A weekend in Lisbon

Portugal seems to be a popular destination for British holidaymakers this year. Though the Algarve promises year round sunshine and Porto has an ‘underdog’ excitement about it, no-one can deny the historic charm of Lisbon. When I first stayed in Lisbon, on a whim a few years ago, I was surprised and delighted by the easy-going atmosphere, lovely people and abundance of unassuming food and art gems to discover. For this trip I revisited many of my favourite places and uncovered a few more local Portuguese institutions.

To eat

Belcanto – you will be dreaming of José Avillez’s imaginative creations long after you’ve left his restaurant. This meticulous two Michelin star restaurant serves up gastronomic delights that taste just as good as they look. My favourite dish was the Tangerine dessert, a mix of subtle contrasting flavours and textures.

Taberna da rua das flores – for authentic Portuguese fare in a humble and charming environment, head to this tiny 25-seat restaurant in Chiado. The venue used to be a barbershop and now serves reasonably priced, delicious plates of food from a daily-changing menu.

Eleven – this fine-dining restaurant has a smart and airy feel, and is a popular choice with businessmen working nearby. The menu offers elaborate and beautiful dishes with a focus on seafood. Enjoy a special lunch while admiring the scenic views of the surrounding park.

Manteigaria – recognised as one of Lisbon’s top custard tart makers, Manteigaria is found in an old butter shop behind an Art Deco facade in the Chiado district. Every 40 minutes a bell is rung to let locals know that a new batch of tarts has just come out of the oven.

Bistro 100 Maneiras – this contemporary restaurant presents tasty Portuguese food in a relaxed environment. The perfect place to slump for lunch after a morning of walking up Lisbon’s steep hills.

Pastéis de Belém – an institution which undoubtably makes the best Pastéis de Nata in Lisbon. The family’s recipe is top secret and their tarts remain the flakiest and creamiest in town. Sit inside rather than queueing for takeaway and order a strong coffee to accompany your tart.

To drink

Copenhagen coffee lab – the speciality coffee scene in Lisbon is just beginning. The design-centric Copenhagen coffee lab is leading the trend, I visited this modern cafe for a fab flat white.

Memmo Alfama – concealed within the ancient walls of the Alfama district is Lisbon’s most popular design hotel, Memmo Alfama. Head up to the rooftop bar for a cocktail and the best views in town.

A Luz Ideal – A little out of town, this stylish café looks like its straight out of a Wes Anderson film. Sip a coffee in the light-filled room and pick from the traditional Portuguese snacks.

The Independente – This is quite possibly Europe’s coolest hostel. Enjoy the vintage bohemian haven with a glass of Portuguese wine or head up to their new secret rooftop bar and restaurant, The Insólito, for a cocktail with a panoramic view of the city.

A Ginjinha – join the locals as they queue in the streets for a shot of cherry liqueur.

To do

Tuktuk Tejo – tuktuks are a popular trend in Lisbon, a nippy way to navigate the old narrow streets of the city. Organise a trip with Tuktuk Tejo who offer guided tours of different districts. The vehicles are all electric and the guides are friendly and extremely knowledgable. We loved our tour round the Belém area and learnt a huge amount about Lisbon’s history and culture.

Gulbenkian – this meticulously curated museum exhibits a thoughtful collection of ancient and modern art.

LXFactory – once a threads and fabrics factory, LXFactory has found a creative home in this industrial part of town. Wander round the impressive Ler Devagar book shop and stop by Landeau Chocolate for the best chocolate cake you will ever taste.

Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga – I was surprised to find this museum of ancient art very empty. Housed in a former palace, the collection includes paintings, sculptures, textiles, drawings and other decorative art forms from the Middle Ages to the early 19th century.

Hospital de Bonecas – for just 2 euros you can take a peek at Lisbon’s unique doll hospital which houses broken toys from over the ages. Each doll is seen by a doctor before being mended and returned to its loving owner.

Jerónimos Monastery – after sampling the area’s renowned custard tarts, visit this amazing cathedral which is a perfect example of late gothic architecture.

Old tram ride – the old trams are one of the most familiar symbols of Lisbon’s old town. They are not the cheapest way to travel but they are certainly the most romantic. Take route 28 up to see the most beautiful part of town.

To shop

A Vida Portuguesa – this much-loved emporium stocks an impressive range of Portuguese brands and products, from Alantoíne hand cream to Bordallo Pinheiro porcelain. The shop itself is as lovely as the items they sell.

Conserveira de Lisboa – you may not be a fan of tinned fish but it’s difficult not to fall in love with the charming vintage packaging at this store. Hundreds of coloured tins line the shelves; the perfect retro souvenir to remind you of Lisbon.

Luvaria Ulisses – there are a lot of historic places to shop in Lisbon but this little glove shop (which opened in 1925) has to be the most special. Tucked between the superstores of Rua do Carmo, it looks like a fairytale shopfront, with windows filled with coloured leather gloves. There is only room for one customer at a time so you will always have the assistant’s undivided attention.

