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updated 3/27/2006 2:41:28 PM ET 2006-03-27T19:41:28

The spectacular sight of cliffs, crowned with acres of green Mediterranean flora, silently surround the Levante Riviera town of Portofino with a mystical peacefulness. It deepens as more of this ancient marina and modern-day tourist attractions come into view.

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Entering from the silvery Tigullian Gulf, Portofino, is framed by rocky crags dotted with cypress and olive trees and rows of clay Mediterranean-style homes. As many as seven narrow homes attach, barely yards away from the cliffs' edges. Others are built into the rock, so architecturally sound they look as if they were created by nature. Each vertical unit is characterized by its roof's pitch, the vibrant colors on doors and shutters and the diverse arrangements in blossoming window boxes. The gentle movement of water ripples and brush moved by the breeze is the only indication that the view is real and not a Master's painting.

Portofino is a promontory along the Ligurian Coast in Northwestern Italy that attracts 200,000 visitors from all over the world each year, making it the most popular tourist stop in Liguria, according to the Italian Government Tourist Board in New York City. It is as steeped in history as it is in mythology. Human occupancy can be traced back to the bronze age in the 14th century. Local lore states the Romans dubbed it Porto Delphini in honor of the many dolphins that swam the gulf. It became a tourist attraction - albeit not an overcrowded one - in the 1950s, when such jetsetters such as Princess Grace and Elizabeth Taylor vacationed there to forget about life for a while.

The future of Portofino is promising, thanks to strict local and global conservation efforts, in effect since 1935. Even the streets and sidewalks in the main square by the water's edge show no evidence of debris. Unlike other parts of Italy, where soda bottles, snack wrappers and other garbage line the gutter, Portofino bears no sign of litter. This pride is carried over to the buildings, hotels, shops and restaurants - all of which are spotless and meticulously maintained.

This seaport boasts every vessel from working fishing boats, luxury private yachts, cruise ships (Portofino is a popular excursion along luxury cruise lines) and water taxis whose captains shout out competitive fares to nearby Santa Margherita, another spotless coastal gem 15 minutes away and well worth the 10 euros or approximately $12.25 United States Dollars.

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Shopping is another attraction. Designer stores line the harbor displaying the latest in children's wear, ladies handbags, jewelry, shoes and other leather goods, to up-to-the-minute men's and women's couture. A few merchants even offer the cheesy souvenirs of postcards and Portofino key chains. Kiosks offer a wide variety of table linens, baby bibs and other memorabilia.

The sea is so clear; you can watch small fish dart about the anchors as you dine at one of the many harbor side restaurants. The village is spotted with an abundance of outdoor cafes that offer a standard selection of wines, coffees, cappuccino, pasta, sandwiches and other entrees. The seafood is so fresh, you may wonder if the fishing line has yet been detached. (Don't worry, everything's been expertly filleted.)

Some hot water spots include Trattoria Tripoli and Da Puny, where Chez Puny can be seen preparing the lasagna and pesto. But expect the breathtaking views to be better than the food, which is about average and not commensurate with its high prices. Two scoops of ice cream at one seaside venue cost $17 American dollars. A tumbler of Coca-Cola cost more than $5.

If you are going to spend the money anyway, your best dining option is to make a reservation at the Hotel Splendido, 16 Viale Baratta, Portofino. This former monastery, dating back to the sixteenth century, is situated in the contours of the hills overlooking the sea from every side. A van transports guests every half hour from the pharmacy outside the square. A tip of five euros per couple each way is welcome. Walking the windy, narrow path to this glorious, aptly-named, five-star retreat is also possible.

On a gorgeous day, and thanks to typical Mediterranean weather, which boasts twelve months of summer, every day in Portofino is gorgeous, enjoy antipasto, a selection of fine cheeses, a filet of veal and wine in La Terrazza. Plump ripe lemons hang from potted trees alongside the stone building. Greenery and bursts of fuchsia, purple, white and orange flowers grace this paradise that boasts the most spectacular view of the Mediterranean Sea.

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Forest green crags provide a soothing contrast to the aqua water and cloudless azure sky. Keep the tranquility a little longer by booking a room. Again the prices are high, but include unmatched elegance, antique-filled rooms, exceptional service, and access to a private stretch of beach, buffet American breakfasts and one ala-carte meal. Prime season runs June through September. A standard double room without a view costs about 982 euro a night or $1,204.80 USD and the Presidential two-bedroom suite with balcony overlooking the sea costs 4,530 euro a night or $5,558.56 USD.

Who says Portofino only caters to the wealthy? A splendid dining experience can be had upon a picnic blanket along the many trails that lead to this precious port. Portofino open space is as enchanting as its water views. It is home to more than 700 protected plant species, such as Saxifraga cochlearis, a species of Alpi Marittime. Chestnut trees, Mediterranean pines and the African ampelopsis bordering Liguria, frame Portofino. Several varities of ferns grow along the forests and rocky cliffs.

The plant life is vital to the wide variety of birds, including the turtle dove and the Sardinian warbler, and invertebrates, such as the soon-to-be-rare two-tailed Pasha. Its seafloor is a biocenosis of fish and plant species, including coral beds in authentic habitats. The Parco Naturale Regionale di Portofino always welcomes hikers, birders and just interested visitors.

If you go:
Hotel Splendido: www.hotelsplendido.com
Parco Naturale Regionale di Portofino: www.hotelsplendido.com/

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