Every year, for the past seven years – just after the long UK winter and just before London’s weekend of summer – I toy with the idea of packing it all in and moving back to Australia. Sure, winter in London is never really that cold, but damn it, it is grey. Relentlessly so.
But the payoff for enduring a UK winter is always a European summer. Three glorious months of excess that recharge the batteries before the next winter ahead.
This year, my batteries were seriously depleted and I came perilously close to giving London the cold shoulder. And then came Portofino.
The colourful Italian fishing village that had caught my eye on Instagram a year earlier, certainly renewed my passion for this side of the world. The images didn’t lie. Portofino really is picture perfect. Its charming façade contrasts against a striking backdrop of steep hills overburdened with green and the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean Sea. It really is a sight to behold.
To this Australian/Brit, it felt like the very epitome of glamour and panache, everything that I most certainly am not. But for those five days it was easy to pretend things could be otherwise, and any thoughts of moving back Down Under serenely drifted away (for now at least, Mum).
But real talk. Portofino ain’t cheap. The abundance of luxury yachts in its harbour are outnumbered only by the designer boutiques lining the promenade. And it’s tiny, so accommodation comes at a premium. So Portofino, perhaps, is not for everyone.
Certainly our little group decided it might be financially wise to look a bit further afield for our accommodation. We chose Santa Margherita Ligure as our base; a larger, but still charming seaside town, closer to the mainland and within an easy bus ride to Portofino.
Hiking is more fun when there are cocktails involved
Realistically, there’s not that much to do in Portofino itself, other than look fabulous while taking in the colourful promenade and perusing the boutique windows (I didn’t dare go into any, because truth be told, I didn’t look that fabulous).
The standout for me wasn’t within Portofino itself. It was the trail from the harbour to the peninsula’s lighthouse, taking in Castello Brown along the way (€5 entry). While it’s a steep ascent to the castle, you’re rewarded with an awe-inspiring vista of Portofino below, and a remarkably classy al fresco cocktail bar that serves an amazing peach daiquiri.
From there, the walk to the lighthouse is a piece of cake, taking you past a distinctly Italian landscape and delivering yet another stunning view over the Mediterranean at its end. There’s also the Al Faro di Portofino Lounge Bar, and while the drinks (and eurodisco soundtrack) here aren’t quite as stunning, after trekking out to the lighthouse, there’s no harm in stopping for one and rewarding yourself with that view.
For a seaside destination, there’s not a whole lot of beach
At least, not sandy ones. There’s just the one sand beach on the peninsula, Paraggi, and even that’s tiny.
But what Paraggi lacks in size, it makes up for in style. The colourful bathing huts hugging the shoreline beneath luscious green hills, transport you into your very own version of a vintage Italian Riviera poster. I’ve never felt so inspired to don a woollen two-piece swimsuit.
The bagni (a private section of the beach with sunbeds) at Paraggi aren’t cheap though – €30 for a sunbed and umbrella! But given the free part of the beach is literally a sliver, we thought it was worth it for the pretence of personal space (the sunbeds are pretty tightly packed in too). Either reserve a bed in advance or get there early, especially on the weekend.
If Paraggi isn’t for you, then don’t worry, the Italians are a resourceful bunch. They’ve crammed sunbeds and swimming platforms into every nook and cranny along the rocky coastline. Like Paraggi, wherever you chose to go, it’s best to get there early or reserve ahead to guarantee a sunbed (the average price for sunbeds outside of Paraggi seemed to be €10).
You’re in Italy. Don’t forget the ‘culture’!
If, like me, you feel obligated to take in a site or two when on vacation, then the Abbey of San Fruttuoso is the perfect way to take in some history without losing a beach day.
The Abbey is accessible only by sea or foot. By foot involves a two-hour hike through national park with some apparently incredible views. While that all sounds lovely, we decided ‘by sea’ would permit us to drink more wine. (Ferries to San Fruttuoso leave hourly from Rapollo and Santa Margherita during summer, stopping at Portofino along the way.)
The Abbey is set against – you guessed it – another striking backdrop. The isolated stone structure straddles a small beach, with aqua blue water that appears as though it’s illuminated by spotlights beneath the surface. I dare you to resist taking a dip. It’s another pebble beach, but there are sunbeds available. Again, if you want one, get there early or reserve ahead!
There’s also a handful of cantinas scattered throughout the site. We chose La Cantina San Fruttuoso, Their specialty – seafood pasta – doesn’t disappoint, and the tables are right on the beach. What’s not to like?
You mentioned food. Was there more food?
Yes, there was! Italy being Italy, and Italians being Italians, there was no shortage of delicious food.
The standout was Capo Nord near Santa Margherita. All I need say is that to make a special occasion truly unforgettable, this intimate, literally on-the-water restaurant can’t be beaten. But mind the waves!
When in Portofino, we chose Da Puny. Set at the back of the harbour, an army of waiters efficiently marched out orders while the owner, clearly having already done his hard yards some years earlier, simply meandered from table to table entertaining his guests. Their famous Pappardelle Portofino (pappardelle in a pesto and tomato sauce), literally melts in your mouth (and the tiramisu was delish!).
And it would be remiss of me not to mention coffee. If you’re staying in Santa Margherita, start the day at Arte Dolce Pasticceria. A double expresso here is the perfect way to kick-off a hard day of relaxation.
|In brief – quick tips when travelling to Portofino