Although I dream about South East Asia or the Caribbean like most scuba divers, I think we often forget how lucky we are in Europe to have such a density of incredible destinations to explore just a short-haul flight away. With European low-cost airlines, in less than 2 hours and for less than a hundred euros, we can escape for the weekend to dream places that will feed both your wanderlust and scuba diving addiction.This exactly what my escape to Liguria, the region of northern Italy between Genova and La Spezia, was.
By flying with Easyjet on a Friday evening and returning on a Monday night, I could spend 2 days diving in Portofino Marine Protected area and my last non-diving day before flying, exploring the iconic national park of Cinque Terre. The cherry on top of this long weekend was to enjoy the relaxing Italian lifestyle away from the crowd in the gorgeous seaside town of Sestri-Levante.
Day 1 & 2:
Diving Portofino Marine Protected Area
The marina of Lavagna is just 10 minutes way by train from Sestri-Levante. It was the perfect base to explore the marine reserve of Portofino. Thanks to the friendly instructors of Massub Diving, I spent 2 days scuba diving in 20 to 30m visibility water among the enormous schools of seabreams. Big groupers were often hiding in colourful caverns covered in Mediterranean red coral and yellow encrusting anemones. Near the surface, it wasn’t rare to checked by barracudas.
With 2 half day scuba diving trips from 12 pm to 6 pm, I was able to dive the best dive sites of Portofino, including a visit to the world-famous statue of the Christ of the Abyss in the bay of San Fruttuoso. After the dives, the crew of Massub Diving also took us for a visit of the harbour of Portofino showing us the millionaires’ villas and the giant deluxe yachts.
To learn more about the diving in Portofino MPA, read my article “Scuba diving & Dolce Farniente in Portofino, Italy.”
Exploring Cinque Terre by train
With Rome Coliseum, Venice Great Canal, Pisa Tower, and Pompei near Naples, Cinque Terre is among the top places to visit in Italy. Its dramatic landscapes of colourful villages built on high cliffs by the sea are iconic.
Cinque Terre is a National Park of Italy gathering the areas of 5 villages: Monterosso Al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. It is famous for its hiking trail through the vineyards linking all the villages. Many people visit Cinque Terre hiking the trail for breathtaking views on the way in about a week. What if you have only one day then?
When I realise driving was a nightmare in Liguria but train network was efficient, cheap and linking all the towns on the Ligurian Coast, I knew it would be perfect for me.
By taking the train at 9.30am in Sestri-Levante with my scuba diving bag, I could visit the three most beautiful villages of Cinque Terre: Manarola, Vernazza, and Monterosso, and still be back on time to take my flight at 8 pm. The total cost of the 3 train tickets (Sestri-Levante/Manarola, Manarola/Monterroso, Monterosso/Pisa Airport) was 23€. I added 5€ to let my scuba diving bag at the Tourism information office of Monterroso. There is also a card available offering unlimited train rides only in Cinque Terre National Park for 16€. However, if I would have taken it I would have paid extra for my trips from Sestri-Levante and to Pisa, resulting in a higher cost.
After a quick stop at Monterosso station to leave my scuba diving bag fir the day and a cafe macchiato with a view on the beach and the infinite horizon, I took the next train to Manarola. It was 10 am and beginning of July the sun was already shining strong at that time of the day. I was so happy I brought my favourite hat for this trip.
Manarola is what I was dreaming about when thinking about Cinque Terre. Without doing the full hiking day, you can easily access on the right side of the village, once you’re close to the shore, a walking path taking you to the most astonishing views of Cinque Terre. You’ll get the perfect view of Manarola village and all its red, pink and yellow houses hanging on the cliff, from a distance. By going just a bit further, you’ll see a good part of the Cinque Terre National Park including Corniglia, on top of a cliff, the only village of Cinque Terre with no direct access to the sea.
As each train tickets allows a total journey time of 90 min, with only one ticket back to Monterosso, I made a 1-hour stop in Vernazza. I loved Vernazza for its gorgeous square and bay where people suntan on the rocks near the gelato ice cream shop. The view is not as impressive as in Manarola, but I found Vernazza more charming.
My last stop before returning to Pisa for my inbound flight was Monterosso. When I did my research about Cinque Terre, my opinion was “ok, it’s just a lovely beach”. It was only partially true. Most important thing to know is there is a new and an old part of Monterosso. A tunnel links the 2 sides of the village. When you arrive at the train station, you are on the new side. It would be a real pity to forget the old side. If walking along the beach of Monterroso was nice, I found exploring the heart of Monterosso, the most interesting. There are many tiny “piazzas”(squares) to sip a coffee or an Aperol Spritz depending on the time of the day, and little shops selling the food specialties of Liguria or pretty ceramic art craft.
