab, everything was all taken care of through the app.
Train: Heathrow Express
Depart: London Paddington 07:10
Arrive: Heathrow Terminal 5 07:30
Seat: Unassigned (Standard Class)
Locomotive: Class 332 (Siemens) Top Speed 100mph
Unfortunately we’d missed the 06:55 Heathrow Express by a matter on minutes but despite this early morning mishap we were luckily able to jump straight on to the already waiting 07:10 departure. Since my last trip on this route, gone were the rolling Sky News reports of old on the carriage entertainment screens, instead they were replaced by images from the Sony World Photography Awards, which were calming and inspiring when you are about to embark on a epic trip.
After months of waiting my anticipation was reaching fever pitch. We were about to travel in First Class to India with British Airways, our first time riding in the nose of the Queen of the Skies! As we turned off of the main line and on to the Heathrow spur, I gazed out of the window to the heavens. The glorious extra-terrestrial pinkish blue hue on view set a peaceful tone as we dove into the tunnel and approached the airport.
Energised by the walk, I started things off with a warm, “good morning” which was reciprocated by both the greeter guarding the First Class check in area and again by our check in agent at the desk. Unfortunately our bags were disappointingly tagged with just the regular orange priority labels rather than the yellow First Class ones I was expecting. Luckily this morning we’d only be suffering from minor mishaps. Our boarding passes were printed, lounge directions offered and away we went to security. On observation not only did I think we must have had the tattiest looking luggage but we were almost certainly the youngest guests in this section of the terminal by some distance.
Checked in we headed straight ahead to fast track security south, there was no line and we were through in minutes. After we exited security we turned right and immediately found ourselves at the famous Millionaire’s Door to British Airway’s hallowed Concorde Room. No sooner had we spotted those innocuous white doors did we spy a well dressed chancer in front of us asking nicely if he could save himself the walk and access the business lounge by passing through the exclusive doors. After the smart-suited gentleman was politely rebuffed by the lounge guardian it was our turn. I offered up another warm, “good morning” and flashed our boarding passes. My excitement continued to build as we were finally admitted through those magical doors. We then found ourselves at reception where again we were politely welcomed in to the lounge.
British Airways Concorde Room
Access for BA First Class Ticket Holders and CCR Card Holders Only
Since I first heard about BA’s exclusive Concorde Room I’d always wanted to visit. From watching the numerous You Tube videos and reading an unhealthy number of FlyerTalk trip reports I hoped I’d correctly set my expectations for our stay. Though once we’d walked through those doors, those expectations flew right out the window and I was trying my absolute hardest not to act like a kid in a sweet shop. That said, my first impressions of the lounge took me somewhat by surprise, it felt both busier and smaller than I expected. In one quick glance from the reception desk it was possible to take in everything from the brown leather booths of the private dining room, the Concorde chaired boardroom, the extensive bar filled with top shelf and top priced liquor, that rather odd animated fireplace and the popular terrace area.
Whilst I’m not normally a morning drinker I do make an exception for bubbly! Knowing we had our first Elemis Spa appointment in just 15 minutes I asked if there was enough time for a glass of champagne.
Taking those first sips of luxury champagne I felt our First Class adventure had finally commenced. Anne-So hardly had time to finish her flute before she headed off to get her nails done at the spa, so I had to polish off just shy of two glasses of champagne before it was my turn to be pampered. I really liked the Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle, that was offered in the lounge, it was a very enjoyable and subtly good glass of fizz that misses the excessive acidity found in lower quality champagne. For better, for worse it was rather easy to drink!
At 08:15 it was my turn to head off to the Elemis Spa for a Deep Clean Aviator Facial. Unfortunately the service at the spa did not follow the same welcoming tone we had received from the other staff we had encountered that morning. I was handed a disclaimer to fill in, whilst I watched Anne-So having the finishing touches applied to her nails as part of her Jet Set Power Polish. She had a big grin on her face and found the whole experience hilarious. I was then led away by my Elemis therapist to one of the white curtained treatment rooms. I removed my shoes and carefully settled into my massage chair whilst she made some slightly bored small talk. I got the impression that working in this spa was far from the most rewarding work in the world if the expressions and tone of the employees in action that morning was anything to go by.
I found the whole spa treatment itself slightly surreal, between the ‘relaxing’ music, hypnotic mood lighting and the whirring of the massage chair it was an experience unlike any other in my life. My chair manoeuvred up and down, kicking and squeezing my body from pleasure to pain. Whilst this was going on, my face was subject to a barrage of hot towels, cold towels, scrubs, creams, cleansers until my facial was finished. When my 15 minutes of fame were up my face felt fragrant, clean, and hydrated enough to fight the effects of flying for our upcoming nine hours in in the air.
Within a minute of me returning to the terrace a member of staff came over asking if we wanted anything to eat or drink, we declined the offer and headed inside to the dining room to eat instead.
We only waited for a minute or two for a vacant table and were taken to one at the back right of the dining room. The pictures I had seen online made the dining area look vast and fairly private, in truth it’s the opposite.
The food was tasty enough and arrived promptly. I found my bacon rashers were a little on the cool side but the rest of my meal was perfectly cooked. We were so relaxed and having such a great time we almost forget we had a flight to catch!
