The heat wave Italy experienced this spring found many Italians packing their cars and heading to the beach by late April. We weren’t far behind. After a week of 30° C (86° F) and a forecast for more, we were eager for a reprieve from the oppressive August-like heat. But by the time we decided to head to the beach for the weekend, it was Thursday; finding a room on the Italian Riviera would be a challenge. The web, my first stop for organizing any family trip, was unlikely to yield much even if I spent hours searching. Our needs were last second not last minute! I resigned myself to an offline technique, working the phone.
After a few calls to local tourist offices, the best source for last second availability in all but Italy’s largest cities, it quickly became clear that beggars can’t be choosers. Thus when the tourism office in Monterosso al Mare, the largest of the Cinque Terre or five lands, suggested that an affittacamere (room for let) had just communicated availability for Friday and Saturday nights, I didn’t hesitate. I telephoned the manager, made a reservation and hoped for the best.
Like Lake Como, the Cinque Terre is acclaimed by tourists from abroad, but overlooked by the locals. Even after 15 years in Italy, I am oftentimes unsure which side of the coin I fall on. When it comes to the Cinque Terre, I side with the foreigners. It's a must see. It is a land and sea destination that I return to willingly.
Yet I was quick to reign in my expectations. It had been several years since my last visit. We weren’t booked at a quaint farmhouse (agritourismo) or chic B&B. I would need to balance the activity: time on the beach and time on the trail. The first things my eight-year-old daughter packed was her net, bucket and pail.
Our room at the Affittacamere Arcobaleno was a pleasant surprise. It was tastefully decorated, comfortably accommodated a double bed and single bunk beds, and, most importantly, it was clean. Each room had a television, coffee pot, minibar and its own private bath with a proper shower. While we didn’t have a view to the sea, our room had a small balcony, and we were only 150 meters (less than 500 feet) from the beach. In short, it was better than most three-star Italian inns.
The coastal pathway or Sentiero Azzurro in the Cinque Terre is one of my favorite hikes in Italy. Despite an aversion to walking the same path twice, it is one I find myself doing again and again, and not just because it is a great place to take visiting family and friends. There is something about the combination of the sea and mountains that make this walk more than simply an occasion to stretch one's legs. What’s more, unlike the trails near Portofino, there are no steep climbs or exposed ledges to bar walking with young kids.
When we woke to a cloud covered sky the first morning, I cautiously made the case for a hike. If the sky cleared, I explained, we could swim in Vernazza and take the boat back to Monterosso. I promised that we would spend the following day on the beach, both the morning and the afternoon. As with everything these days, my daughter’s acceptance was conditional; she wanted focaccia for breakfast. I quickly rearranged our day packs to include a trail map, water, camera, rain ponchos, sunscreen and beach gear.
On the trip down I had agonized over which segment of the coastal path we should walk. The hike from Monterosso to Vernazza is the most difficult leg of the trail, yet together with the pathway from Vernazza to Corniglia, it is the most picturesque. The terraced vineyards and olive groves would provide diversion from the hundreds of steps, I reasoned. And the beach in Vernazza is a welcome reward for a hike well done.
The right choice but, apart from the beach, all the wrong reasons. An elderly local man selling lemons and limoncello along the trail was a perfectly timed first break. While taking pictures of the vista was nice, watching tadpoles in shallow mountain stream was much more fun. When my daughter learned that it takes the average walker 1.5 hours to compete the hike, she set a goal of finishing in less. Each and every time we dawdled, she called for us to catch up.
Our only disappointment that weekend was the return trip from Vernazza to Monterosso. No boat. Rough seas relegated us to the train.
Ann LoCicero is the founder of kidscantravel an emergent website for families intent on making the most of their leisure time together. Ann has traveled with her eight-year old daughter to destinations both on and off the beaten path. Not only does she believe that kids can travel, travel with kids is fun, and it is a great opportunity to introduce them to the world beyond their back door.