At 3.30pm I was taking my train to Pisa with a change in La Spezia. I reached Pisa 2 hours later. What a day…
Sestri-Levante: the best place to stay near Portofino and Cinque Terre
If I haven’t dived with Massub Diving, I would have maybe considered staying in Sestri-Levante as I never heard about this place before. They have a partnership with the Hotel Grande Albergo there, and I’m so happy this is where I stayed during my trip for 2 main reasons. The first reason is practical. Staying perfectly in the middle of everything I wanted to do couldn’t be more ideal, and Sestri-Levante is right on the shore and the train line. The second reason is Sestri-Levante is a beautiful seaside town while being touristic it is not overcrowded with tourists like Cinque Terre can be. Along the promenade following the pebbles with its beach clubs, you can see gorgeous buildings which are mostly now hotels and restaurants but were once palaces for the local nobility. It was the case too for the Hotel Grande Albergo which used to be the Palazzo Giustiniani before being converted to a hotel in the 19th Century.
As I was starting my diving days only at 12 pm, it left me a lot of time to enjoy the hotel facilities which includes breakfast in the garden of the restaurant Delfino Bianco, the Beach club and a rooftop swimming pool with a 360° breath-taking view of the Ligurian Coast. Interesting fact that is rare enough to be highlighted, the hotel has a couple of single rooms! So if like me, you enjoy solo scuba diving trips, you will be happy to know you don’t necessarily need to pay the full price of a double room. I also had to opportunity to dine twice at the Delfino Bianco. I love the modern way they prepare the most famous Italian dishes: my risotto al gamberi (shrimp) was surprising in shape and flavours, it had grapefruit and a foam of burrata cream on top, but oh my… I never had such an exquisite risotto before!
But I think what I loved most in Sestri-Levante was the back streets of the centre. There is an actual local life in Sestri-Levante. The narrow streets, only accessible to pedestrians, lead to cafés, bars, ice cream shops, and some quirky art galleries. I found myself with the team of Massub diving for some drinks there during the quarter-final of the Euro 16 football cup. Italy was playing against Germany; the night was high on emotions (Italy lost)! Don’t hesitate to follow the sign leading to the “Baia del Silenzio.” The Bay of Silence is a gorgeous little creek with a church on top of the cliff. It’s the best place to go to at sunset!
How to go to Portofino and Cinque Terre?
They are so many ways you can go to Portofino and Cinque Terre, but the best is to approach with a flight and continue by train. The 2 closest airports are Genova and Pisa (if necessary you can also consider Milan, Bologna or even Nice in France). Although it is the closest, Genova Airport is not the ideal choice: Main airlines are going there once per day from London and Amsterdam, and Paris 3 times a day, for a higher price than for Pisa. Pisa Airport is 1h30 by car or 2h30 by train from Sestri-Levante. There are many flights available several times a day from London (LHW/GTW/LTN/STD), Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Paris-Orly where I was traveling from and many other options all over Europe. Prices for a return flight Paris-Pisa start at 64€ with Easyjet. If like me you always bring your beloved scuba diving gear, you need to add a hold luggage fee of 46€.
Bonus tip: As you know Pisa is world-famous for its leaning tower. So why not taking the opportunity to have a look at the tower after landing or before flying back home? You would be surprised how easy it is to do it. The bus between the airport and the central train station of Pisa only takes 5 minutes! From Pisa Central Station, you can walk to the Miracle Square where the tower is in 25 minutes, or you can take a bus taking you there in 10-15 minutes. I chose the walking option, and I had no regret at all. It allowed to me to go through beautiful residential areas of Pisa, to cross the Arno River for a fantastic view from the Solferino Bridge and to walk below the finely decorated arcades of Borgo Stretto Street. I did my tour in 1h30 at a good pace. Did I do all of this with my scuba diving bag? Gosh, no! I left it at the check-in luggage of the Central Station for 5€ (price for 24 hours).
When to visit Cinque Terre and go diving in Portofino?
As usual, summer months are the busiest and Cinque Terre are a very popular destination in Italy, especially since it’s not that far away from the tourist superstars of Tuscany, Florence and Pisa. Like anywhere in Europe, if you want to beat the crowds while enjoying some sunny weather, May/June, and September/October are the best. Nevertheless, as I visited Cinque Terre beginning of July, right in the high season, it was certainly busy but I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I could still enjoy a takeaway lunch made of fried seafood in a quiet shady corner of Manarola. I realised that away from the main street, the village was empty as I guess many people didn’t want to climb the long and steep stairs.
Regarding conditions for scuba diving, you may want to go in September/October over May/June if you prefer warmer water. Like anywhere in the Mediterranean Sea, these are the best months for both visibility and temperature. At the beginning of the season, water might be at a pleasant temperature at the surface, in my case 23°C in early July, however, at 15/18m deep the temperature was between 16 and 17°C! At the end of the season, you can enjoy at least 2/3°C more!
Looking for someone to organise this experience of scuba diving and exploring Portofino and Cinque Terre? Contact Dreameat! This Italian tour company offers packages including scuba diving, tours and accommodation at a very special price, especially in low season (October & April).
Many thanks to Massub diving for inviting me to discover this incredible region of Italy underwater and beyond and sponsoring this post. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect honestly my experience there.