Day 10: Maldives to Vancouver
At around 8pm, the staff at the Conrad Lounge drove us back to Malé Airport for our long journey home. Malé Airport is relatively small and handles just a handful of flights in the evening, with tonight’s departures going to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Istanbul, and Singapore (all would-be destinations on our trip, coincidentally). All of these flights were operated by large, wide-body aircraft carrying 300-400 passengers each. This coupled with the Coronavirus scramble to get home, meant that the departures terminal was packed. There was a long line to get through the first round of security before even reaching the check-in area. Once through, we saw a huge line at the Turkish Airlines desk. We were booked in economy class on this leg to Istanbul. Thankfully, I have Star Alliance Gold status so we could use the much shorter business class check-in line. The reason for the long line was that most passengers had connecting flights from Istanbul, largely to Europe, and Turkish Airlines has cancelled many of those flights due to the recent travel restrictions across the continent. The desk agents needed to rebook those passengers one at a time. I could imagine it would take at least 2 hours just to get checked in for those passengers. It’s times like this that I really appreciate the value of airline status.
I had initially booked the Istanbul to Vancouver leg of this trip separately because I wanted it to coincide with our departure out of Dubai. Since that wasn’t happening, I rescheduled that flight to today and ended up with two separate bookings on Turkish Airlines. The desk agent was able to navigate through this, combine my bookings, and ticket us from Malé all the way to Vancouver, via Istanbul and Toronto.
After getting our tickets, we proceeded through immigration, and then a second round of security. Finally, we reached the main terminal, which was pretty crowded so we looked for a lounge. Malé doesn’t have any Priority Pass lounges past security, with only one lounge available to business class passengers. Again, thanks to Star Alliance Gold, the check-in desk gave us an invitation to the business class lounge despite flying in economy. The Leili lounge (and its food) was a very welcome sight.
At around 10:30pm, we headed down to our gate. Again with Star Alliance Gold, we were able to board with business class in the first group. We made our way outside, across the apron to the Airbus A330-300 taking us to Istanbul. This was my first time boarding a wide-body aircraft via stairs, which was pretty cool - kind of like a head of state.
This is where the fun comes to an end I thought, as we turned right instead of left at the door to our economy class seats, which were only 2 rows behind business. There were already some passengers onboard because this flight originated from Colombo and only had a quick stopover in Malé. It was clear that someone was in our seats recently as the blanket and headphones were already used and not cleaned. That would be unsanitary in any circumstance but more so during this time. As we settled in, a flight attendant came up to us and told us our seats had been upgraded to Business Class! We couldn’t believe it - what are the odds? We were about to leave the gate, so we rushed out of our seats, got our bags, and headed up to the business cabin. What a world of difference. There was plenty of space, people were sipping on their drinks, and everyone looked so relaxed. Unfortunately, my fiancée and I didn’t sit together, but that was no big deal given this unexpected delight. I took the window seat and my fiancée had an aisle seat a couple rows back.
Turkish Airlines A330 Business Class is arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration, so window seat passengers don’t have direct aisle access. However, this configuration doesn’t require any sort of staggering or angling unlike many 1-2-1 cabins, so each passenger gets basically unlimited legroom. This also makes it relatively easy for the window passenger to slide out to the aisle without disturbing the aisle passenger. After settling in, the flight attendant came by with a tray of colorful beverages - I had the raspberry drink which was very refreshing.
We also got some really comfortable slippers, that I still use at home, and an amenity kit from Molton Brown, a British luxury beauty company.
We took off a bit past 11pm for our 8-hour red-eye flight to Istanbul. Shortly after take off, dinner was served. Due to the late hour, this was an express service, but they didn’t miss out on much. Turkish Airlines is catered by the famous Do&Co, which is known for their excellent onboard food. Turkish also has a chef onboard every flight, complete with a chef’s hat. The appetizer was a light salad, paired with some hummus, cheese, and olives on the side. There was a small cake on the tray for dessert as well.
For the main course, I had the lamb biryani which was really tasty.
After dinner, the flight attendants did turn down service by putting on the mattress pads and bringing out the bedding.
