These heady days of travel are all about bucket lists. Those often long lists of destinations and experiences to be ticked off before either we, or perhaps more appropriately, they – are gone.
The top pinnacle bucket list items are unreachable for many. Some so rare and expensive that they remain on the list forever, a distant dream. I was very lucky to have experienced one such adventure, before I even knew about, or cared about, what should be must-do’s in the big wide world of travel.
For the adventure I took is one that no longer exists, making my opportunity in 1988 even more special. This was long before luxury travel and the finer things in life took a firm hold on me. Perhaps it was one of the pre-cursors to my current tastes. At that time, I was taking one vacation per year, always with friends and always on a minimal budget. Yes, there were even backpacks involved * shudder *
I had booked a European package holiday with friends, to be followed by ten days in the USA starting in New York City. I was working as an Advertising Assistant with one of Australia’s major cinema chains, earning a basic wage.
I had saved for a year and my flights were booked. I was all set to go. Making television commercials for my company’s monthly promotions was my main role and we used one of Australia’s top post production studios of the time. When the owner of said company caught wind of my impending holiday he requested a meeting with me.
What he offered me that day opened my eyes to a whole new world of travel, making me hungry for exploration and propelling me to achieve success to be able to attain it. He had upgraded my London to New York flight from a B747 to that most coveted of luxury passenger jets, Concorde, that marvel of mid twentieth century flight.
We were a lucrative client and I was “gifted” the flight for our business loyalty (and for an unwritten guarantee I would continue to keep the work there!) The cost of the one-way flight at the time was around USD$8,000
This was the 80’s and it was a decadent time in Advertising, when spends were great and extravagance the norm. But that wasn’t my world then. And nothing prepared me for the adventure I was about to have. The singular experience remains my greatest travel moment to date, an unforgettable once in a lifetime opportunity.
I can see that great day now, clear as a bell, every moment a memory that refuses to be parked in the recesses of my mind. It began with an early morning chauffeur driven limousine pick up from my three star hotel to London’s Heathrow Airport. I was whisked, backpack and all, to a special lounge strictly for Concorde, the British Airways Concorde Room, an intimate space in a separate terminal for the privileged few who flew on the supersonic marvel.
It became quickly apparent that the lounge that morning was full of regular flyers on Concorde. I can only imagine how I must have looked, this first timer, all starry eyed in this private club of influential people who were relaxed in their demeanour, on just another regular flight of getting from A to B. I’m glad I had the smarts to dress up a little. The lounge was calm and luxuriously furnished. This was my very first experience inside any airline lounge in the world. I remember the white suited staff with silver trays delivering tea and drinks while I stared out the window in wonder, at the sleek, slim pointy nosed jet that I was about to embark upon.
Boarding the plane was orderly and done strictly by row number. It was easy to see why upon stepping inside. We had to lower our heads to enter the door. The plane had low ceiling height and width was minimal. The interiors were basic but stylish. Small overhead lockers could only fit minimal briefcases and small handbags.
The interior was like that of a spaceship, with only 25 rows of seats in soft dark grey leather, set two on either side of the aisle, and tiny windows. It was more cramped than I expected.
Once seated I was ready for the ride of my life in more ways than one. Take off was swift, steep and remarkable, with the pilot kicking in the afterburners producing a massive thrust that built up speed, producing the fastest acceleration I had ever experienced. At 250 mph (402 kph), we lifted off rapidly.
Once airborne, the afterburners cut out and Concorde gained altitude quickly. Watching the ground fall away so quickly was breathtaking.
Once over the open ocean at a height of 28,000 ft (8,500 m), all four engines were online and the afterburners kicked in once more, pushing the aircraft to Mach 1 (748 mph, 1,192 km/h). Up front was a large digital display showing the altitude in feet and the speed in Machs. I was glued to it.
Concorde could carry a maximum of 128 passengers. The flight was short and had a feeling of intimacy. There was an undeniable air of excitement that pervaded the air. This was special.
Cruising speed was 1350 miles per hour. Crossing the Atlantic on Concorde took only 3.5 hours, instead of a regular jets travel time of 8 hours. The majority of passengers were businessmen, likely heading across for a meeting prior to returning again that same day. Everyone around me was engrossed in newspapers.
Service began once we were at cruising speed, but to me it was apparent that most passengers were happy to have a coffee or a single drink and continue reading. Turning around I noticed that Rupert Murdoch and David Frost were fellow passengers. I wondered who the others may have been and in what business worlds they were a part of.
A menu card was brought around and my eyes lit up. 1988 was only two years after my discovery of the joy of wine. A time when it had quickly become my all-consuming passion and I couldn’t devour enough information. The menu listed some of the most exalted wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Most passengers had busy meetings to attend to in New York and being a morning flight, were not drinking during the early lunch service.
Well nothing would have stopped me from working my way through the extraordinary food and wine. After decadent canapes and glasses of Dom Perignon, came my very first taste of caviar and some fine smoked salmon, followed by lavish cuisine from Michelin starred chefs which included perfect filet mignon. And then the parade of wine began. This was my only chance, at my age and financial situation, where I would ever be able to drink the masterpieces of the wine world.
Glass after glass, I remember 1982 Chateaux Mouton Rothschild and 1976 Chateau Latour, followed by the most exalted Sauternes, a top vintage of Chateau d’Yquem. Mid-meal I had a reality check. How could this be happening to me?! Here I was eating the finest food and drinking the greatest wines, all at the very edge of space. The service crew knew that I was on a leisure trip and they loved that I was the youngest and most indulgent passenger on the plane. Friendly, attentive and wanting me to enjoy every mouthful and every drop! I was a lot more fun than most of the other passengers and they loved that.
Knowing I was a Concorde virgin, I was invited to look into the cockpit and meet the Captain, something that would never happen today. The tiny cockpit was cramped and packed with instrumentation. I remember comparing the pilots to astronauts. They were relaxed, calm, handsome and cool. Very obviously in love with their job. I was so inspired at that moment.
Then at around the halfway point, the aircraft climbed to 60,000 ft (18,000 m), twice that of commercial aircraft, and pushed past Mach 2 (1,484 mph, 2,388 km/h), more than twice the speed of sound. This was preceded by a moment of drama. The Captain made an announcement that we were about to break the sound barrier. There was a hush throughout the cabin and then a slight bump felt. The next immediate moment was surreal. It felt as if the plane had stopped moving, so smooth was the flight from that point on. Then, one of the most unforgettable moments of my life, I looked out of the small window and we were so high that the sky started to darken before my very eyes, and I could see the curvature of the Earth. Just above me – total blackness. Looking down, we were flying so fast that I saw conventional aircraft seeming to fly backwards.
We then decelerated to below Mach 1 using Concorde’s thrusters. The supersonic part of the flight was dramatic, but it was not long. I wanted it to go on forever.
Landing was equally as exciting. We were down in moments, the whole experience seeming to only last minutes.
At the end of the flight the Captain handed me a personal certificate, dated that day, proclaiming that I had flown Concorde through the speed of sound.
I stumbled off the plane drunk from the lubrication but even more so from the total experience. That day was the birth of my interest in luxury travel experiences and the masterful way they are executed. What I observed that day showed me new levels of what could be achieved when you reached a comfortable level of success.
Concorde was the most impressively beautiful and graceful airliner to ever grace the skies. There’s talk of renewed supersonic travel in the near future. That’s wonderful news. But I know I was lucky to have experienced it when it was revolutionary and in a more glamorous time. To have the very best travel experience of your life so early is marvellous, but boy, does it spoil you for more.