Your adventure to the Italian Riviera begins as you travel through the Liguria region, one of the most scenic drives in Italy. It defies logic that a place like this exists outside of the everyday world of skyscrapers and subway trains, with each vista, twist, turn and drop-off cliff more beautiful and harrowing than the last.
There is no mistaking you have entered the Italian Riviera as you drive through its picturesque towns and catch a glimpse of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. Portofino is the gem of the Italian Riviera and Hotel Splendido is its crown jewel. You know you are approaching something spectacular as every car you see on the winding roads leading up to the hotel is a Rolls Royce. Splendido is an old monastery converted into one of the top hotels in the world, perched up in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and Portofino lagoon — both of which seem associated with nearly every picture of Portofino.
While heart-stoppingly expensive, Splendido is the most justifiably ridiculous money you’ll ever spend on a hotel. The service is impeccable and there is beauty everywhere you turn. The rooms, although European sized, are perfectly decorated and appointed. The integrity of the old monastery is maintained in the décor, even as it conceals your flat screen TV. A balcony in your room is a must for afternoon Prosecco as well as late-night wine and cheese enabling you take in the view and the intoxicating smell of flowers and the sea.
For a stay that is ever-so-slightly more gentle on the wallet, Splendido has a sister hotel directly in town, Splendido Mare, which allows you to use all of the main hotel facilities. Splendido has a shuttle that makes the five minute journey back and forth from the center of town to the hotel, and runs as frequently as you need during low season, and about every 15 minutes during high season.
After trying to adjust to the overwhelming beauty of Splendido, head into town via shuttle and lunch at Ristorante Taverna del Marinaio. Pesto is the specialty of the Ligurian region and rivals anything you have ever previously had. Troife is a traditional Ligurian pasta, and is the perfect accompaniment. Fresh fish, and especially the Mediterranean mussels, simply prepared in a traditional white wine sauce are also a specialty of the region.
For those who cannot do without Hermes for a weekend, you can get your fix, but such high-end stores are curiously located amidst shops which sell Portofino magnets, key chains and other kitsch. Surprisingly absent are the charming antique shops and quality artisan crafts that you would expect from a luxury destination.
The one thing to buy is Limoncello and flavored liqueurs. Although you likely will not imbibe the Amaretto Stone Sours reminiscent of your underage drinking, it is a bit more justifiable to breakout at a dinner party at home because it’s actually from Portofino. Overall, the town of Portofino is about experiencing a beautiful seaside town, with the stores just a mild diversion. Other town diversions include a hike up to Castello Brown, a 16th-century fort. These are leisurely walks and the views from here are stunning.
The bulk of your day into early evening are best spent drinking Prosecco and frolicking in Splendido’s pool — a salt water infinity pool overlooking the Portofino lagoon. You will never look at sitting poolside the same way after experiencing Splendido. Even the most jaded and unaffected jet setter can be heard raving about just how ridiculous this experience is. Splendido has a beauty for which you can never tire.
For dinner, the Splendido restaurant has top- notch dining that is not at all typical of a hotel. Anything on the menu is going to be a winner. Even the simple Minestrone Soup will leave you dreaming about it for months to come. Afterwards, you can head back into town to wander through the outdoor cafes for post-dinner drinks. Alternatively, since you are paying an arm and a leg to stay here, check out the Splendido Cocktail and Piano Bar. The scene includes the affluent from all over the world, honeymooners and those who have been saving their pennies for a lifetime. Inevitably, it might also include a drunken Brit in his Splendido bathrobe listening to tunes from the same lounge singer who has been entertaining there since the 1990s.
For your last day in the Riviera, adventurous travelers should head to the Cinque Terre for a hike. It’s about an hour and a half drive from Portofino or a one-hour train ride from neighboring Santa Margherita. Cinque Terre is in the Levante area of the Italian Riviera, and includes five small villages — Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore — all of which are connected by hiking paths on the Mediterranean Sea. For those who choose not to take the active pursuit, Santa Margherita should provide enough diversion for a day of wandering the shops, visiting outdoor markets and cafes and taking in the seaside views. It’s charming enough to almost make a die-hard red wine drinker want to have a glass of Pinot Grigio. Almost.
You can also look into chartering a boat in Portofino, as that’s how the real hitters roll in Portofino. Jay-Z and Beyonce may even invite you aboard their yacht. As part of your day on a boat, Portofino also has some of the best diving spots in the area.
To begin your adventure in the Cinque Terre (and it certainly is during certain points of the hike) begin in the town of Monterosso al Mare and take the train to the last town of Riomaggiore. The total hike is approximately 12 miles, often through very challenging terrain. Still a bit jet lagged? Kick back and take the old school train from town to town. Some of the most beautiful views and the easiest part of the hike is between Riomaggiore and Manarola, along the Via dell’Amore path. The towns themselves are quaint, but save your energy for Vernazza, which is the most charming and interesting of the towns. From Manarola to Corniglia the hike starts to get a bit more difficult, ending in a steep stair climb that only takes 30-40 minutes but seems like an eternity. At Cornglia you are at a crossroads: either take the train to Vernazza, or commit to a two hour hike that is challenging and at times quite difficult, but ultimately rewarding in its views of the Italian Riviera.
By the time you get to Vernazza you will have earned your lunch. The town is an oasis that promises good food and drink. The best restaurant by far is Trattoria Gianni Franzi on the main square. After lunch, Vernazza is a the place to buy Sciaterra, the sweet fortified wine, pesto and lemon preserve. You can hike the last part of the Cinque Terre from Vernaza back to Monterossa al Mare, which is about 1.5 hours, or continue to steep yourself in the visual experience of the Mediterranean by taking a ferry back to Monterossa al Mare.
For dinner on your last night in Portofino, Da Puny is a local option, as well as an institution, in the center of town where you can sample the perfect, simple Liguarian cuisine of fresh seafood and pesto pasta. Alfresco is the only way to dine as you soak in the last images, scents and sounds of the Mediterranean before heading back to reality.
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