Virgin Atlantic's London Clubhouse in Heathrow Terminal 3 is the airline's flagship airport lounge for business class passengers and frequent flyers.
It's the best lounge that Virgin Atlantic offers, since its Upper (business) Class is the top service on board, and has long had a reputation as one of the best in the world.
Naturally, I wanted to test out whether the reputation was deserved, so I checked in early for a recent flight from Heathrow to give it a full low-down -- and to take some pictures that go beyond the polished PR glossies to the actual lounge.
Location & Impressions
At Terminal 3, you have the choice of being dropped off at the special Virgin Atlantic fast-track entrance, but I popped up out of the central public transport hub and walked across the attractive piazza to the Virgin Atlantic check-in area.
(In what I can only assume is an amusing coincidence, it's as far as you can humanly get from the British Airways/Qantas end of T3.)
Upper Class has its own check-in desks and bag drop on the far right of the Virgin Atlantic zone, which is also available for top-tier frequent flyers (including Virgin Australia's Gold and Platinum cardholders).
With just hand luggage, I was checked in within less than a minute -- a Heathrow record! -- and headed through to the Upper Class Wing's fast-track security for my second Heathrow record, a pleasant and efficient security screening.
It's a shame that you're then required to do the full slalom through the airport's duty free shops to get to the Clubhouse, but just follow the signs for "Airline Lounges" until you get to the signs pointing you towards lounge zone H. (It's hard to see how Heathrow could have made this much more irritating or complicated, but that's not exactly Virgin Atlantic's fault.)
At zone H, you arrive at your choice of lift or stairs to get upstairs to the Clubhouse. The lift is pretty swish, with an actual leather-covered seat reminiscent of Virgin's old Upper Class suite. Nice touch, though it's not like you're going far -- it's just up one flight of stairs to the Clubhouse.
Arriving right as the lounge opened at 7am, the front desk agents were impressively perky and gave me a brief orientation to the lounge.
I headed -- as you should -- straight for the front desk of the bumble & bumble salon and the Cowshed spa to reserve a quick cleanup and trim for my hair, then headed into the Clubhouse to look round.
Virgin Atlantic unapologetically aims for quirky rather than conservative in pretty much everything it does, and its flagship lounge is no exception. The decor and the fittings blend together in a lounge I reckon is only matched by Qantas' Sydney First lounge in style, design and architectural wow factor.
In terms of layout, the central area of the Clubhouse is given over to the bar and sit-down dining area, plus a number of sunken 70s-style seating areas.
If you start at the spa/salon side of the lounge and head forwards (anti-clockwise around the sunken central area), you'll come to the cleverly done quiet area, separated from the central area by angled glass panels.
This area carves out sitting areas with a variety of chairs and sofas where you can park yourself quietly to get some work done.
If simply sitting is too uncool for you , try one of the hanging bamboo-effect pods that swing from the ceiling and face out to the airport apron where the planes of Terminal 3 are taxiing.
Past the quiet area with the angled glass panels you'll find the cinema area, which has a massive set of flat-panel TV screens, set to the news when I was in the lounge.
Thankfully, the comfortable seating in this area isn't blasted with the news commentary. Instead, pedestals with headphone sockets allow you to plug in your own cans -- or you can borrow some from the lounge.
(Are you listening, Virgin Australia? This might be an idea for the Melbourne lounge, where the best seats by the windows are blanketed with the incessant droning of TVs you can't even see.)
Carrying on past the cinema area you'll find the kids' play area to keep the little ones occupied (and away from you when you're trying to work in the Clubhouse) at the far end of the lounge.
The chairs in this area are, frustratingly enough, some of the most comfortable in the lounge. Why must the otherwise quietest spots with the best options for working always be next to the kiddie zone? (Air New Zealand Auckland domestic Koru lounge, I'm looking at you here.)
Turning the corner to your left, you'll find some oversized sofas that are fantastic for chilling out if you have a particularly long wait -- and the bright green ones have a very useful arm for perching your laptop if you're catching up on the news or watching a TV episode.
Past the sofas is the business area, with a big bank of large desks and office chairs that also have laptops for your use. If you don't want to use Virgin Atlantic's Dells, you can plug in your own. There's plenty of room to shove the Clubhouse laptops over to one side.
There's also a large table with long benches if for some reason all the comfortable seating around doesn't appeal. Apparently, it originally came from Richard Branson's house.
Coming back out of the business area, you'll spot the white steps leading up to the Grey Goose vodka lounge on the mezzanine level of the Clubhouse. (The mezzanine lounge, I learned, is a three-year partnership with the Bacardi group: next year it'll be a Bombay Sapphire gin palace, and the last year it'll be a Bacardi rum den.)
AusBT readers and frequent flyers I talked to mentioned that the mezzanine is actually roped off surprisingly often for events or groups, as it was when I visited for a get-together for the pack of journos heading to New York to test out Virgin Atlantic's new Upper Class Dream Suite seat.
