Virgin Australia has set its sights on Asia for the next stage of the airline's growth, with Hong Kong at the spearhead. Direct flights between Melbourne and Hong Kong have already taken wing, with Sydney-Hong Kong and Brisbane-Hong Kong also on the cards – alongside several cities in mainland China.
So how does Virgin's new Melbourne-Hong Kong service stack up against the incumbents of Qantas and Cathay Pacific?
Your Virgin Australia journey from Melbourne to Hong Kong begins at the upmarket Etihad Airways lounge.
Just don't go looking for a la carte dining or a pick-me-up coffee (or something stronger) from the bar, which is closed ahead of Virgin's morning departures.
But it's still a pleasing spread for breakfast or brunch, starting with a standard breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausages, hash browns, tomatoes and mushrooms...
... some cereals and lighter plates...
... smoked salmon, yoghurts and fruit salad...
... juice and bakery items...
... and even some muffins to finish off.
Coffee and tea is a self-serve affair.
The spacious Etihad lounge is designed to handle a superjumbo-sized load of passengers, so there's ample room for the more modest demands of Virgin's Airbus A330.
Looking to bring in a fellow traveller? Velocity Platinum and Gold frequent flyers can each sponsor one guest on their flight into the Etihad lounge.
From the choice of drinks offered after take-off, I opted for the suitably-named Virgin Mary.
It happens that a Bloody Mary is considered one of the best cocktails to enjoy during your flight: its sharp savoury notes remains unchanged and unchallenged by altitude, and the core ingredients of tomato juice and Worcestershire sauce are packed with those flight-friendly 'umami' notes.
However, I take it 'Virgin' style – sans alcohol – when working, and Virgin Australia's spacious and well-appointed business class seat happens to make for a superb office at 30,000 feet.
All that's needed is inflight Internet, which we're told is "coming soon" – although no doubt many would prefer to remain incommunicado above the clouds.
As I was travelling on the inaugural Melbourne-Hong Kong flight there were few special touches, including a fortune cookie for every passenger.
Clearly, I received somebody else's fortune cookie.
If you haven't already flown Virgin Australia's Airbus A330 or Boeing 777 business class seat – which the airline has christened The Business – all you need to know is that ranks up there with the very best in the world.
We're talking direct aisle access, a seat which converts into a long fully-flat bed, and plenty of personal space around that seat in terms of flat work surfaces and stowage nooks.
This includes a handy pocket for your iPad or other tablet device...
... with USB and AC power (plus a headphone jack) available under the adjacent shelf.
This is a pretty clever design: hook up your USB and AC charge cables and your noise-cancelling headphones at the start of the flight, then drop the lid back into place – there's a gap lined with soft foam so the cables aren't pinched – and it becomes a usable space for your 'office at 40,000 fleet'.
The outer seats are angled towards the window while the paired middle pairs are angled a bit more towards one another, with a perspex privacy screen which slides back in case you want to chat with your seatmate.
Each seat's wrap-around shell adds privacy and makes it a little more of a 'suite'.
Need a nap en route to Hong Kong, or a solid snooze on the overnight leg back to Melbourne? The seat folds down into a fully flat 2 metre bed that's topped with a memory foam mattress, high-grade cotton pillows and doona.
Virgin's standard business class amenity kit comes in a compact Mandarina Duck bag and contains a trio of Ren skincare products.
You can read previous Australian Business Traveller reviews of Virgin Australia's business class flights between Sydney and Perth, Sydney-Los Angeles, Brisbane-Los Angeles and Melbourne-Los Angeles (note that the Los Angeles flights are made on Virgin's Boeing 777-300ER jets which include an inflight bar not available available on the smaller Airbus A330).
I've travelled to Hong Kong more times than I care to count, with both Qantas and Cathay Pacific, but the meals on this flight – created by Virgin Australia's resident chef Luke Mangan – would rate as the best I've ever enjoyed on a Hong Kong flight.
The menu is a mix of standards for Western palate plus Asian favourites.
First up, starters: a light pork & shrimp wonton soup served with bok choy and bamboo shoots...
... or a roast beetroot salad with chickpeas, sweet raisins, pomegranate and crumbles of yoghurt-based labneh cheese.
(The third starter choice was poached chicken with egg noodles, black mushrooms, soy and sesame.)
On to mains: always finding duck hard to resist, I zeroed in on the barbecue roast duck with vermicelli and mustard greens.
Other options includes braised lamb shank, steamed barramundi and mushroom & ricotta ravioli.
This left just enough room to sample dessert: here are the cinnamon-dusted churros with dark chocolate sauce and crème fraiche...
... and Serendipity ice cream, available in Belgian white chocolate or black sesame flavours.
(If savoury is more your thing, the cheeseboard includes Tasmanian Heidi Tilsert, Victorian Milawa Camembert and a Saint Agur blue from France, accompanied by quince paste, grapes and crackers.)
To round it off – or to enjoy any time during the flight – there's Nespresso coffee accompanied by biscuits or Valrhona chocolate.
Closer to Hong Kong, the second meal service included a starter of dumplings...
... and a platter with rice, steamed pork bun, flatbread and accompaniments, sufficient to keep hunger pangs at bay until tucking into a proper dinner in Hong Kong (given my flight's 5.20pm arrival time).
For the beginning of its push into Asia, Virgin Australia is putting its best foot forward. Combine a superb business class seat with great meals and service, and all that remains is for the airline to lock down a daily service with more consistent scheduling – something with Virgin tells us it's already pursuing.
David Flynn travelled to Hong Kong as a guest of Virgin Australia