Situated at the end of a narrow and treacherously winding road just 5km south of Santa Margherita, there’s no denying the appeal of Portofino, tucked into a protected inlet surrounded by lush cypress- and olive-clad slopes. It’s an A-list resort that has been attracting high-flying bankers, celebs and their hangers-on for years, as evidenced by the flotillas of giant yachts usually anchored just outside. It’s a tiny place that manages to be both attractive and off-putting at the same time, with a quota of fancy shops, bars and restaurants that would suit a place twice its size. For those wanting to stay, accommodation is unsurprisingly expensive: luxury is really the point of Portofino.
Northwest from the village, steeply stepped paths head through vineyards and orchards to Olmi and on to San Fruttuoso, while the best sandy beach is the sparkling cove at Paraggi, 2km back towards Santa Margherita on the coast road (buses will stop on request) – not exactly remote, but less formal than Portofino and with a small stretch of pebbly sand and a couple of bars set back from the water.
To get a sense of Portofino’s idyllic setting follow the footpath which heads south from the harbour up onto the headland. Five minutes from the village is the church of San Giorgio, said to contain relics of St George, and a further ten minutes up is the spectacularly located Castello Brown, from whose terrace there are breathtaking views of a pint-sized Portofino. The castle, which dates back to the Roman period and now frequently hosts art and photography exhibitions, is named after its former owner, British Consul Montague Yeats Brown, who bought it in 1867 and set about transforming it. In 1870 he planted two pines on the main terrace for his wedding – one for him and one for his wife, Agnes Bellingham – and they are still a prominent feature today. The scenic path continues for a kilometre or so, down to the Faro (lighthouse) on the very tip of the promontory. The only way back is up the same path.
The Portofino headland – protected as the Parco Naturale Regionale di Portofino and encircled by cliffs and small coves – is one of the most rewarding areas for walking on the Riviera coast. At 612m, Monte di Portofino is high enough to be interesting but not so high as to demand any specialist hiking prowess. The trails cross slopes of wild thyme, pine and holm oak, enveloped in summer in the constant whirring of cicadas. From the summit, the view over successive headlands is breathtaking. Not many people walk these marked paths, maybe because their early stages are fairly steep – but they aren’t particularly strenuous, levelling off later and with plenty of places to stop. One of the best trails skirts the whole headland, beginning in Camogli, on the western side of the promontory. The path rises gently for 1km south to San Rocco (30–40min from Camogli), then follows the coast south to a viewpoint above Punta Chiappa, before swinging east to the scenic Passo del Bacio (200m), rising to a hair-raising ridgetop and then descending gently through the olive trees and palms to San Fruttuoso (3hr from Camogli). It continues east over a little headland and onto the wild and beautiful cliff-tops above Punta Carega, before passing through the hamlets of Prato, Olmi and Cappelletta, and down steps to Portofino (4hr 30min from Camogli).
There are plenty of shorter routes too. From San Rocco, an easier path forks inland up to Gaixella and Pietre Strette (452m), before leading down again through the foliage to San Fruttuoso (2hr 30min from Camogli). Meanwhile, from Ruta, a tiny village 250m up on the north side of Monte di Portofino (served by buses from Camogli, Santa Margherita and Rapallo), a little-trod trailheads up to the summit of the mountain (1hr), or diverts partway along to take you across country to Olmi and on to Portofino (3hr from Ruta).
Top image: Beautiful scenery of Portofino, Italy © nuchun/Shutterstock