As our life-changing five-night stay at the JW Marriott Maldives drew to a close, Jessy and I were naturally a little forlorn at the thought of returning home.
However, we at least had one silver lining to look forward to: a return journey onboard Etihad Airways First Class, beginning with a flight on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Malé to Abu Dhabi, followed by the famous A380 Apartments en route to London.
I had booked the itinerary between Malé and London for 62,500 American Airlines AAdvantage miles per person in First Class, and I was delighted that I’d get to knock both of Etihad Airways’s best First Class products off my bucket list.
While the A380 Apartments is definitely the star attraction, Etihad’s 787 First Class looked quite stunning in pictures as well, so I was equally looking forward to getting a small taste of the product on this four-hour flight to Abu Dhabi.
Our seaplane finally arrived back at Malé’s Velana International Airport after about a 90-minute ride from the resort, having completed a few extra takeoffs and landings to pick up guests from other resorts along the way.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by the JW Marriott Maldives’s onsite staff members, who drove us from the seaplane terminal back to the main departures terminal. The staff member escorted us all the way to the Etihad Airways check-in counter, where we lined up as the only passengers in the First Class queue.
Within a few minutes, we had our boarding passes in hand for the flight to Abu Dhabi as well as the onward flight to London. The JW Marriott staff member wished us a safe journey home, marking the formal end of our resort experience, and with that, we made our way through security and immigration to the airside departures hall.
Unfortunately, Etihad Airways’s ground experience in Malé for First Class and business class passengers is pretty disappointing. We were invited to the Leeli Lounge, a basic and dimly lit space with a pressing shortage of power plugs and an even more pressing shortage of appetizing hot food – so much so that Jessy opted to treat herself to some Burger King from the food court instead.
(I knew better, of course, and was happy to stay hungry for a few more hours in anticipation of the excellent food and drink onboard Etihad Airways First Class later.)
Our time in the lounge seemed to crawl by at a snail’s pace, but eventually, it was finally time to head to the boarding gate.
The Etihad 787 had parked at a remote stand, so premium passengers were invited to board the first bus for the short ride over. As a First Class passenger, having to share the transport bus with business class passengers isn’t exactly the perfect start, is it? 😉
My tongue-in-cheek elitist grumblings would quickly flitter away, however, upon boarding the plane…
…and turning left into the very intimate eight-seater First Class cabin – of which Jessy and I would be the sole occupants tonight.
Etihad Airways | EY279
Aircraft: Boeing 787-9
Cabin: First Class
Route: Malé (MLE) to Abu Dhabi (AUH)
Date: Sunday, March 1, 2020
Time: Departing 8:30pm and arriving 11:45pm
Duration: 4 hours 15 minutes
The Etihad Airways 787 First Class cabin is very easy on the eyes, featuring the airline’s signature bronze-and-black colour palette along with the “diamond-studded” design motif that you’ll find onboard the A380 Apartments themselves.
Thanks to that particular motif, the walls of the individual suites in Rows 1 and 2 are actually set at a small angle to each other, resulting in an aisle that zig-zags ever so slightly across the cabin. That adds a touch of distinctiveness to this product, as it’s not a design choice I’ve seen any airline offer.
Speaking of the suites, there are eight of them in total, arranged across two rows in a 1-2-1 configuration.
Intriguingly, Seats 1A, 2D, 2G, and 1K are backward-facing, whereas Seats 2A, 1D, 1G, and 2K are forward-facing. The only reason for this appears to be due to the aforementioned curvature of the suites’ walls: each seat is wider at its base than its front end, so this backwards-forwards arrangement is what gives the aisles space to zig-zag their way through.
We had selected Seats 1A and 2A for this ride, with Jessy opting to take up the more conventional forward-facing seat behind me.
The snazzy furnishings continued into the suite itself, and I was easily charmed by my fine leather and suede surroundings as I settled into Seat 1A. The size of the suite is also notable: while the Dreamliner is certainly narrower compared to many of its widebody peers, Etihad Airways has still managed to put together a very impressive First Class suite on this plane.
