Is there anything more romantic than an Italian road trip? Grace Kelly silk scarf blowing in the wind, your boy smiling behind the wheel, retro vespas passing you by. In under 4 hours drive from Nice you can arrive at paradise on earth. Here’s how to experience these little pieces of paradise without following the herd and the tourist clichés.
Cinque Terra… for tourist-phobes
Pack your weekend bag and start your play list (The Talented Mr. Ripley soundtrack obviously). In just 4 hours from Nice along the stunning Ligurian coast, you’ll find a series of 5 small hilltop towns, each hugging the side of a cliff that overlooks the most sensational turquoise-clear water.
Now, be clever here. Cinque Terra has become enormously popular with a particular type of tourist – American, British and German hikers with walking boots and backpacks. So forget staying in the thick of it, forget venturing into overpriced, overcrowded Portofino, and follow this off-the-beaten-track itinerary.
First, you’ll head to Sestri Levante, which is Italian to the core. It’s smart, clean, unpretentious and is home to one of the most beautiful boutique hotels on the planet. You’ll have a hard time finding a more panoramic location than at The Hotel Helvetia . The views of the Baia del Silenzio will leave you, quite literally, speechless.
For world-class seafood at reasonable prices, have a meal on the terrace at local favourite Polpo Mario on via Aprile 163. I still have erotic fantasies about the squid ink spaghetti with gambetti. The next day when you’re rested, you’ve soaked up some Italian Riviera-ness and you’ve done a few laps of the infinity pool, hop on the train to Vernazza, a charming fishing port.
Now here is where it gets adventurous. Instead of walking shoulder to shoulder with sweaty tourists, you’re going to take a SECRET (yep, not many people know this) path and hike up a ridiculous amount of stairs to what is one of the prettiest little restaurants I have ever encountered. To find the secret path, look for this staircase, below, off of the main square in Vernazza. It’s the hiking path to Corniglia and the stairway to heaven, Because when you reach “La Torre” perched over the rock, you’ll be beside yourself with intense views, mamma’s lasagne to die for, stupidly friendly people and a refreshing price tag that doesn’t reflect this kind of treasure at all.
After sinking a couple of caraffes of blanc, you really need to go on a crazy half-drunken hike all the way back past Vernazza and onto Monterosso. As long as your footwear remotely resembles running shoes you’ll be fine. Who needs hiking sticks, puh! There’ll be endless sets of stairs and a few challenging streams but on the way you’ll pass a guy with a very random freshly squeezed lemonade stand and that alone, will be worth it. Simply put, it should be on your bucket list.
Lac Maggiore… by inflatable kayak
What’s the best way to explore the beautiful Borromean islands and the glittering waters of Lake Maggiore? By ferry, with people in stupid shorts whose sunglasses cost more than their house? Or by kayak – just you, your paddles and the serenity of the rippling water?
All you need is your own kayak, a small modestly packed, kayak-appropriate overnight bag (your new motto is: underpack, overdress) and a reservation at the most blissful little boutiquey hideout, the Hotel Verbano. It’s on the Isola dei Pescatori (one of three tiny islands) and that’s where you’re going to kayak to, starting from a carpark right here in Stresa. It’ll take you less than half an hour to paddle to the island with sensational views of the Alps in the distance, and then you’ll moor up your kayak on a little stretch of beach right outside the hotel. They’re fine with that, of course. It may be a chic, champagne flute-clinking kind of place, but they’re about as pretentious as a plate of spag bol.
From your idyllic little base you can enjoy exquisite siestas, lakeside balcony amazingness and next-level nibbles with your apéro down on the terrace. Or you can stroll around the island with Pellegrino and focaccia and generally feel like an extra in a Fellini movie. In the evening, I recommend eating at the Pizzeria La Rondine, a welcoming little gem right on the water and somewhat hidden from the crowds on the other side of the island. And once the tourists have left on the last boat, you can pretend that you really are on your own little island paradise with birds, cats and scenic narrow streets.
