China - Hong Kong
Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA)
- Luxurious design
- À la carte dining and a must-visit bar
- Superb showers and private Day Suites
- Not the most convenient location for many Cathay and Oneworld flights
- One of the world’s best airport lounges
Cathay Pacific’s The Pier First is not only Hong Kong’s best airport lounge, it easily stands proud among the world’s best first class lounges – yet it does so in a uniquely Cathay way.
A favourite of high flyers from its debut in June 2015 until it was abruptly shuttered in March 2020 in the face of the global pandemic, The Pier First is (hurrah!) open once again.
And while our review shows The Pier First returns largely as remembered, the lounge’s legion of loyal fans – many of whom counted it as their second home – will be understandably curious as to what if anything has changed during that pandemic pause.
So here’s a rundown:
- the foot therapy at The Wellness Spa no longer involves an indulgent soaking of your plods – it’s been scaled back to a wipe-down and massage using ‘essential oil blends’
- those heavenly Aesop toiletries in the bathrooms and showers have been replaced by lotions and potions from British brand Bamford, which is also an inflight partner for Cathay first and business class
- the Champagne list has been changed to Thiénot Brut and Drappier Millésime Exception 2017
- the dining room’s à la carte menu may or may not be better or worse than before: this is a very subjective thing (as food always is) but Executive Traveller is hearing mixed reviews, depending on individual tastes as well as the dishes chosen. Our advice: pay a visit to The Pier First and make your own call.
With that recap done, here is our full and updated review of The Pier First – Cathay Pacific’s flagship first class lounge at Hong Kong.
Cathay Pacific The Pier First lounge: access
The following travellers enjoy a warm welcome at The Pier First, which is open daily from 5.30am to 12.30am:
- First class passengers in Cathay Pacific and its Oneworld and CX codeshare partners (who can also bring in one guest)
- Cathay Diamond, Diamond Plus and Diamond Invitation frequent flyers (who can also bring in two guests)
- Oneworld Emerald frequent flyers – a roster including the Platinums of Finnair, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas and Qatar Airways, along with BA Golds and JAL’s top-tiers (who can also bring in one guest)
- Travellers who arrive in Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific first class but have an onwards connecting flight in Cathay Pacific business class
- Holders of Cathay First Lounge Passes issued as a ‘mid-tier status benefit’ by Cathay Diamonds
Note that passengers who receive a complimentary upgrade to Cathay Pacific first class are not entitled to first class lounge access unless they hold first-worthy status: for example, a Cathay Gold or Oneworld Sapphire member blessed with an upgrade to Cathay first class will have to content themselves with visiting a Cathay business class lounge.
Cathay Pacific The Pier First lounge: location
Having made the door list by dint of travel class or frequent flyer status, it’s time to make your way to The Pier First, which is located at the far end of Terminal 1, near Gate 63.
(And yes, unlike the ‘mezzanine’ location of its The WIng siblings, The Pier First and neighbouring The Pier Business lounges are downstairs, although both make good use of their restricted viewpoints).
For most travellers, the journey from checkin at HKG to The Pier lounges involves a ride on the airport’s Automated People Mover (APM), unless they’re changing flights at HKG and use the airport’s transit channels to zip up from the Arrivals level 5 to the Departures level 6.
(At the time of writing, only the main East and West transit points are open, not the smaller but often more convenient and time-saving channels adjacent near gates 27, 42-44 and 61-63).
That said, and if you’re not in a hurry, walking from the ‘top’ of Terminal 1 – where you pass through immigration and security – to The Pier First affords a relaxing 20-minute chance to stretch your legs.
If your flight departs from the top of the terminal – with a gate number up to the low 20s, and especially gates 1 through 9 – then allow plenty of time to walk back from The Pier First, as the APM doesn’t run a return leg.
Cathay Pacific The Pier First lounge: design & layout
If you’ve previously visited The Pier First lounge, you know what to expect – and if not, you’re in for quite the treat.
Created by feted design doyen Ilse Crawford and her London-based Studio Ilse, The Pier First is less like an airport lounge and more like a lushly inspiring if insanely-oversized apartment.
(Crawford’s portfolio includes the concept for Aesop stores worldwide and Michelin-starred Hong Kong restaurant Duddell’s, which is another Cathay Pacific partner for inflight first and business class meals.)
“After you go through security and immigration, and then you’re about to get on another flight and be off again, we felt the lounge could provide an opportunity where you could slow down,” Crawford told Executive Traveller at The Pier First’s initial ribbon-cutting.
So if time allows, look around The Pier First and take it all in, from the green onyx walls and walnut timer panelling to the carefully-chosen furnishings.
Not does The Pier First overwhelm you with a vast and likely-crowded space the moment you enter – instead, the layout sets up two focal points for passengers at either end of the lounge, while nestling its relaxing showers and day rooms away from the hubbub.
Cathay Pacific The Pier First lounge: dining
Fine dining has always been a hallmark of the Cathy Pacific first class experience, both in the air and on the ground.
However, its Hong Kong loungescape took an undeniable culinary hit when the dining rooms of The Pier First and The Wing First, originally run by The Peninsula Hotels group, were handed over to contractor Sodexo.
Having many times tasted both the before and after, we’d honestly rate this as a drop from five-star to four-star standards.
The Dining Room dominates the far right of The Pier First, inviting travellers to sink into snaking deep-green leather benches and order from an à la carte menu (unlike Cathay’s The Wing First lounge, there’s no self-serve buffet here).
The breakfast menu offers Chinese and Western sets – the former includes siu mai, congee and e-fu noodles, while the later is a predictable mix of bacon, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, sausages and beans.
