Santa Margarita is a classic town on the waterfront of the Italian Riviera, with arcaded sidewalks, beautiful palm trees and a green park promenade along the beach and marina. The seaside park has a statue in memory of Christopher Columbus, who was from Genoa, just about 20 miles up the coastline.
When you walk in a block from the waterfront you discover a charming Old Town atmosphere with pedestrian streets, little piazzas, shops, restaurants and locals out for a stroll. Not many tourists in this town, which therefore has a more authentic Italian feeling. It's a great little town full of light and color with orange and brown pastel buildings nestled right up against the picturesque waterfront.
Our Hotel Laurin is right on the waterfront with a classic view of the marina, filled with sailboats, yachts and fishing boats. It's not often you can stroll out of your hotel's front door and enjoy this sort of a view over a tranquil boat harbor.
Santa Margarita is very convenient for travelers because the international express train service stops right inside the town. The town provides easy access to nearby attractions because it's just 3 miles away from Portofino, main attraction of this coastline, and an easy train ride to Cinque Terre, the string of five little hillside villages we shall visit on our second day here.
This area has quite a history. It started out as two small separate villages and then in 1812 they were joined together by Napoleon, who named them after himself, Puerto Napoleonic. However, three years later, with the fall of the emperor, that was undone and the city was transferred to the kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia. You do get a real feeling for history here in Santa Margarita, which has quite a few buildings 300 and 400 years old, most notably, the outstanding Baroque church on the main piazza.
There are numerous other attractive towns scattered along these 80 miles of coastline, but you'll find that Santa Margarita is one of the nicest, and so convenient for visiting Portofino and Cinque Terre.
Upon arrival and hotel check-in, our first goal is a visit to the crown jewel of the coastline, the village of Portofino. We get there on a wonderful public bus ride along this beautiful winding stretch of road hugging the scenic coastline between Santa Margarita and Portofino, arriving in just 20 minutes. This drive ranks with any in the world for scenic beauty, such as the Amalfi Drive, further south by Sorrento, or the drive in Pebble Beach, California.
This stretch of land, which lies between Apennine Mountains and the Ligurian Sea comprises the region of Liguria and it's also referred to as the Italian Riviera. It's a land of rich green vegetation and multicolored fresco houses, enriched by the cultivation of olives, vines and exotic plants. Now it's a world-famous capital of tourism and you will see why with its wonderful coastal beauty.
This region is very, very popular during the summertime, especially the little village of Portofino, when it gets gridlocked with heavy traffic and wall-to-wall tourists overwhelming the small space. When we are here in October, in mid-week, it is very quiet, with no crowds.
The bus arrives in the little back streets of Portofino, dropping us off just a few easy blocks from the waterfront, which we reach along pedestrian lanes lined with shops and cafes. When you get your first look at the sheltered cove and pretty buildings of this little village you'll see why it has become world-famous.
Less than one thousand people live in Portofino, and yet the place still seems like a little seaport town rather than a mere fishing hamlet. It's a microcosm, a world unto itself. Many of the villagers live in these colorful houses lining the waterfront. The first story is for shops and restaurants and the upper floors are apartment houses in buildings mostly from the 18th and 19th century. The natural small harbor is a cove sheltered by a lushly overgrown promontory that projects like a giant breakwater into the Gulf of Paradise.
Across this tiny little harbor on the other side at the top of the hill you'll find the Castle of St. George, open to the public every day from 9 to 5, and next to it is the church of St. George. It's an easy stroll up to the Castle on a staircase and paved footpath, carved right out of solid bedrock, quite safe and not very strenuous -- most of this path is quite level.
In a few minutes you arrive at a terrace with the picture-perfect postcard view of Portofino’s harbor, colorful buildings, and green hills beyond. This is not to be missed; in fact this view is the reason for our visit. Somehow the overall elements around you fit together in a perfectly harmonious whole, admired by poets and writers and artists for centuries.
The Castle was built to defend this area against the Turks a couple of hundred years ago and it still has the residential Castle for caretakers who actually live on the grounds. There are some houses up here scattered on the hillside, but there are no roads at all, so their supplies have to be carried in and out by hand.
Back into the village center you might see some nautical activities: sailors painting their boats, fishermen fixing nets, scuba divers preparing to go out to see. In the summertime the little harbor is filled to gridlock with the yachts of the rich and famous, but now the off-season the locals can work on their little boats.
There are several sidewalk restaurants around the scenic little harbor where you might drop anchor for a snack or drink, but save your main appetite for dinner after our short bus ride back to Santa Margherita, which has a nice variety of dining in all price ranges, specializing in seafood. Since Santa Margherita is a waterfront harbor town, the fishermen bring their fresh catch every morning and keep the restaurants very well supplied.
Next morning after breakfast we walk over to the train station to begin our full day adventure exploring Cinque Terre.