My enormous love of seaside towns normally bashes against my tiny travel budget, forcing me to the overcrowded and oversexed beach sprawls frequented by spring breakers. But as Europe slumps into the slow season for the transition from ski to sun, I have been able to see some of the continent's most beautiful places without paying the price.
Of my travels along Italy's Northern Riviera (can you call that the knee?) one area stands out beyond the rest: Santa Marghertia/Portofino.
I started my trip in Genoa where I stayed (finding a cheap hotel option in either of these towns is impossible, though with more planning I would have stayed in Rapallo). The nine-euro train (round trip) wasn't long, about 25 minutes, once the notoriously late train got going. When I stepped onto the platform it was like stepping into a surreal world; you can stand jacket-free on the sunny beach and look up to the snowy Italian Alps.
Santa Margherita's beach is rocky but clean, and a few warm-blooded people were swimming. It was a nice area to simply walk around; there was an open-air market, street artists, and a boat show to add color to the pre-existing high-end shops. And despite the seasonal slump, the town had a lively energy circulating around the traditional colorful Italian buildings. I grabbed a mozzarella foccia sandwich from one of the zillions of restaurants, where sandwiches are between four and five euros, before heading to Portofino.
A hot spot for Polo-clad sailors, Portofino's gated roads keep the number of cars low. I highly recommend the easy ocean-side walk from Santa Margherita (one hour max), to avoid the three-plus hour wait you have in a car or the annoyance of public buses.
Portofino is much smaller than Santa Margherita, and the town is comprised almost exclusively of vacation homes for the wealthy. There is a series of free, well-maintained trails through the protected forest, with clearings that look out to the pristine Mediterranean. Hike to the very end of the peninsula and sit beside the lighthouse before walking back through the town's gardens. You can tour a castle for five euros, though in such a picturesque area it seems sinful to go inside.
The heart of the town is a small beach surrounded by (more) high-end shops and open bars each pushing tropical drinks. The bay harbors around 20 boats, including a ferry that will take you to a slew of nearby towns (Santa Margherita is only 15 minutes away). I sat in the sun for a few hours, listening to guitar strums and giddy chatter before heading back from my near perfect day.
About the author: Somewhere between swimming after turtles in the Virgin Islands and experiencing an Ecuadorian meat market, Caitlin Byrnes developed a passion for international culture. Though raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, Caitlin went to the deep south to get a degree in journalism and international affairs. While in school, Caitlin lived on a coffee farm while spending some time studying abroad in Costa Rica. Desperate to not return to NASCAR country after graduation, Caitlin is trying her luck in Europe. She is now an au pair in a Swiss ski town where she is learning French, attempting to ski, and absorbing as much European culture as possible. She will be blogging about her adventures for Away.com. More information can be found on Caitlin's website.
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