Of course, Cathay’s ‘signature’ wonton noodles and Shanghainese-style dan dan mien also make an appearance, alongside poached or scrambled eggs, quinoa and coconut porridge, a 'green pea and avocado smash’ and a superfood breakfast bowl.
Our most recent visit being a quick morning pit-stop, we opted for both the signature noodle dishes – as good as always – and the superfood bowl, which was disappointing in both serving size and presentation (by comparison, the ‘healthy bowl’ of the Qantas First Lounges is larger, more complex, more nourishing and dressed to impress).
Things pick up once the ‘all-day’ menu lands. In addition to the ever-reliable noodles there’s a riot of starters (try the double-boiled forest mushroom soup and the rare beef salad), mains (clay pot rice, ravioli, braised beef cheek, chicken teriyaki, fish curry, a wagyu beef cheeseburger and a ‘Beyond Meat’ vegetarian burger) plus sweet treats and cheeses.
On the whole, we also noticed more vegetarian options compared to several years ago, and service was fast and attentive.
But back to our opening remarks: some recent visitors are full of praise for The Pier First dining, others are underwhelmed, especially compared to the lounge’s early days. We suggest readers draw their own conclusions.
The drinks list is more likely to gain broader approval. In addition to the Thiénot Brut and Drappier Millésime Exception 2017 Champagne, highlights of the wine selection include
- Domaine Frederic Trouillet Pouilly-Fuisse, Burgundy, France, 2018
- Mr. Glover, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2018
- De Wetshof Estate Limestone Hill Chardonnay, Robertson, South Africa, 2018
- Chateau du Taillan, Haut-Medoc, France, 2012
- Elderton Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia, 2015
- Mount Beautiful Pinot Noir, Canterbury, New Zealand, 2016
Whiskys include Johnny Walker Black Label, Glenmorangie Single Malt and Chivas 12, while the bartender will of course shake up a classic cocktail (hello, espresso martini).
While you can enjoy all those drinks and more in The Dining Room, we’ve always found The Bar – down the opposite end of The Pier First – really hits the spot for a pre-flight tipple or two.
The horseshoe-shaped bar is a magnet for convivial travellers, while recliners and lounges let you find your own solo or shared space.
The Bar even has its own soundtrack piped through: a smooth cool jazzy playlist created for Cathay, which perfectly sets the mood.
An oft-overlooked part of The Pier First is The Pantry – that small self-serve alcove just before The Bar – which during our morning visit had everything from hot western and Asian dishes to bakery items, cereal, sandwiches and even a tempting stack of macarons.
However, some changes could be on the way: Vivian Lo, Cathay’s General Manager for Customer Experience & Design, earlier this year told Executive Traveller she was considering “maybe some more delicacies that are fit for afternoon tea, or maybe for your drinks… because I think it’s probably for the people that don’t want to spend time in the à la carte dining room.”
Cathay Pacific The Pier First lounge: working
With fast and free (password-protected) WiFi and AC/USB outlets in a nifty drawer within each side table, you can work, stream or Zoom pretty much anywhere in The Pier First.
But if a serious work session is on the cards, with privacy and quietness paramount, head for The Bureau.
Tucked away off the main hall, halfway between The Dining Room and The Bar (hang a right after the reception and service desk), this dedicated ‘productivity zone’ sports six partitioned booths.
While each of these secluded mini-suites has its own iMac, the wide deep desks provide plenty of room to push that aside and plonk down your laptop and spread out your documents (ask at the reception desk about your printing options).
Cathay Pacific The Pier First lounge: relaxing
The warm, calming aesthetic and thoughtful mix of materials and furnishings makes it easy to relax anywhere in The Pier First.
It’s a lounge where you leave the busy-ness of the day and the terminal behind: you automatically slow down, draw breath, take a beat and then take a break.
If there’s time for a shower, you’ll appreciate why designer Ilse Crawford put so much thought into these 14 private and very posh suites, with their limestone tiles and brass fittings.
They’re not just super-roomy, with ample space to open your cabin bag for a change of clothes and to spread out your personal toiletries.
You don’t need a degree to operate the overhead rainforest shower – Crawford says weary travellers shouldn’t be forced to puzzle over which way to turn this knob or that lever – while the water doesn’t pool out onto the bathroom floor, and the steam and condensation doesn’t build up to transform your refreshing shower into a sticky sauna.
Another way to wind down is with a complimentary 15-minute treatment at the Wellness Spa: choose between a Foot Reflex Massage, Neck & Shoulders Massage or Eye Revitaliser.
The spa is open from 7am to 11pm, with appointments slotted in on a first-come, first-served basis.
Facing a long transit? There’s no better place to be the Day Suites in The Retreat (the same zone as the showers and spa) if you want to rest, reflect, meditate or snooze.
Secreted away in the quietest part of the lounge, each of these eight private nooks is furnished with a comfortable daybed, dimmable lighting, a ledge where you can park your carry-on bag and AC/USB ports so your travel tech can recharge at the same time as you do.
Other sensible touches with the traveller in mind include coat hooks and a mirror.
Thick noise-reducing windows overlook adjacent airport gates and the runway, although you can lower the blinds and also draw the heavy aisle-facing drapes to cocoon yourself.
As with spa treatments, Day Suites can’t be booked in advance, and Cathay asks guests to limit their stay to 90 minutes.
Cathay Pacific The Pier First lounge: summary
We’ve loved The Pier First since the day it opened, and we don’t know anyone who doesn’t look forward to visiting this impressive lounge.
It may have lost some of its stellar shine over the years – the original restaurant was a true fine dining experience boasting suitably ‘first class, five-star’ fare – but the Cathay of 2023 simply isn’t the Cathay of 2015, after suffering through the bruising global pandemic and with a full recovery still ahead.
Even so, The Pier First remains one of our favourite lounges and we’re thrilled to welcome it back.
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