Emeraude Classic Cruise to Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay is a must for most travellers visiting Vietnam, but choosing the best tour can be a challenge with a lack of genuine information online. Steer well clear of the cheap and unsafe options and sail the turquoise waters in style aboard the Emeraude.

In 2003 the Emeraude started operating, offering overnight excursions to the UNESCO World Heritage site with entertainment and gourmet food onboard. The classic cruiser is a replica of a 1920s French paddle steamer that sailed around the famous bay nearly 100 years ago.

After a three-hour drive from Hanoi we were delighted to arrive at the private pier, ready to embark and set sail. The vintage style boat is decorated in a French colonial style with glossy dark wood and antique features. There are 34 luxury cabins and three suites on board, each with its own en-suite bathroom and air-conditioning.

I felt very lucky to be staying in the Paul Roque suite, located at the front of the boat with a private balcony. Inside the rooms are old-fashioned and grand, with big comfortable beds and green-tiled bathrooms with showers and all necessary amenities. There were plenty of windows letting in natural light and showcasing the beautiful scenery.

At the start of the journey each guest is provided with an itinerary, listing a varied assortment of bay excursions and boat activities. Hiring kayaks and massages are also available at extra cost. Most of the time is spent leisurely cruising amongst hundreds of islets, on the calmest waters I have ever experienced.

After a welcome cocktail and a delicious Vietnamese buffet lunch we stopped at our first destination of the trip, Sung Sot Grotto. These magnificent limestone caves provide an eerie and magical walk. Escorted by our Emeraude guide we learnt about the intriguing rock formations and found the best photo spots for postcard views across the bay.

Next we enjoyed crepes and a visit to a local pearl farm before it was time for a brief cooking demonstration on deck. A shy chef carefully showed us how to perfect the art of fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. We trialed the technique and tasted the results, while our teacher effortlessly carved swans out of tomatoes!

That night a smart European dinner was served; we enjoyed delicious dishes like creamy pepper beef and a range of sophisticated salads, soups and desserts. Optional squid fishing off the back of the boat didn’t seem to be a popular activity, but we had a go for a little while before the chilly temperatures sent us running back inside. For those still awake, a moonlight screening of Indochine is a lovely way to end the day. I was mesmerised as the film showed images of the iconic bay of islands that surrounded us in the darkness.

The still and serene waters meant it was easy to get a good night’s sleep in the luxurious beds, but we were up early for an al fresco sunrise Tai Chi class. Before a hearty breakfast we were taken on a bamboo boat ride through Luon Cave to an isolated clearing where we spotted golden monkeys hanging from the foliage.

Many wish to just tick Halong Bay off their bucket list, but Emeraude cruises offers the opportunity to relish every moment of the journey with luxurious accommodation, informative staff and a range of interesting activities and experiences.

More information and book a trip with Emeraude Classic Cruises here.

Thalatta Seaside Hotel, Greece

Evia is the second largest island in Greece but is often overlooked as most tourists favour the smaller, more developed destinations. Just a two hour drive from Athens, Evia is more popular with the Greeks, as a quiet escape from busy city life on the mainland. Although Evia does not have an airport, it is easily reachable by road, and it is a scenic drive through the island.

Thalatta Seaside Hotel is located on the north-east side of Evia in a small fishing village called Agia Anna. The thoughtfully designed hotel has been open for seven years, but is so well kept that it appears new. The young owner has carefully chosen materials and features that complement the unspoilt natural surroundings. After a short stint in chaotic Athens, I felt my mood instantly calm as I stepped inside the stylish but simple hotel.

On the Greek islands the season most often starts in early May, so we were among the first of the year to be checked in. There are some advantages to picking low season for your Mediterranean holiday, we were lucky to be upgraded to the top Thalatta suite and relished the privacy and the chance to splash about in our very own swimming pool.

Our spacious suite had room enough for a whole family with a separate lower floor that we didn’t even use. The main open plan room was minimalist and comfortably decorated in muted shades of grey and green with plenty of natural light thanks to the floor to ceiling windows. Complementary wifi allowed me to work in the lounge area of the room, which also had a smart sofa and stylish rocking chair. The outdoor spaces included a small balcony overlooking the pool and large decking area which had enough sun loungers for a party of ten. The bathroom was functional with a powerful shower, though I found it quite dark and was disappointed not to find a bathtub.

We were incredibly well looked after during our stay at Thalatta, the staff were genuinely friendly and kindly assisted us with every need or desire. The lovely and knowledgeable Aris drove us around, explaining the local sites and talking to us about the Greek way of life. Dimitri, guest relations manager, is a fun and happy guy, always a pleasure to see and chat to around the property. I was also impressed with mixologist George and the charming Maître d’ who looked after us during mealtimes.