Each suite consists of two individual leather seats facing each other: the main seat at the base, as well as the entertainment screen and an exceedingly large ottoman on the opposite side. Equipped with a seat belt of its own, the ottoman also serves as a buddy seat for face-to-face dining.
A plush blanket set was left for us on the ottoman, providing us with the highest level of comfort even on this short four-hour hop across the Indian Ocean.
Underneath the ottoman is a spacious storage unit for your carry-on or personal item, as the First Class cabin does not offer overhead storage bins. Unlike some other First Class products out there, this under-seat compartment can be latched shut to keep your belongings out of sight and out of mind during the journey.
Let’s begin our tour of the suite’s features with the bells and whistles on our left-hand side. Here, you’ll find the seat controls, decked out in a decadent golden sheen, allowing you to manipulate the seat angle, lighting, and sliding doors.
Above that, an electronic control panel provides further customizability, adjacent to the touch-screen entertainment controller that can be withdrawn from its holder for optimal use.
I was a big fan of the design of the suite’s dedicated lamp, which accompanies the smaller reading light in illuminating the entire space.
Then, let’s open the storage unit on this left-hand side, which reveals the USB chargers, literature pockets, and headphones and headphone jack.
Over on the opposite side, the compartments start to get a little more exciting. Middle Eastern airlines seem to love offering First Class guests a dedicated drinks bar of their own, and while the Etihad 787 minibar was much less decadent than the automatic sliding minibar you’ll find on the Emirates A380, it was still a nice little nook to have to myself, allowing me to take a sip of water or pop whenever I wanted.
And lastly, there’s a final compartment at the very front end of the suite, which reveals the extremely heavy-set tray table, as well as the power outlet for charging your devices.
The tray table was supposedly so heavy that the flight attendant, upon welcoming me to my suite, warned me (scolded me, almost) that I shouldn’t operate the tray table on my own and should always ask for her assistance instead, since I could easily break it if I wasn’t careful. That seems like a flaw in the design if it’s genuinely the case.
Finally, each First Class guest is treated to an individual closet housed within the walls of their suite, where they may hang up their garments for the duration of the flight. Jessy and I were dressed casually this time around, so we didn’t make much use of this feature.
As you can see, if you were assigned any of the middle seats, you’d also have a privacy divider that you could slide open and closed, depending on whether you wanted to interact with your seatmate or not.
Just as I was finishing up my inspection of the hard product, the crew member who’d be taking care of us tonight arrived with a tray of welcome refreshments: Arabic dates, orange juice, a hot towel, and the complimentary wifi voucher. Alas, due to local liquor restrictions in the Maldives, champagne could not be served until after takeoff.
A little while later, the second member of tonight’s two-person First Class crew returned with a ceremonial pour of Arabic coffee to add to my tray.
Preparing for takeoff, I took a closer look at the other in-flight items.
Our crew had distributed the menu and wine list, and while I didn’t bring it with me on this occasion, I’ll include here a copy of the menu that I retrieved from Etihad’s website:
In addition, there was an amenity kit by Acqua di Parma, an Italian luxury goods company owned by Louis Vuitton. The kit contained Acqua di Parma’s body lotion, lip balm, and fragrance, as well as an eye mask and a dental kit.
We took off promptly at 8:30pm, and I spent this time sipping on some Sprite from my private bar (hey, it’s not often you get to drink your beverages during takeoffs and landings) and browsing through the entertainment channels.
I didn’t plan on watching anything on this flight, since the plan was very much to enjoy our dinner and then catch up on some rest, so that I’d have more energy for the showpiece occasion of the Etihad Apartments later on.
However, I was pretty impressed by the entertainment selection, including an array of Live TV channels. Clearly, anything that’s offered by their rivals Emirates, Etihad Airways must match as well.
I also connected to the onboard wifi at this point, which unfortunately only gives First Class passengers 90MB of free wifi. On this short four-hour flight, that was just about all I needed, but I’d probably require a few top-ups on the longer flight to London subsequently.
