We have found where the rich and famous stay and play on the Italian Riviera ... and it's just perfect!
Italy's north-western corner is called the country's political, economic and intellectual engine room. The Ligurian coast was inhabited by Neanderthals about a million years ago and many remains have been unearthed. It is probable they were lured by the sea and that very sea still attracts people in droves.
The area has been ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Lombards, Venetians and French and strong early trade has left indelible influences in the region, particularly in its food and wine. It is the birthplace of pesto, minestrone and seafood risotto.
The Ligurian coast stretches from the French border in the west to La Spezia in the east and is dotted with resorts and medieval towns. The mountainous hinterland hides hilltop villages and the occasional piste and there are plenty of wonderful opportunities for walkers.
Genoa, at the centre of the coast, is the regional capital and an important port well worth exploring. It has a proud history and the palaces of via Balbi and Garibaldi, paintings and sculptures, churches and museums remain.
Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, possibly in 1436. The honour of his birthplace is claimed by many villages in the republic, but all Genoans like to point out that he was one of theirs, in whichever village he was born.
East of Genoa is Portofino, originally a small fishing village, shaded by eucalypts and olive trees. It is a popular paradise on the Italian Riviera, with holidaymakers enjoying the azure Mediterranean, tropical palms and tranquil countryside with olive groves, oaks, pines and cypress. From the summit of Monte Portofino are magnificent views across the sea to the mountains of Corsica. The "Jewel of Europe" sign just outside town sums it up.
Portofino can handle only so many people during high season, so car entry is restricted. The wait can be long and hot one car leaves and another is allowed entry. There is a large clock letting you know how much longer you will have to stay in the queue.
Homes and boats in the area are quite spectacular and belong to well-known and unknown people with one thing in common lots and lots of money!
Most things in Portofino revolve around the Hotel Splendido. Originally a monastery, the four-storey building was attacked so often in the 16th century by Saracen pirates, the monks abandoned it and the sheep which roamed the local hillsides took up residence.
In the 19th century, Baron Baratta revived the wreck, converting it into a family summer house. It was built on an east-west axis, following the contour of the hill, so that as well as having views of the sea from all its principal windows, it also enjoys the sun all day.
In 1901, Ruggero Valentini, the pioneer of tourism at Portofino, transformed Villa Baratta into the Grand Hotel Splendido. Since the beginning the hotel has played host to the most famous and noble families in Europe and the cream of the international jet-set, with the Duke of Windsor the first person to sign the visitors book. Set on a hillside in one-and-a-half hectares of tropical gardens, it has 66 guest rooms, most of which have a balcony or terrace offering views of the bay.
While still having a patrician air, Splendido is not grand. Rooms have old looking glasses, gilt tables and Persian rugs and meals are based on local cuisine home made pastas, lots of aromatic herbs and plenty of fresh seafood.
Bushes of lavender and wild herbs grow under old olive trees and tangles of colourful bougainvillea and the fragrances hang in the warm air as you wander along paths which lead to hidden benches.
The restaurant and piano bar have views over the bay, Ligurian-Mediterranean in design.
A good day trip is to San Fruttuoso, which leaves behind the gaudy wealth of Portofino. It has a church, abbey, medieval watchtower, three houses and Ristorante da Giovanni. No shops, no boutiques and no tourists before 10am or after 6pm.
Just around the corner from Portofino is Santa Margherita Ligure. Founded in the 12th century, it led a calm existence as a fishing village. It was popular with Hollywood stars early in the 20th century thanks to a National Geographic article and while graceful, is a little glitzy, but art deco lighting softens the pastel walls. Palm trees line the harbour and it is a very affordable base for exploring the Riviera.
The Best Westin Regina Elena is a modern hotel on the sea road surrounded by early 20th-century villas and gardens. It has a private beach with restaurant and bar and 104 rooms, most with sea views. There is a heated pool, jacuzzi and rooftop sundeck.