Dinners are served a la carte, while lunch and breakfast are buffet-style. // © 2018 Paradise Cruises
Feature image (above): Paradise Cruises’ fleet comprises five wooden junks and two steel boats. // © 2018 Paradise Cruises
As I boarded the boat that would take me around Halong Bay, Vietnam, I felt something make brief contact with the top of my head. It was not a raindrop — that would come later — but a rose petal, one of several creating a makeshift red-carpet entrance to Paradise Cruises’ Elegance 2.
The warm welcome was a fitting way to embark the newest and biggest steel ship sailing the mystical bay — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and it was also a good example of how Elegance 2 packs a big punch in a relatively short length of time.
The sister ship of Paradise Elegance, Elegance 2 set sail for the first time in July 2017. The steel boat measures 200 feet long and 43 feet wide.
Elegance 2 is the seventh boat for Vietnam-based Paradise Cruises, which launched its Halong Bay luxury sailings in 2008. Since then, the company has made a name for itself as a premier luxury operator and is a preferred partner of many discerning travel outfits. I stayed with one such partner, the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel, whose staff nodded approvingly when learning of my Halong Bay cruise line choice.
Elegance 2 might be the biggest ship to sail the karst-studded, emerald-jade waters of Halong Bay, but the setting onboard is surprisingly intimate while still offering the amenities expected on larger ships.
Consider the spacious 31 cabins — including four suites — which feature floor-to-ceiling windows and private balconies. Designers focused heavily on the interior of each room, as well: There are glossy mahogany walls and furniture; a clutter-proof walk-in marble closet that is sectioned away from the bedroom; and a marble bathroom that features a rain shower. While the room was plenty decadent for me, perhaps some of the many honeymooning couples who opt for a Halong Bay cruise should spring for the Captain’s View Terrace Suite, which features wraparound outdoor views of the bay as well as a bayfront bathtub.
Another ship feature that seems plucked from a bigger vessel is the dining program. Dinners are ordered a la carte, and guests can start the meal when they choose (before 10 p.m.). There’s even a complimentary cooking class offered for those who can squeeze it in. I was also impressed that Elegance 2 offers a pre-breakfast for early risers — something I partook in after a peaceful morning practicing tai chi with the ship’s instructor.
That morning, while alone on the rain-spattered sundeck, I could easily imagine I was floating atop a sinking mountain range, which local lore says was created by dragons who once protected the area by spitting out jewels and gems. These mythic precious stones are the some 2,000 limestone islands and islets that make up modern-day Halong Bay.
On Elegance 2, there are many places to immerse in the otherworldly ambiance of the bay. Although the crew does a great job transferring passengers to the bay’s many caves via Zodiac, I found that I had a better sense of the landscape when onboard.
Don’t get me wrong — I enjoyed exploring the stalagmites and stalactites of multichambered Sung Sot cave; marveling at the presence of a man-made beach on Titop Island; and having the chance to look up at jungle-topped karsts from a kayak at Luon Cave. But due to the bay’s ever-increasing popularity, I found that the excursion sites we visited were sometimes uncomfortably overcrowded with passengers from other ships and even a bit polluted.
For me, communing with nature is personal, and I’d rather choose how, and with whom, I do it. Because of this, I often preferred meditating on the bay’s moody mists while at the ship’s library with a strong French-press Vietnamese coffee; over happy hour drinks set to impressive live music; or from my cabin’s private balcony.
And on my Paradise cruise, this was understood. I was always treated as the unique snowflake — er, rose petal — that I am.