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Whimsical wonderland

Check into Lamarck University at the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa

Lobby area of the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa. RALF TOOTEN

JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa Bai Khem, Phu Quoc District An Thoi Town, Vietnam Call +84-297-3779-999

The setting

Dreaming of going to university abroad? What better place that Phu Quoc, which has crystal clear waters, white sandy beaches and visa-free travel?

Look no further than Lamarck University at the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay, founded by the French in 1894 and the first university in Phu Quoc. Named after French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, it quickly became one of the leading universities in Asia specialising in natural science.

However, when the French left in the '40s, Lam U was forced to close. In 2017, this prestigious school was restored with five-star accommodations, luxury amenities and an unparalleled location on a private beach. A hidden gem on Phu Quoc, the Vietnamese island off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand.

Lobby area of the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa. RALF TOOTEN

First impression

Keeping with its history, the lobby offers high ceilings, an extremely stylish reception desk and the pièce de résistance that will immediately warrant sitting down on is the giant swinging sofa. Don't forget to check out every nook and cranny for vintage artefacts from yesteryear, like hand-painted walls, furnishings and even photographs from sports teams with their school logos.

Each building on the campus is named after a different department, each themed around subjects like biology, zoology, architecture and the fine arts. For the athletic, there is a running track, so don't forget your sneakers. During the orientation course, you are given a tour of the entire resort and handed an itinerary of all the activities… observing is highly encouraged.

I rarely say this, but have your phone battery on 100% and never let it leave your hand, as every few steps, literally as even the vintage tiled floors, are IG worthy.

Staying in

This is one uni where staying on campus isn't a bore. It has 244 rooms, suites, stand-alone villas… all sea-facing. This is no ordinary uni, as it has three outdoor pools -- Sun pool, Shell pool and the Sand pool -- all offering views of Emerald Bay, through the coconut trees that line the white-sand beach.

There are four mess halls for you to indulge in. Tempus Fugit, which is Latin for "time flies" offers all-day dining, but the highlight here is the spectacular breakfast. The ginormous spread includes Vietnamese dishes with locally-sourced ingredients, Japanese, Chinese and classic French delights in the form of bread, cheese and pastries. Freshly-brewed coffee and fresh juices to wash it all down -- more of a brunch feast than breakfast. But one needs a full stomach when at uni, don't we?

If you get nippy at lunch or teatime and want something small, head to French & Co, for French-style sandwiches, pastries or desserts…. a sweet haven. If you're into casual dining by the sea for dinner, head to Red Rum for the "catch of the day". This all-day-dining-by-the-sea serves a wide selection of fresh local seafood. Nothing like a bit of sea breeze to get the appetite going.

If you're me and prefer a more fine dining experience, head to the newly-opened Pink Pearl. Housed in the mansion of Madame Pearl Collins, the Vietnamese wife of the dean known for her lavish parties and French cooking skills, the elegant interiors are an opulent mix of gold, fuchsia and turquoise, adorned with lithographs from 1886 -- a nod to the owner's extravagant lifestyle.

A degustation menu and an à la carte menu comprises Lady Pearl's favourite recipes, which have been given a modern twist by chef de cuisine Amine Lakhdari. Pink Pearl's seasonal farm-to-table menu combines premium local and imported ingredients, which change every few months. Indulge in signature dishes like the Phu Quoc sea urchin, Line-caught Phu Quoc merou, Nha Trang langouste, Charolaise beef pithivier, Armagnac dry aged Barbarie duck and Opera Pearl Marou chocolate, which showcases one of Vietnam's most famous exports, chocolate. To add to the roaring 1920s theme are live pianists and violinists. Down a spiral staircase is the very exclusive 10-seater wine-tasting room for those intimate after-dinner conversations. The restaurant also offers a one-of-a-kind escapade to diners with a tour of the elegant mansion. If there was any occasion to bring your tux out of the closet, it is now. The Pink Pearl is open for dinner six days a week during high season, and five days a week during the low season.

Turquoise Suite Room. JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa

If you're more of a cocktail person, head down to the Department of Chemistry, where chemists (in proper lab coats, no less) mix up enticing elixirs and small bites.

A tired mind makes a tired body and should you need to soothe those aching muscles, head to Chanterelle Spa which used to be the department of mycology (the study of mushrooms). Two of the best massages I've had recently have been outside of Thailand, and Chanterelle is one of them. Natural products, skilled therapists and surroundings which make you feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland provide the perfect combination for a rejuvenating experience.

If street markets are your thing, then stroll along Rue de Lamarck, a small town street where traditional local crafts from artisanal boutiques are located. Many of these also have workshops, like lantern-making and calligraphy.

There is also a free buggy ride available on campus, should you work yourself silly at the well-equipped gym. When did uni get this luxurious?

Pink Pearl. JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa

Going Out

If you're the adventurous sort, head to the world's longest cable car ride. The 8km ride connects An Thoi town to Hon Thom island or Pineapple Island. The ride costs Vietnamese dong 500,000 (B680) and goes over a few small islands offering spectacular views of fishing villages, fishing boats and fish farms that scatter the waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Vietnam's most pristine archipelago, An Thoi is a Unesco world heritage site and has the best snorkelling in Phu Quoc. Needless to say, the best time to ride the cable car is around sunset. The cable car operates 7.30am to noon and from 1.30-9pm daily. (For Chinese New Year, Feb 5-14, the Hon Thom cable car costs VND200,000 for adults and VND130,000 for children).

If you're afraid of heights, trips to the nearby Pearl Farm, Pepper Farm and Fish Sauce Factory can be arranged by the uni -- everything being a learning experience.

Final Thoughts

As all good things come to an end, so must your dream uni. While having spent time at Lam U, it is important to remember that it is a mythical academy of learning, a fiction of the imagination of renowned architect and interior designer Bill Bensley. The first-ever resort created entirely from a work of fiction, story and history included, the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa, Vietnam is a fantasy university come true. 

Visit bit.ly/2Q660GL.

Facilities. RALF TOOTEN

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