by Reinhard Hohler, Chiang Mai

Halong Bay and its panoramic seascape of limestone karsts is usually
experienced passively, from the top deck of a cruising vessel, gin and tonic
in hand. But there’ll be no excuse for indolence this month when Emeraude
Classic Cruises debuts a three-day / two-night itinerary that plays up a
healthy dose of island adventure.
The Emeraude’s new soft adventure options run from rock-climbing to
butterfly trekking on Cat Ba Island. In between, there’s compelling middle
ground in kayaking.

“Halong Bay is so much more compelling when it’s not a passive experience,”
said Kurt Walter, group general manager of Apple Tree Group Hospitality.
“Yes, it’s one of the most magnificent seascapes you’ve ever seen, but when
you get out into it, with a paddle in your hands, or your hands on the grit
of these limestone karsts, then you’ve just gained a whole new dimension of

The new soft adventure program is managed by Slo Pony Adventures, a
Vietnam-based travel company run by Onslo Carrington and Erik Ferjentsik,
two American-trained outdoor enthusiasts. Participants can book the soft
adventure of their choice independently, or as part of a group effort.

For rock climbers, Slo Pony is cultivating 20 different venues around the
bay, including the Polish Pillar, a karst that exemplifies the bay’s
fantastic limestone formations.

Most climbing for beginners and intermediates takes place at Moody’s Beach,
where a two-faced crag is laced with easy-to-moderate routes.  “No matter how intimidating the prospect of rock climbing may seem for some, especially among formations as otherwordly as Halong Bay’s, the experience we’re promoting is accessible to anyone,” said Onslo Carrington. “If you can walk up a flight of stairs, you can climb!”

On Cat Ba Island, Slo Pony leads trekkers through Butterfly Valley in the
National Park. Here the experience is less predictable but serendipitous
with waterfalls, exotic wildlife, rainbows and spectacular views. On the bay
itself, Slo Pony’s kayak guides steer Emeraude passengers to deserted
beaches and in and out of myriad lagoons.

“As a destination, Halong Bay is one of the most amazing backdrops to an
adventure, and always has been,” said Walter. “But we’ve always thought it’s
more than a backdrop. What we want to do is put these karsts in the
foreground of everyone’s memory of Halong Bay.”

Halong Bay assumed a prominent spot on the world stage in 1994 after UNESCO inscribed its 1,600 islands and islets on the World Heritage List . But even among the select company of UNESCO’s natural wonderlands, Halong Bay is a stand-out. As one of 28 finalists in the New7Wonders of Nature, the bay itself is now in the running for a spot as one of the select seven. At
present, Halong Bay ranks fifth in the voting for this designation.

Launched in 2003, the Emeraude is a near-replica of the eponymous stern
wheeler that plied these same waters between 1906 and its wreck in 1937. The modern vessel accommodates 74 passengers in 12 superior cabins, 22 deluxe cabins and three suites.

Until this month, the Emeraude’s Halong Bay excursion was a two-day /
one-night cruise, calling on limestone karst islands hollowed out by
wondrous grottos.

For those passengers in the soft adventure program, a Slo Pony tender
retrieves climbers, kayakers and trekkers at 9am. After a day on the bay,
adventurers return to the Emeraude before dinner, and just in time for a
nightly showing of the French epic, Indochine, part of which was filmed in
Halong Bay.

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