Embaixada – a concept store of dreams. This amazing building houses a variety of independent local brands and food and drink outlets. Don’t miss the ethereal murals which decorate the grand staircase.

Feira da Ladra – the steep tram ride is worth the scare for the famous flea market at the top. Wander round the sun drenched cobbled streets and rummage for a bargain.

Caza das Vellas Loreto – this gorgeous wood-panelled shop has been making and selling wonderful candles since 1789. Buy some of the beeswax varieties or pick up one of the mock fruit candles.

To escape 

Sintra – this magnificent UNESCO world heritage town is just 30 minutes drive from central Lisbon, and is well worth visiting for a cultural day trip. First visit the spectacular Palácio Nacional da Pena palace before heading back down to the village to Piriquita for a travesseiros (traditional almond pastry).

Many thanks to the Lisbon tourist board for providing Lisboa cards for the trip. These cards are a passport to the city offering free public transport and valuable discounts on top tourist sites. More information here.

The Nam Hai, Hoi An

Of all the destinations I visited in Vietnam, Hoi An was without doubt the most charming and memorable. This Unesco World Heritage city offers many beautiful historic sites and is home to the country’s famous tailoring industry. Wandering down the glowing lantern-filled streets is enchanting, like a trip back in time.

I recommend avoiding the touristy accommodation in the centre and heading instead to the paradisical Nam Hai, a modern luxurious retreat with a private stretch of beach. Despite the close proximity to Hoi An (a ten minute drive), the spacious hotel feels blissfully isolated encouraging you to immediately relax.

The all-villa, 35 hectare resort can host up to 300 guests. There are 100 villas in total, 40 of which have their own private pool and personal butler. Many of the other 60 villas offer access to the beach, with beautiful views across the ocean. After admiring the spectacular tiered infinity pools, we were driven by buggy to our villa. Nestling among the foliage was our divine sanctuary. The decor is uniform across all villas; sleek contemporary design with cool calming colours. The central elevated area of our bedroom had elegant light drapes surrounding it which were drawn at night to give the room a cosy feel. The regal bed was topped with a voluptuous duvet and bouncy pillows for maximum comfort and decadence. Behind the bed a huge stone bath was wonderful for evening soaks. The room also included a writing desk and lounge area complete with authentic Vietnamese ornaments and artwork.

Breakfast was my favourite meal of the day at The Nam Hai. Every morning there is an endless array of Eastern and Western favourites, with an open kitchen for hot a la carte dishes, champagne on ice and a variety of tropical fruits and juices. Needless to say I saw it as my duty to sample the full menu, enjoying long lazy brunches every day, which embarrassingly began to feel like the norm. Highlights included the fluffy pancakes with berry compote, and the deliciously creamy omelettes. Coffee was rich and flavoursome and the freshly squeezed orange juice was amazingly sweet.

The signature restaurant serves fusion cuisine with a strong Indian influence and the more casual beach restaurant offers light lunches in the daytime and Vietnamese classics accompanied by traditional music in the evenings. After ten days of Vietnamese food it was strange to be eating Indian inspired dishes at The Nam Hai. Considering the warm climate, I found the curries heavy and opted instead for one of the international dishes. Pressed terrine of vine ripened tomatoes with whipped mozzarella, basil oil and leaves from the hotel’s organic garden was a stylish and unique take on a classic salad. The tomatoes were brilliantly sweet and red and the leaves had a vibrant aromatic flavour. The Punjabi lamb kebab with beetroot yoghurt, cucumber was also delicious, a spiced caramelised kebab with a complementing yoghurt dressing.

The Nam Hai spa is one of the hotel’s greatest assets. There are eight treatment pavilions which sit serenely overlooking the lotus flower covered lagoon. It is a fairytale setting which makes the treatments here feel extra special. After a refreshing rose water foot soak I was treated to a Vietnamese massage. The highly trained therapist kneaded my weary muscles using a fragrant pine, lemon, cedarwood and orange oil. While I felt my skin being rejuvenated, I could hear the sounds of nature outside the pavilion. This destination spa is a miraculously beautiful place and should definitely be part of your Nam Hai itinerary.

When you feel the need to work off some of those deceptively calorific Vietnamese spring rolls there are plenty of active options at the resort. Swimming in the glistening turquoise pools is a must, the view they offer is second to none. There is also a small gym, bikes to ride, a tennis court and complementary daily yoga classes.

The hotel staff are on hand to help make any excursions as close to perfect as possible. They provide free shuttle bus transfers to and from Hoi An throughout the day, so guests can visit the culturally rich city as often as they wish. There is also the option of day trips to the Marble Mountains or Hue, a sacred and historic town.

Hoi An is not an easy place to reach from the UK, travellers need to get an international flight to one of the major cities before transferring onto a local flight to Da Nang. Despite this The Nam Hai is a very popular option for English and European jetsetters and after spending a few days here I can see why. This immaculately stylish hotel has faultless facilities and stand-out service, all just moments away from Vietnam’s most captivating city.

More information and book a stay at The Nam Hai here.

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.