The next day, when you’re well rested and settling nicely into micro island life, hop back into your kayak and explore the twin islands, Isola Bella and Isola Madre. Or at least their circumference.
Isola Bella has an ornate baroque palazzo and formal, terraced gardens dotted with fountains and statues. And Isola Madre has exotic things such as carob trees, parrots and a really really large 200-year-old tree that apparently people find interesting. Now, technically speaking you can’t actually access these two islands by kayak. Or can you? Mwa-ahahah. Off the record, there’s a part of Isola Bella where you can very surreptitiously park your kayak, tie it to the side, hop out, walk up a few stairs, step calmly over a small fence and casually merge with the flock of tourists taking photos with their Nikons. You can find it for yourself – it’s all part of the adventure – but just don’t tell them I sent you. From there, you can stroll, have a spot of lunch and then, when you’re fed up, kayak on back to your posh paradise.
Oh and did I mention breakfast? See photo – there are no words.
Piedmont… the rustic way
Nice in August can really dull the charm. The people traffic is unbearable, it takes 45 minutes to secure a table and walking anywhere in the heat feels like you’re being aggressively sandpapered. It’s far more pleasant to drive into the Italian hills and spend a week cooling off around a magnificent pool. The temperature doesn’t shock your system, the roads are oh-so-drivable, the restaurants are dirt cheap and there are no, well, French people. Which, let’s face it, is always a bonus.
Introducing Agriturismo – quality farm holidays that shouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg. In my search for the perfect rustic retreat, I entered the following criteria:
– Asti, Piedmont (3 hours drive from Nice)
– Sleeps 4
– Swimming pool
– Playground for children
And this is what my Italian angels sent me…. Ca’ Traza. A 19th century stone house on a 5 hectare farm with vines, fruit trees, vegetables, and most importantly a swimming pool with a panoramic view over endless manicured hills. As a friend pointed out, “If that’s a farm house, I’m becoming a farmer.”
The farmhouse was split into four individual apartments, each with its own private garden and BBQ area, which meant we could strike up the odd conversation with our Dutch and Italian neighbours, or we could just as easily be anti-social bastards. We could also have a snooze by the pool while the kiddo played with other kids named Leonardo and Michelangelo (no kidding) under the watchful eye of other adults.
And let me tell you about the welcome basket. Eggs, milk, regional WINE, spaghetti, homegrown tomatoes, homemade jam, a cake freshly baked by our hosts…. mamma mia, now that’s the kind of shit that gets me excited.
All in all a big thumbs up for Agriturismo. It’s tranquil, it’s inexpensive and it’s really great fun speaking with your hands.
Acqui Terme… for tired feet
If velo bleu-ing up and down the promenade and too many pichets of rosé have left you exhausted, then a grand Italian hotel from the late 1800s and a couple of spa treatments may be in order.
Acqui Terme (“thermal waters”) is famous for its hot springs. People come from all over Northwestern Italy to the famous Piazza della Bollente, with its therapeutic 76°C sulfur spring. But springy things aside, it’s simply a picturesque little town with some of the finest restaurants in Piedmont as well as plenty of mama-e-papa gems offering melt-in-the-mouth everything for next to nothing. Ravioli Plin. Vitello Tonnato. Risotto con Funghi. Oh yerrr.
For a great overnighter, head to Acqui Terme for lunch (3 hours drive from Nice) and then book into the Hotel Roma Imperiale for some R&R. As soon as you see the huge marble bathroom, beamed ceiling and king sized bed, you’ll know you’re in safe hands. And the minute you’re in a fluffy bathrobe waiting to be massaged by a stocky, large-breasted Italian, the day-to-day stress of the Nice rat race, will instantly vanish. Shortly after you’ll siesta, have a wonderful dinner on site, and then sleep again ‘til noon. Except you won’t because check out is at 11. And before that you’ll probably stumble down to the buffet with rampant sex hair and pillow imprints on your face.
Head there a little off season and it’ll set you back around 80€/night. Not ‘arf bad to feel like an Italian princess for a day.