With no foot cubby, this was actually one of the most comfortable bed seats I’ve flown. I slept soundly until breakfast, which was served shortly before landing.
Eggs on a plane are usually nothing to write home about, but this scramble was done really well. My fiancée hated this because she prefers her eggs fully cooked, but I really enjoyed it. This was served alongside what seemed like a Turkish grilled cheese, which was soft, gooey, and delicious.
As we came in on our final approach to the new Istanbul International Airport, I got some nice shots of the city. The bridges cross the Bosporus Strait which divide Europe and Asia.
This was an amazing upgrade for a flight that I came in with no expectations. I later realized that they must have oversold economy class and due to the pandemic, everyone showed up. The main reason Star Alliance Golds would be upgraded on a partner airline is if economy was oversold. It looks like we would be able to make the full lap around the world in business class after all.
The new Istanbul Airport opened just a year ago and was designed to be the largest airport in the world. It is absolutely stunning and massive. We arrived before 7am and our connecting flight to Toronto wasn’t until 3:30pm. Turkish Airlines does offer free tours of Istanbul for those with long layovers, but given the circumstances, we decided to pass and stay in the lounge.
Turkish Airlines operates two main lounges for departing passengers - one for business class and one for those with elite status. I did actually pay for business class tickets on this final leg from Istanbul to Vancouver, which ran a relatively reasonable $2000 each. Part of this was due to the pandemic and the higher risk that economy air travel poses. The other part was that I just wanted to fly in business class and complete this trip as it was intended.
The lounge is so big it has a map detailing all the different areas of it.
There was an automated baby grand in the lobby that was playing some classical music, although it sounded more like a kid who hadn’t practiced much.
The lounge has transparent lockers to store your luggage so you won’t ever need to remember which one you put it in - a nice touch.
One major benefit of flying business class with Turkish is that on long layovers in Istanbul, their lounge has private suites available. These were essentially like hotel rooms inside the lounge, complete with a bed.
After a red eye, the best thing before bed is a hot shower. Right across the hall from our rooms were several private shower suites.
I took a short nap before going out to get some food. The great thing about having a private room is you can leave all your stuff in there. My fiancée wasn’t interested in the lounge offerings so we took a walk around the airport. Surprisingly, there weren’t that many food options so we still ate in the lounge. The breakfast spread was pretty light - my fiancée got an omelette and I had a Simit, which is like a Turkish bagel. By lunchtime, most of the food stations started so I went around trying a bunch of local offerings. There was a station making mini Turkish ravioli which looked pretty interesting but was okay in taste.
There was a station serving this eggplant dish which was really delicious (although I am biased as this is one of my favorite foods).
A signature element of this lounge is that most of the food is served from live cooking stations so it’s very fresh. The Turkish Pide, which is kind of like a local pizza, was very popular and every batch had a crowd of people waiting.
The grilled meats were also very tasty and tender.
The desserts are catered by Demel bakery in Vienna, which was the royal bakery of the Austro-Hungarian empire back in the day. I went to Vienna last year and loved the Sache Torte there, which is their famous chocolate apricot cake. I was thrilled to see it here in the lounge.
Of course you can’t visit Istanbul without trying some Turkish coffee. There were several coffee and tea stations scattered throughout the lounge.
I actually enjoyed the local tea even more. You can also make your own blend with the leaves.
To round out the lounge, there was a remote control race track, an art museum, a library, a PS4 gaming area, a golf simulator, and a place to watch 12 TVs at once.
The eight hours flew by and before we knew it, it was time to leave. A quick look at the flight board showed the impact of the Coronavirus on air travel at the time and how fortunate we were to have a flight back home. Just a week later, Turkish Airlines cancelled all their flights. On a side note, TK1771 to Prague on the top left would have been our flight if the trip wasn’t cut short.
At the gate, there were two additional passport checks, likely due to the rule announced a couple days ago that only Canadians are allowed to board flights to Canada. We were flying on TK17, one of Turkish’s newer Boeing 777-300ER for the 11-hour flight to Toronto. The business cabin is laid out in a 2-3-2 configuration and yes, I had the middle seat.
