The name Cinque Terre simply means “five lands.” This Italian pentad, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating to the 11th century, beguiles travelers with its brightly painted fishing cottages, tucked-in harbors, and high cliffs plunging into the Ligurian Sea. But the question remains how best to take it all in. Rather than hiking from one village to the next, we recommend basing yourself in Vernazza and exploring the captivating area by boat.
Hiking is not a joke.
Four of the five villages overlook the Ligurian Sea; only Corniglia is set back from the water — but all of them are pressed between the mountainside and the sea. Visiting Cinque Terre can prove to be a conundrum. The craggy coastline and surf beckon beachgoers, but the steep mountainside makes the area a major hiking destination.
Sometimes the two activities don’t mix. Recently the Cinque Terre National Park Authority launched a public information campaign warning tourists about the dangers of navigating those precarious paths wearing flip flops or open-toed sandals. Vacationers choosing to ignore their advice can be slapped with a fine ranging from an annoying 50 euros ($56, at today’s rate) to a trip-ruining 2,500 euros, or $2,800.
There’s another way to go. Instead of carrying heavy backpacks and donning hiking shoes to stare at this stretch of the Mediterranean coast from a hiking trail, you could gaze back at the colorful, stacked architecture from the refreshing perspective of the sea.
Base yourself in Vernazza.
Though each of the five villages has its own distinct vibe and personality, we recommend using Vernazza, the fourth town as you are heading north, as a home base while staying in Cinque Terre. Vernazza has one main street that runs from the train station through the town to its harbor and beach. Vernazza is possibly the loveliest of the five towns, with a lively piazza, the 800-year-old Church of St. Margaret of Antioch, and Doria Castle, which was built to protect the city and offers a commanding view of the sea.
You won’t find big resorts in Vernazza, just tiny hotels, rooms, and apartments. Rent an apartment from Cristian Carro, who operates La Marina Rooms. He may well email you plenty of recommendations and advice before you arrive and even meet you at the train station to help you with your luggage and give you a brief tour of his beloved town.
Carro’s best accommodations are an apartment with a sea terrace and another that overlooks Piazza Marconi. Choose the former if you long to sip a chilled glass of Vermentino over the Mediterranean and the latter if you prefer to hang out your window, mark time with the hourly church bells, and peer down at the sunbathers, cafe-goers, and boaters.
Hotel Gianni Franzi is a small hotel in the center of town with single and double rooms, some with sea-facing balconies. The owners also maintain guesthouses nearby that are close to Doria Castle and connected by a garden overlooking the sea. The hotel’s trattoria dates back more than half a century and offers simply prepared seafood dishes like stuffed, salted, or lemon anchovies and fresh catches, grilled or baked. You can also take breakfast on the rooftop terrace. Nearby, La Polena rents four rooms and apartments in the historic center, several of them with water views.
Rent a boat and start exploring.
Boating is one of the main reasons we recommend Vernazza. The town’s small harbor is dotted not only with swimmers and locals basking on rocks, but with row boats and motorboats. Look for an umbrella-covered table on the waterfront headed up by Nord Est. They will make your Cinque Terre vacation memorable.
You don’t need advance notice to rent one of the outfit’s 19-foot crafts, but it helps — especially during the high season. Two hours will cost about $78, four hours is $100, and all day (eight hours) is roughly $180, depending on the exchange rate. Fuel will be a moderate but additional fee. In just an afternoon you’ll be able to see all of the five villages; rent one for the entire day and you’ll really be able to explore. No sweaty hikes required.
Each is outfitted with a canopy, outboard motor, oars, and storage area. If operating your own watercraft seems a bit daunting, know that your attendant will thoroughly brief you before your trip. Head to one of the convenience stores in town first to stock up on water, beer, wine, and snacks, and wear your bathing suits. You’ll use the oars until you are safely out of the harbor, at which point you’ll be able to zip around at will.
If no one in your party feels confident in captaining a boat themselves, Nord Est also offers boat tours. While you won’t have the freedom of being on your own, the crew will know where to take you to find the hidden coves, bays, and even waterfalls that you can’t reach from up on the hillside.
Where to cruise and where drop anchor
Heading south, you’ll first reach Corniglia, that aforementioned village set back from the water. You can gaze up at it from the boat. It is in fact possible to reach the village from down below, but it involves scaling the 377 steps of the Scalinata Lardarina staircase. Next up is Manarola, known for its wine production, followed by the last town, Riomaggiore, the main street of which, Via Colombo, has a fair amount of shops, restaurants, and bars.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try to dock at Manarola or Riomaggiore. Depending on the day, time of day, or the season, this can be easy or challenging. It helps if you speak Italian or can learn the phrase for, “Is this slip taken? How can I rent it?” That would be “È stata presa questa barca? Come posso noleggiarlo?”
Your best bet for docking and exploring may be the northernmost village of Monterosso al Mare, which is the largest and most touristy and has the biggest port. Cruise ships regularly dock here. You could also drop anchor offshore to partake in some deep water swimming and photo opportunities. Near Riomaggiore is one of the prettiest locations in an area abundant with stunning spots.
After you return to Vernazza in the late afternoon, dinner at Ristorante Belforte is how you’ll want to end the day. Book a table on the terrace well in advance, and over a crisp white and the catch of the day baked in a salt crust, watch the sunset on the same sea you just navigated. Now that’s the Cinque Terre done right.