Lounge Act

By Jon Barrett

Originally published on Advocate.com May 05 2009 11:00 PM ET

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If i had to guess what purgatory is like-based solely on my experiences here on earth -- I'd skip over all references in religion and literature (sorry, Dante) and draw direct comparisons to the DMV, jury duty, and airport layovers. And while I know of no way to sidestep the hell that is standing in line for a driver's license or waiting to see if you've been picked for a jury (short of breaking the law and/or shirking your duties as a responsible citizen), I've found the quickest way to heaven next time you're stuck at London's Heathrow Airport. It's called the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse.

Virgin Atlantic has Clubhouses in 10 airports around the world (and shares first-class lounges with other airlines at 20 other airports), but there's something uniquely spectacular about the 8,200-square-foot Heathrow space. It starts with the aesthetic-the same mid-century, space-age, swinger stylishness that the international carrier and its sister airline in the States, Virgin America, are known for. But as the dozens of caramel-colored Eames lounge chairs, Arne Jacobsen Swan chairs, and classic Eero Aarnio hanging Bubble chairs attest, this isn't reproduction chic. No expense was spared in furnishing this space, and, unlike so many conference room-like first-class lounges, the Heathrow Clubhouse isn't just equipped for conducting business while you wait for your next flight; it's designed to make you forget that you're at an airport altogether.

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The delightful deception begins as soon as you park yourself in one of the seating areas, when you're almost immediately greeted by a member of the waitstaff, who not only tells you how to connect to the complimentary Wi-Fi and points out the power outlets (American, even) next to almost every chair but also gives you the full menu of food options, which are also available (free of charge) in the Clubhouse's full-service restaurant, the Brasserie, and the Cocktail Bar. If you're on the run or just in the mood for something a bit more casual, check out the deli, where you can pick up a made-to-order sandwich or salad.

There's much more to this lounge than furniture and food, though. If you've got a few hours to spare, as I did, check out the Clubhouse spa, which includes a dry sauna, steam room, whirlpool, and showers and where you can get any assortment of treatments, including massage, manicure, pedicure, or wet shave. Next to the spa is a Bumble & bumble hair salon (be sure to make an appointment ahead of time, as I'm told it fills up quickly). And if you're fortunate enough to be in London on one of the few and far between sunny days, head up to the sun deck (that's right, I said sun deck) to catch a few rays or to enjoy an out-of-this-world perspective on all the traffic at one of the world's busiest airports.

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But just as any fast track through the pearly gates is supposed to cost a lifetime of clean living and good deeds, admission to a Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse comes at a hefty price: an upper-class ticket on one of the airline's flights, which was about $2,200 between New York and London at press time (compared to about $650 for an economy ticket on the same flight). Of course, those upper-class tickets come with additional perks, not the least of which is the exceptional delight of an airline seat that transitions into a completely flat bed. But you don't have to be Suze Orman to understand that most Americans can't afford a $2,200 airline ticket. That's why it's good to know that Virgin Atlantic, like most other carriers, also grants its most frequent fliers -- those who have reached Flying Club Gold status -- access to its lounges. Another option, if you're flying domestically, is to check out a Clubhouse in San Francisco, New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, or Washington, D.C.'s Dulles International. Virgin America passengers who are flying in first class or "main cabin select" can buy a day pass to a Virgin Atlantic lounge for just $35. While these U.S. Clubhouses aren't nearly as decked out as the Heathrow space, $35 is quite a bargain for a slice of heaven -- even in this economy.