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After removing my sneakers, I climbed down a slightly rusted ladder into the cool, turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The sun was beating down, and I only scrambled out when some onlookers had noticed jellyfish swimming nearby.
The shore of Vernazza — one of the five villages of Cinque Terre, Italy — made for the perfect refresher before the rest of my nine-hour Exclusive Cinque Terre Small Group Tour With Travel Bound and Avventure Bellissime. The excursion includes stops at Manarola, Vernazza and Corniglia, but the current itinerary swaps out Corniglia for Riomaggiore because of a road closure.
The trip began in Piazza della Repubblica in Florence at 8 a.m., when our tour guide gathered his six passengers into a Mercedes van. His name was Adriano, and he was happy to answer our questions about Italy — ranging from the history of the region to advice on what souvenirs to buy in Cinque Terre (hint: it’s limoncello).
The van took us down zigzagging paths through Tuscan countryside vineyards as we headed toward the coast. I admired the terraced landscape of stone walls and bright-green grape vines planted in distinct rows.
We were introduced to the tropical atmosphere and sunshine at our first stop in Manarola, the oldest village. Once peaceful, Manarola is now crowded with tourists, but we did catch glimpses of locals hanging laundry to dry and greeting each other.
Thanks to a path that winds around an adjacent rocky cliff, Manarola features a panoramic view of the ocean and Cinque Terre’s quaint pastel houses. I found that the simple walk at our own pace was a highlight of my two weeks in Italy.
Though we were originally warned that the trip included moderate cliffside hikes, these “hikes” were more of an easygoing walk either downhill or uphill on pavement. My workout pants were unnecessary, and visitors donning sundresses over their swimsuits fared just as well. However, the villages do generally slope downward, so clients should wear durable walking shoes or avoid the excursion altogether if they suffer from any knee injuries.
At around noon, we met Adriano, our guide, at the marina to board a small cruise ship that would take us to the other stops along the coast, which are so remote that access via car is difficult, if not impossible. While we waited for the boat, Adriano offered restaurant recommendations for lunch, even calling to make reservations for those who could not speak Italian.
For about 16 euro, I savored a plate of flat pappardelle pasta with tomato sauce and prawns at the open-air, beachfront lunch spot Ristorante Il Gambero Rosso. The 15-minute boat ride had dropped us off at Vernazza, a small fishing village with easy access to shore and a swimming lagoon. From the comfort of my shaded wicker chair, I watched vacationers sunbathe on the resort-like beach. Vernazza’s main street has mostly been converted into souvenir shops, so it’s a good place to find local limoncello.
Hopping back into a van, our guide drove us up to a monastery overlooking Corniglia, which would be our following and final stop. At the monastery, we appreciated a zoomed-out perspective of the tiny village that contrasted with the giant blue ocean.
Once at Corniglia, we found that the village’s atmosphere felt most authentically Italian, since it’s considerably less crowded than Vernazza and Manarola. Quiet alleys gave way to ocean views and sunlight-dappled courtyards as I meandered along the shaded stone path, taking little bites from my cup of subtly flavored basil, fig and cream gelato. The ice cream is included in the tour’s price for clients in the summer months, while winter tours include an aperitif with wine and bruschetta at a local wine bar.
Though I had to be pulled away from Corniglia after just 45 minutes, I would have preferred to stay there, reclining on a balcony while watching the sun set over the Mediterranean.
I’ve heard that people who visit Cinque Terre wish they had more than a day to explore. Thanks to our guide’s personal tips and the small group size with Avventure Bellissime, I felt like I got an insider experience into Cinque Terre that most people taking day trips wouldn’t experience. Although I wish I could’ve stayed through the night, my quick taste of the picture-perfect villages made me swoon with Italy’s rustic charm.