"It looks nice, I'm sure, but I've never actually been able to get up there," one frequent flyer told me.
The Clubhouse is one of the most exclusive business class lounges in the world. To get in, you'll need to be flying Virgin Atlantic. You can either:
- fly Upper Class, Virgin Atlantic's business class
- wave a Virgin Atlantic Gold frequent flyer card
- wave a Virgin Australia Velocity Gold or Platinum frequent flyer card
Food and drinks service is available through the entire Clubhouse, with staffers notably with it at an early hour of the morning. I wasn't especially hungry (7am, remember?) so I nibbled on a very tasty sausage bap, served swiftly and with a reassuring amount of napkins.
Breakfast runs through to 11.30am, with a range of food options stretching through the rest of the day, plus an afternoon tea service from 3-5.30pm.
But it's the fully staffed bar where the Clubhouse knocks it out of the park.
A seriously extensive cocktail menu gives you some great ideas, and a fully stocked bar (and I mean fully stocked) can make pretty much anything you can think of.
My recommendation: the Virgin Redhead. Don't worry, it's not that kind of virgin drink, but rather muddled raspberries, berry liqueurs, gin and champagne. A very refreshing and surprisingly crisp alternative to a morning mimosa/buck's fizz.
Wine fans will be pleased by the bottles on offer: four whites and four reds, all of which I'd consider very decent indeed for a business class drop.
Disappointingly, the champagne on offer is Lanson Black Label, a drop that works much better in the air than it does on the ground.
(The reason why, as I understand it: Lanson doesn't use malolactic fermentation, meaning its champers is a fruity/light rather than toasty/yeasty/crisp type. In the air, that's great, because the latter tastes strange at altitude; on the ground, though, it lacks depth, fullness and complexity.)
With main competitor British Airways now serving the very respectable Taittinger in its business class lounge, Virgin Atlantic needs to raise its champagne game on the ground.
Despite the fun and funky atmosphere, the Clubhouse is a great haven for getting some work done before your flight leaves.
Many (if not most) business travellers I see in airport lounges seem to be happy having their laptop on their knees on a comfortable chair near a power point. (My assessment doesn't apply to Qantas' international business lounges, which seem to have the worst chairs ever for laptop-on-knees usage.)
Virgin Atlantic takes care of this need -- and the differing heights and shapes of everyone's knees -- by having an impressively wide range of chairs, sofas, benches, tables, pods, swings, ottomans... seriously, there's a lot of different places to get comfortable and crack out that PowerPoint file or final document edits before you hop on the plane.
A dozen or so BlackBerry Playbooks are scattered around the lounge. No, of course I didn't see anybody trying to use them.
Wifi is everywhere, fast, simple and persistent -- by which I mean: it's a simple one-word phrase to log in, and your computer/phone isn't kicked off the lounge wifi network after five minutes. No complaints here.
Oddly, the speed varied when I tried to benchmark it, throwing the speedtest.net checker I use off the scent. I tried downloading some TV from iTunes for a ballpark figure, and it too varied -- but I managed to download a episode in just over 15 minutes. So I'm going to go for "decent, but not lightning-fast". It'll be fine for your business use though.
With a decent dedicated work area if it's very much heads down, fingers flying mode for you, the Clubhouse certainly works for business.
Why don't more business lounges have a barber/hair salon so that busy business travellers can get a quick trim and tidy-up? The highlight of my visit was the fantastic barber taking care of the haircut that I'd needed for a week or two but just hadn't been able to schedule.
A bonus is that the first question you're asked is "would you like a drink?" -- there's something pretty awesome about sipping on a cocktail (or, fine, a coffee) while you watch the giant airport fishbowl through the large windows and chat with the barber.
Extra marks to the barber for suggesting a shampoo and condition after the cut rather than before -- she managed to get just about all of the little bits of hair washed away so they didn't end up on my white collar while I was on the plane.
If your hair's already in tip-top shape, try a massage or facial from the Cowshed spa, all designed for the fact that you're about to sit on a plane for between five and twenty-two hours.
Basic hair and spa sessions are complimentary, with anything over the included services (longer massage? Footrub and backrub?) a fairly reasonable rate. Check out the salon and spa menu for what's on offer.
Or you could just sit back and relax in whichever kind of seating takes your fancy.
Apart from improving the champagne, it's hard to fault the Virgin Atlantic London Clubhouse.
This is a seriously impressive business class lounge that knows what its customers want, offers all kinds of 'surprise and delight' additions like the spa, salon and the fantastic bars, and does it all in a stylish way that goes some way to bring the magic back into flyng.
Best business class lounge in Heathrow? Yes.
Best business class lounge in the world? Very probably.
Our reporter travelled with Virgin Atlantic, but had access to the lounge via a different airline's frequent flyer program.