To be honest though, it was pretty good. I was traveling with my fiancée, so no problem having a close neighbor. On the other side, there’s a privacy partition that you can pull out if you don’t know your neighbor. While of course the configuration is not as good as 1-2-1 cabins, the extra legroom for sleeping is great. Turkish has launched their new 1-2-1 cabins on their Boeing 787s, which are actually the exact same seats as the Singapore Airline flights I was on earlier this week. Looking forward to trying that when this is all over.
I had a mint lemonade as my welcome drink and was handed the menu and amenity kit.
We got his and her amenity kits from Versace, which was pretty cool.
Amongst other things, this well stocked amenity kit had one of the most comfortable pairs of socks, which I still use to this day and appreciate more while staying at home all day.
Lunch service started shortly after takeoff with an amuse bouche.
The table was then set with an electronic candle that even flickered. Turkish airlines has both live TV and free WiFi for business class passengers.
The chef came out with a trolley of appetizers, so we could pick and choose which ones we wanted. That pastry in particular was really good.
I also had a roast red pepper soup. Everything so far was delicious.
For the main, I had the steak while my fiancée had the sea bass.
I very much regret ordering the steak as it was way over-cooked. I know that’s a common complaint of in-flight steaks, but I’ve had some really good ones, including one on Thai Airways and even one from Do&Co on Austrian Airlines last year. I’ll give them a pass since it was just one miss in a string of hits.
Finally, the dessert trolley came out.
I was pretty full by now, so I just had some fruits and a chocolate ball which had a mango mousse inside - very tasty.
After lunch or dinner or whatever you call it, it was time for bed. The lights dimmed, but we still kept the candle. See, you can’t even tell there was a third seat beside mine with the privacy partition.
I slept very well, so the 11 hours went by quickly. A couple hours before landing, we were served a light dinner consisting of a caprese salad and a spicy chicken dish. The chicken was really tender and flavorful.
We landed on time in Toronto at around 7:30pm local time. We cleared Canadian customs pretty quickly with our Nexus cards. There wasn’t much inspection for the virus other than a handout with information about COVID and a reminder to self isolate for 14 days. At security, we found that our boarding passes to Vancouver didn’t scan properly. The agents said they looked fine and let us through anyways. Unfortunately, the Maple Leaf Lounge was closed so we went to the Plaza Premium Lounge for a quick bite. All the food was served by the attendant to prevent multiple people from touching it - a precaution due to the virus. At the gate, I went to proactively reprint our boarding passes, in case they wouldn’t scan during boarding. At around 10pm, we boarded Air Canada 129, a 787-8 taking us back home to Vancouver. We couldn’t select our seats since we booked through Turkish Airlines, but they assigned us 1D and 1G which is what I would have picked anyways.
Air Canada’s Signature Class is laid out in a 1-2-1 configuration with the popular reverse herringbone seats. There is a divider in the middle seats that can’t be lowered, but it wasn’t a big deal. I had some sparkling wine for my welcome beverage and settled into the seat. The bedding was already there for this late night flight.
The flight attendant took our order for dinner - I’ve lost track of how many meals I ate today.
The smoked tuna starter was delicious, which I enjoyed with the Air Canada signature cocktail.
After being scarred by the steak on the previous flight, I went with the salmon, which was so soft and flaky. While the presentation was lacking, the flavors were really good.
Dessert was a chocolate espresso brownie with a coffee cream sauce. This was also really good. All three courses were excellent - well done Air Canada.
It's hard to be believe that this was a 4.5 hour domestic North American flight. The seat and food quality was right up there with the best international carriers. In between some episodes of Fresh off the Boat, I got some sleep. We landed at 12:30am local time, coming back to a very different Vancouver than the one we left just ten days ago. We made a full lap around the world in those ten days. Despite the looming virus, we didn’t have much disruption in the places we visited and managed to get home safely.
Had our trip been scheduled one week later, to coincide with Spring Break, it would have been cancelled. Now that both of us made it back safely and did not contract the virus along the way, we are both extremely glad we decided to go because who knows when is the next time we can travel.
For now, stay safe and stay home everyone - we will travel again.