As soon as the seat-belt sign turned off, we were officially clear of the Maldives’ liquor restrictions, and thee crew enthusiastically approached my seat with a fresh bottle of 2006 Charles Heidsieck rosé in hand.
Jessy came over to my seat to join me for dinner, and after we revealed that we had just gotten engaged on this trip, our crew member topped us off with some very generous pours of the pink and perfumed poison, accompanied with a trio of almonds, wasabi peas, and olives.
About 10 minutes later, she returned to set our table and begin serving our meal. As Jessy and I were the only two First Class passengers tonight, the crew’s service was exceedingly prompt throughout.
As usual, I had ordered far more helpings of food than Jessy, who preferred to take things slowly given our upcoming indulgences in the First Class Lounge and onboard the Apartments as well. One thing’s for sure – she was certainly regretting the decision to eat Burger King earlier!
For my appetizer, I ordered the Arabic mezze, which consisted of hummus, baba ghanoush, and tabbouleh, along with pitas and falafels on the side. Each little ramekin of mezze was the perfect portion size to prepare my palate for the main course to come.
After polishing off my glass of bubbly, I switched to a glass of the Puligny-Montrachet to go along with my snapper fillet.
Served alongside polenta and asparagus in a rich, buttery lemon sauce, the snapper fillet was genuinely an outstanding dish, and set the bar very high for my impression of Etihad Airways’s cooking.
As many of you know, I enjoy comparing and contrasting against my previous First Class experiences whenever I’m trying out a new one, and on this occasion I couldn’t help but feel that Etihad’s onboard dining easily outperformed its rival, Emirates, by a very clear margin.
Jessy also reflected the same thoughts, having ordered the pumpkin ravioli as her main dish and finding it very delicious. We were both still looking forward to the food onboard the Etihad Apartments later, but for now, we were very much blown away.
After the mains, I decided to sample some of the cheese plate, as well as a few of the desserts on the menu.
To our surprise, the crew put together a lovely message of “Congratulations!” on my apple and raisin crumble, and even though I was already extremely full at this point, I forged ahead and finished off both the crumble and the chocolate ice cream so as to repay the crew’s kind efforts.
I had a cappuccino to finish off the meal, which gave me another 30 minutes or so of wakefulness as I worked on uploading some Instagram Stories on my phone.
However, pretty soon, I was feeling very drained, and I knew I needed to take advantage of the remaining two hours or so to sleep, in order to avoid being a complete zombie on the upcoming 2:30am departure for London onboard the Etihad Apartments.
Since Seat 1D opposite me was empty, I asked the crew if they could make my bed there, and they were more than happy to help.
And with my blanket fluffed and my door shut, I proceeded to nap very comfortably for the remainder of the flight, waking up only as we were making our final descent.
Even then, I continued to doze off in an upright position until we had already arrived at the gate and it was time to deplane. Jessy hurriedly awoke me and helped me gather my belongings as we said goodbye to our lovely crew and made our way onto another bus – this time, just for the two of us – to bring us over to the main terminal of Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Most airlines shy away from installing a First Class cabin on their relatively space-constrained Boeing 787 aircraft. But not Etihad Airways – they operate a very efficient eight-seater First Class cabin on their Dreamliners, and they pull it off superbly.
The First Class suite is large enough that you wouldn’t think it’s on a 787, featuring an ottoman that’s larger than what many other airlines offer on their Airbus A380s and that makes for the perfect spot for dining face-to-face with a companion.
What left me most awestruck, however, was the food and drink on this flight. Yes, I’ve been very enamoured by the Asian cuisine onboard Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and ANA over the years, but I find it’s quite rare that an airline’s Western food hits such high notes for me. Our meal on this flight certainly left us looking forward to trying more of Etihad’s onboard catering on the Etihad Apartments shortly after.
Speaking of which, while the Apartments are certainly the pinnacle of Etihad’s First Class offering, I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to fly on the airline’s 787 First Class on a longer flight going forward – perhaps on their Washington–Abu Dhabi route, the primary North American route that’s serviced by the Etihad Dreamliner.