Because sometimes it's not the journey, or the destination, that matters...
1. Changi Airport, Singapore (SIN)
Changi is the Meryl Streep of airports, winning all of the critics’ awards for best performance. In fact, this airport is so beloved that the locals stop by to hang out even when they don’t have plane tickets! Those who are lucky enough to have a lengthy layover can take a complementary bus tour of downtown Singapore. Wearier travellers can relax at the airport’s on-site pool, snooze in the custom-designed lounges, or even book a hotel room by the hour. (For a nap! Let’s not give ‘layover’ a new meaning…)
Grab a power nap at the swish Transit Hotel in each of Changi’s three terminals; minimum 6 hours.
2. Dubai International Airport, United Arab Emirates (DXB)
Diamonds, Dolce and Dior – this is no desert mirage. Tall tales of infinite oil money come to life at Dubai International Airport’s shopping esplanade, which brims with oh-so-much-more than the usual stash of cigarettes and liquor. Dubai is duty-free heaven, with almost 2 sq km of space to swipe your plastic. Enjoy the airport’s spoils while they last; the Al Maktoum International Airport, 50km south, will eclipse Dubai International in 2013, and become the largest hub in the world, measuring a whopping 140 sq km in size. That’s a lot of room for retail!
The accessories of choice for today’s oil barons are diamond-encrusted mobile phones; exclusive Vertu handsets retail in DXB for anything up to an eye-watering US$300,000!
3. Princess Juliana International Airport, St Maarten (SXM)
Passengers with time to kill before their departure should make their way to Maho, a beautiful beach at the tip of the runway – and perhaps the only sandy strip in the world with a sign that reads ‘low flying and departing aircraft blast can cause physical injury’. As the massive Boeing 747s swoop in for a thunderous landing, scores of beer-toting beach bums wave at the incoming passengers. Adrenaline addicts who stand in technology’s way during take-off must hold onto the chain-link fence separating the beach from the runway, lest they be tossed into the sea as the jumbo jets gun their engines.
Divers love St Maarten’s crystal clear waters and perfect climate; Octopus Diving (www.octopusdiving.com) offers scuba trips for all levels from their base in Grand Chase.
4. Kansai International Airport, Japan (KIX)
Like a giant concrete city floating in Osaka Bay, Kansai International is the original flavour of kick-ass Asian airport. Built in the late 1980s, this massive man-made island and technological marvel is one of the most expensive civil projects of all time. Kansai paved the way for the creation of modern runways in crowded urban centres, and despite its age, it still manages to keep up with the best of ’em, offering travellers the ultimate in Japanese hospitality. You want singing toilets, conveyor-belt sushi and between-flight reiki sessions? You got it. Geishas? Probably not.
Too much technology? Enticingly named ‘Relaxation Forests’ in Passenger Terminal 3F and Aeroplaza 2F offer stress-busting therapies, from 10-minute hand massage to full-body rubdown.
5. Keflavik International Airport, Iceland (KEF)
Keflavik International welcomes passengers to isolated Iceland like a sleek Scandinavian space station, with smooth designer lines, swish sensi-flush toilets and the faint cooing of Bjork’s ethereal voice in the distance. But Iceland’s little air hub earns a spot near the top of our list for the adjacent Blue Lagoon, a spa secreted behind the rolling tundra. Buses whisk tired travellers away to the nearby enclave for an invigorating soak in the natural hot spring, which gurgles with a magical recipe of replenishing elements. Don’t forget to pack the Speedos in your carry-on luggage!
Steaming mysteriously amid barren volcanic landscapes, the mineral-rich waters of the Blue Lagoon (www.bluelagoon.com) are a must-see (swim?); 20 minutes from the airport.
6. Juancho E Yrausquin Airport, Saba (SAB)
Saba, a jagged volcano peak bursting skyward from the crystal Caribbean Sea, is home to the world’s shortest runway, measuring a measly 400m in length. Flights connect the scrubby bump in the ocean to its Antillean neighbours, and by the time you figure out how to pronounce the airport’s name, you’ll have already landed on another island. Departing planes don’t technically lift off the ground; instead, the runway suddenly stops and the pilot literally drives the aircraft over the edge of a cliff. Don’t worry, there’s a cocktail bar in the waiting area should you need to ease any pre-departure jitters.
Experience the buttock-clenching approach to Saba with Winward Island Airways (www.fly-winair.com); flights operate to nearby St Maarten, St Eustatius and St Kitts.
7. Vancouver International Airport, Canada (YVR)
When Charles Lindbergh made his infamous North American tour, Vancouver got the proverbial ‘talk to the hand’ because there was nowhere to land a plane. This gave Vancouverites a serious inferiority complex, and thus in 1927 the city constructed its very first landing strip – an airport to rival all airports. The high standards have been maintained throughout the years and today Vancouver International is probably the only airport in the world with its own curator; YVR boasts one of the largest collections of local indigenous art in the world.
The themes of YVR’s Art Foundation are ‘land, sea and sky’, the roadways of travel; exhibitions include modern works and traditional native talent.
8. Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong (HKG)
After decades of dodging skyscrapers, pilots could finally breathe easy when landing in Hong Kong – HKG moved the city’s air traffic away from the centre and out onto a reclaimed island. However, if swerving between towers is your cup of tea, then try out your piloting skills at the on-site PlayStation zone or in the 4-D cinema. This high-tech oasis is one of only three airports in the world to be awarded Skytrax’s prestigious five-star ranking, which is based on numerous ergonomic criteria (the other two airports are Changi and Incheon International, which coincidentally also made it onto our uber-scientific top picks list).
If you harbour ambitions of piloting yourself head to the Aviation Discovery Centre in Terminal 2; the interactive exhibition features a cockpit simulator.
9. Incheon International Airport, South Korea (ICN)
Yet another impressive Asian hub, Incheon makes the grade for its cache of cutting-edge amenities. When the doors opened in 2001, the goal was to use the airport as a springboard to launch Seoul (30 minutes away) into the burgeoning economic rat race along the Pacific Rim. Transportation statistics already show that this futuristic jet hub has taken off without a hitch. ICN is the perfect airport for the business-minded traveller, offering loads of conference rooms, multimedia facilities and VIP lounges, all covered in a cosy blanket of wi-fi.
It’s not all work at ICN – get artistic at the Korean Culture Center on Concourse 4F; themes include royal history, alphabet heritage and traditional music.
10. Munich Airport, Germany (MUC)
Munich Airport is the pinnacle of German efficiency, and the management is so proud of their well-oiled transport hub that they offer guided tours of the facility during layovers. Tykes can experience the airport and all of its aeronautical glory at the free cinema, where jet-themed movies are regularly on show. Those in need of a little fresh air between flights can practise their putting at the 18-hole mini-golf course, or wander out to the viewing platform to watch the planes rev their engines before lift-off.
Transfers to the city are reassuringly efficient; train S1 runs every 10 minutes and whisks you directly to the city; journey time 45 minutes.