Staying grounded

The pool at the Heathrow Sofitel.
The pool at the Heathrow Sofitel. 

If you are stranded at Heathrow, the Sofitel's a good place to kill time, as Angie Kelly discovered.

An Ethiopian Airways Dreamliner caught fire on the runway at Heathrow two weeks ago, just as we were about to board a flight for the long journey home from London to Sydney.

With our flight cancelled, our connections missed and the airport closed, we joined a queue of hundreds of other passengers who needed rescheduled flights or hotels, or taxis home. That was at 6.15pm and when we reached the ticket counter of our airline, SWISS, at 11pm, it took a further hour of looking for available seats for staff to give up and send us to a budget airport hotel.

One of the Heathrow Sofitel's bars.
One of the Heathrow Sofitel's bars. 

It wasn't too pretty, and there was no way of knowing how long we might be in the dormitory-style digs with pay-through-the-nose Wi-Fi, suitcase-size rooms and no facilities other than a basic cafe.

Next day, with no word on new flights - all seats to Sydney on British Airways, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Cathay were taken for that day and the next - a friend suggested we move to the Sofitel, which felt like moving into Windsor Castle in comparison.

Being stuck in transit is a strange kind of limbo - you need to stay close to the airport in case you suddenly have to pack and go, meaning venturing out (say, to Legoland in nearby Berkshire, or just to a nice Surrey pub for lunch) isn't very sensible. Which is why good food, comfortable beds, a good attitude to children and a range of diversions becomes critical when choosing an airport hotel. (There are 22 here.)

The Sofitel is located five minutes down a covered walkway from Terminal 5, the long-haul flight hub. (A fab shopping mall and a new Gordon Ramsay restaurant, Plane Food, awaits airside we discovered later.) You can get to it from the other four terminals via the Heathrow Express, which stops at the other hubs before speeding to Paddington in London.

With chaotic scenes at the airport and a huge backlog, we were lucky to have secured a room with demand from stranded passengers so high that a group of Italian high-schoolers was sleeping on the ballroom floor after rooms ran out.

The junior suite was comfortable and spacious enough for our family of four to spend 48 hours together without too many arguments over the bathroom. Services that make sense in a hotel that has jet-lagged guests turning up at all hours include a 24-hour gym, a late-night spa and 24-hour room service offering much more than the usual late-night snacks.

It was hardly a punishment to spend time at the spa, where an impressive jacuzzi room with relaxation beds was hard to leave. Ditto the steam room, sauna and chill space, with herbal tea on tap. Beauty services and a hairdresser also help when you are looking for ways to kill time.

When the call from SWISS finally came and it was time to leave, it was easy to pack up and walk five minutes to the terminal to check in. Shame we couldn't stay longer.

TRIP NOTES

WHERE Sofitel, Heathrow Airport, London. From Australia, 1300 65 65 65; from Britain, 020 8757 7777.

HOW MUCH Day use (8am-6pm) from £125 ($207), from £199 weekdays and £169 weekends a night.

TOP MARKS Super spa and gym.

BLACK MARK Our room had club access but our children were not allowed in.

DON'T MISS Your rescheduled flight.

MORE INFORMATION sofitel.com

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