Just missing one we realised we were cutting it quite close to boarding time when normally I’m one of the first to arrive at the gate!
We finally got to the gate and not a minute too soon. I saw no boarding queue at all as we arrived just moments before the doors closed! We boarded immediately and as we walked down the jet bridge the thrill of seeing the blanked out windows at the front of our aircraft signifying we’d have BA’s latest First Class product onboard was beaten down by the relief of not missing the flight!
Flight: BA139 London to Mumbai
Depart: LHR 10:10
Arrive: BOM 00:25
Seats: 2A & 2K (First)
Aircraft: Boeing 747-400 (Reg Unknown)
Holding up our boarding passes at the door we were shown to our seats and warmly welcomed aboard by a friendly flight attendant. My first impressions of the cabin were positive, we had plenty of room at our seats but were close enough to each other to share a glance or come and say hello despite us both having window seats on opposite sides of the plane. The cabin was enveloped with a calming blue glow from the mood lighting which immediately relaxed us as we settled into our spacious seats.
There was time for another flute of Champagne thanks to a short delay prior to take off while the wings of our Jumbo were de-iced.
This was the first time in my life on a long-haul flight where I wasn’t worried about cramming in as many films as possible to kill the time and mitigate the discomfort of a narrow shoulder squeezing economy seat. Today my large seat in the sky was incredibly comfortable, even when sat upright for take off and landing which was already a step up from BA’s Club World business class seat which I recall being rather stiff in the upright position. After a short taxi and smooth take off we were airborne. It was almost immediately obvious how much quieter things were up front other than the vibration of the nose wheel rising and settling into its place with the rest of the landing gear. There was just a mild hum of the four humongous Rolls Royce engines powering us in the direction of Mumbai. As we moved towards cruising altitude I was able to slightly recline my seat and began to glance at the extensive Anglo-Indian themed fine dining on offer from the lunch menu.
Service started on K side where Anne-So was seated and before long it was my turn when those of us on the A side where seen to. My flight attendant set the tone for a friendly and professional service early on as, ‘Sir’ soon gave way to, ‘Mr Halsey’.
My Grand Siecle champagne was every bit as delicious in the air as it was on the ground.
Unsurprisingly the lamb was over-cooked and ended up being a touch tough to the point where a small saw might have served me better than my trusty table knife. Despite being over-done the lamb at least retained a rich meaty flavour. On the other hand my vegetables were all perfectly cooked and seasoned.
Unfortunately this plan was eventually scuppered as it turned out I was well and truly stuffed!
Whilst the service I got was impeccable the whole flight Anne-So was less lucky as on one occasion her wine order was forgotten and later on there was confusion with her tea order.
After lunch I rotated the glowing dial to recline my seat a little and watched Ron Howard’s rather excellent film about the racing driver Nikki Lauda, Rush with a much needed sobering cup of post lunch coffee.
Anne-So and I both watched the excellent Steven Soderbergh film, Behind the Candelabra as did the lady in front of me in 1A. The performances from both Matt Damon and Michael Douglas were exceptional.
I had the non-veg items as they were described in typical Indian fashion by the crew member taking my order.
Despite the excellent time I was having there were some disappointments on this flight: not having the stomach-space to try the dessert with lunch and the sweet Riesling to go with it, missing out on a digestif of vintage port or even a glass of expensive single malt whisky due to having had one too many flutes of champagne. It was also a shame I had no need to test out the bed as we were on a day flight. I also wish I’d have asked my flight attendant to set my table so Anne-So and I could have dined together, but hopefully I’d get a chance to rectify these regrets on the way home.
I received a warm goodbye as we disembarked the aircraft bringing down the electronic blinds on what was for me a fantastic first, First. I have to say this was one of my favourite flights of all time, from the friendly service, to the calm of the cabin and the mostly delicious food, the only downside to my state of calm was a mild headache, no doubt caused by the copious amounts of champagne I’d consumed. We touched down about twenty minutes late into Mumbai and ended up with steps from the aircraft door down to the waiting bus. Thankfully we were not crammed into the bus like sardines but with the mosquitoes whirring in the humid night air it was quite the trauma after nine hours cocooned in air conditioned comfort.
After departing our bus we immediately joined the Business and First Class immigration line which for some reason took an age to move but once it eventually got going was pretty quick. We then joined an additional queue to have the stamp that had been put in our passports checked. If the heat, insects, bus and bureaucracy hadn’t told us we’d arrived in Mumbai than having to peel away the people that had appeared to have glued themselves to the baggage belt definitely did. Thankfully I barged my way through and managed to whisk our luggage away from the throng. I’d like to think that the priority tags worked in our favour but at this hour, time no longer made any sense. We queued again to have our bags scanned, before another brief stop to have customs forms collected.
After finally exiting airport formalities we found a Travelex and picked enough rupees to cover the first part of our trip having learnt our lesson when struggling to find an open bank in Delhi on our previous trip. Two staff, a stack of forms, signatures and stamps. Ah travellers cheques are fun! We finally finished our walk past the prepaid taxi queue, touts and scammers and in to the warm night air of Mumbai. Thankfully we quickly found a man waiting for us with our names on an Oberoi sign. He walked us over to our driver in the near by car park. Let the adventure begin.