Portofino, the jewel of the Ligurian

Portofino is the sort of place where you feel that you have to exaggerate the superlative. Even people who have travelled a lot speak with awe of this most swish of resorts on the Italian Riviera, an hour or so drive from Genoa.

Its main hotel, the Splendido, is enshrined as Italy’s palace by the sea, its sheltered Gilson emerald-coloured harbour defines European coastal glamour and its people remain eerily polite even on days when the town’s art director’s vision of a central piazza swarms with strudel-fattened daytrippers from rural Austria.

And then there were the temporary resident Giovannis-come-lately, who started to send helicopters to Genoa just to pick up the morning papers until the 650 permanent residents of Portofino voted to ban the choppers in 1991 because of the visual and sound pollution.

That’s not to say that Portofino hates modern technology. In early 1993 the town embraced a high-tech intrusion with gusto – a glass-bottomed submarine named the Tritone 2. The 19metre, 100-tonne vessel regularly nose-dives 50 passengers 50 metres below the surface of the Ligurian Sea for close observations of the underwater life and flora of the square rocky peninsula the Romans called Portus Delphini – dolphin’s harbour – garbled by time into modern Italian as Portofino. It also takes visitors to one of the bay’s most famous subaquatic spots, the statue of Christ of the Abyss that stays 17 metres under the sea near the shore since 1961. This statue was originally placed here and was then copied all around the world. It is also one of Italy’s most famous diving spots.

To anyone with even a minor interest in food, the Ligurian coast shouts pesto – the local sauce of olive oil, basil, pecorino and occasionally ground pinenuts that went spectacularly international. All along the Italian Riviera, seafood is the star attraction but in most cases it isn’t local – the sea off Genoa and Livorno is overfished and polluted.

The food in Portofino’s elegant cafes and restaurants is as good as it is relatively expensive – dinner for two with wine for two will set you back $130 – but the movie-set atmosphere is beyond price. Heavy snacking is a different matter: restaurants such as La Cisterna on the Piazza Liberta will serve you a definitive pasta with pesto for $10. The seafood risotto at Delfino in the Piazza Martiri dell’Olivetta deserves its widespread acclaim.

The views from the promontory of Portofino dazzle in both directions whether you peer west to the soaring cliff formations of Capo delle Mele or east to the resorts of the Gulf of Rapallo spread out along the swooping, rugged coastline of the Cinque Terre.

Keen walkers enjoy tackling the trail between Portofino and the port of San Friuttuoso with its medieval abbey. The distance is only four kilometres but the sea views and the glimpses of the last remaining stretches of macchia, the dense Mediterranean underscrub long gone from other parts of the Ligurian coast, make this a two-hour excursion.

Most visitors to Portofino stroll around the harbor which is a car-free zone. If you drive to Portofino, you must park your car in a central underground parking station which fills within the first hour of opening on weekends. Great queues of traffic are a permanent fixture of Portofino summers. Smart travelers stay at Santa Margherita and Rapallo and catch the boat to Portofino.

Hotel development ceased long ago in Portofino and the few hotels in existence have a collective bed count of only 180. The only one with a reasonable price tag is the Eden where the walk-in rate for the eight bedrooms available is $140 to $200 a double for the night. At the other end of the scale is the Splendido, now an Orient Express-owned property that epitomises insouciant high style.

Formerly a patrician villa set high on a hillside about two kilometres from the centre of Portofino, the Splendido is theatrically framed by a sloping garden of exotic trees and plants relocated from as far afield as Mexico, South Africa, Japan and Australia. All 63 rooms have terraces that offer guests tailored views of Portofino Harbor. The terrace restaurant amalgamates undiluted romance and superb food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Like all small towns, you will always be an outsider in Portofino unless you are a member of the Portofino Yacht Club or own one of the hillside villas. Only then are you part of what’s called the real Portofino, coming out only after the daytrippers are gone and speaking only to other “natives”.

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