During the summer months there are various restaurant options, although these were limited during our stay in May. We ate breakfast and dinner each day at the main hotel restaurant, Asado. The set menu in the evenings showcased fresh local ingredients and traditional Greek dishes. The food tasted good and it was clear to see that the chef took pride in the plates he was sending out. The meat and fish courses were accompanied with delicious, refreshing local white wine. I will definitely be looking out for Greek wines back in London.

Our gourmet highlight was lunch on the beach at the hotel’s social seafood eatery, Meze. Here, with your feet in the sand, you can sample the freshest fish, grilled to perfection. We were presented with tender octopus and crispy battered calamari. We also tasted a range of vegetarian small dishes, typical Greek salad and moreish handcut chips.

Guests can choose to relax by the pool, or by the sea on the pebble beach. Pick a book from the clever beach library, craftily hidden within the wall. When we tired of sunbathing we took the hotel bicycles out for a ride along the beach and into the quaint nearby village. We also took an afternoon trip with Aris to see some sights on the island. First stop was Drimona Waterfall where we swam in crystal clear waters. Next we saw the 16th century chapel in the Monastery of St David, up the hills and surrounded by goats – it was a mesmerising place to experience. Finally a quick stop in Limni town, a favourite with tourists in summer.

On a cooler evening we visited the boutique Life spa at the hotel. Here the wellness team look after you, tending to all your pampering requirements. We enjoyed a thorough body massage which used different massage techniques to de-stress each muscle in the body, relieving tension and strain. The therapist worked relentlessly on my back and shoulders to knead out the persistent knots, and left my body feeling much more balanced. There is also a gym and hair salon should you need it.

We left Thalatta by boat, setting sail across the tranquil sea to visit the island of Skiathos. The hotel is able to arrange a variety of day trips aboard this stunning sail boat, allowing guests to see another aspect of Greece’s natural beauty.

Thalatta Seaside Hotel (www.Thalattahotel.gr, +30 210 3615844) offers 5 nights in a Superior Sea View Room on a B&B basis from £575, (based on 2 people sharing).

Things to do in Bruges

One day in Bruges is enough to see the main sights and soak up the picturesque setting. Talking to friends about my weekend trip, it quickly became clear that Bruges is the most popular Belgian destination. This Unesco recognised area is known for its historic city centre and the idyllic canal-side beauty, the abundance of chocolate and beer and featured recently on film: ‘In Bruges’, a homage to the destination.

To stay

Hotel De Tuilerieën – this is the luxurious abode where the film star cast of In Bruges stayed. The building is an elegant patrician house from the 15th century that has been transformed into a contemporary hotel. Hotel De Tuilerieën counts 45 unique rooms and overlooks the canals of Bruges.

To eat

A’Qi – There are plenty of places in town to have the speciality moules frites, but if you want something more special I recommend A’Qi. A few miles out of town this charming little eatery serves immaculate Michelin starred food. Karen Keygnaert is the leading lady in the kitchen producing pretty dishes with an Asian twist. We loved the Sunday set lunch menu, highlights included langoustine with Yuzu sauce, duck with Japanese citrus fruit and the most delightful dessert of blood orange, cheesecake and peach.

To drink

De Halve Maan Brewery – it would be easy to lose track of time in this authentic beer house. Take a guided tour round the brewery and learn about the old-brewing process in the museum before trying the delicious brew.

De Proeverie – when you are weary of sightseeing pop in to De Proeverie for hot chocolate. They get their chocolate from the shop across the road, Chocolatier Sukerbuyc and make a delectable drink served with freshly whipped cream for extra comfort.

To see

Basilica of the Holy Blood – This tiny little church has amazing artwork and memorable stained glass windows but is most famous for housing a phial claimed to contain a cloth stained with Jesus’ blood.

Michelangelo’s Madonna – this unique beautiful sculpture is on show inside the Church of our Lady. After wandering around the decorative church head for the cordoned off museum where the masterful marble figures are found.

To do

Climb the belfry on the Grote Markt – you will have to queue for this tourist attraction but it is worth the wait. The impressive 12th century medieval bell tower has become a symbol for the city of Bruges. After climbing the 366 narrow steps to the top you will be rewarded with a stunning view of the city while listening to the bells played by carillon (hand keyboard).

Float along the Gronerei (green canal) – a walk down the canals in Bruges is one of the most romantic strolls you could have, but if you fancy a float head for one of the boat tours which cost 7 euros for a 30 minute ride. Take in the scenery whilst relaxing on the rippling water.

Thoroughly Modern Milly travelled with Eurostar.

·         Eurostar operates up to 9 daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £69.

·         Tickets to any Belgium station start from £79.

·         Fastest London-Brussels journey time is 2 hours.

·         Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 03432 186 186.