Linzi Hawkin, Starboard Ocean Ambassador & founder of SUPKids & Protect Blue headed off to Italy in search of adventure with her sister. Tired of exchanging gifts at birthdays, the sisters decide to find reprieve and tranquillity in nature to unwind and take some time out from their busy lives & ever-increasing workloads. Linzi gives us her day-by-day highlights of their Cinque Terre paddleboarding & hiking trip, as well as some handy travel tips for those looking to try out this amazing Italian adventure yourself.
DECISION IS MADE
Nat & I made a decision a few years back that we’d stop giving each other birthday gifts (do we really need more stuff ?!) and committed to going on a trip together each year. Neither of us are really city break kinda girls, and not interested in shopping trips or fancy hotels – so this year we planned the kind of adventure that gets us both excited – heaps of time outdoors in the fresh air, something physically challenging and somewhere close to home so we could minimise our environmental footprint.
We’re also testing out the ‘three-day effect’ – a term coined by cognitive psychologist William Strayer. The three-day the effect, he says, is a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough.
Why? Well, getting out into nature gives the frontal cortex a break. When we step back from emails, deadlines, meetings & social media, the ‘attention network’ on our brain gets freed up, giving other parts of our brains a chance to take over, like those associated with sensory perception, empathy and productive day-dreaming.
“That first day in nature, your mind is recalibrating and you start to notice things a little bit, to unwind from the modern world,” says Strayer. “You notice cloud patterns, sounds and smells, and it becomes really acute. You don’t need a watch anymore. You forget what day of the week it is.”
It’s one thing to know this intellectually but another to actually commit to unplugging from work – especially if, like Nat & I, you run your own business.
CINQUE TERRE, ITALY
For this nature fix, we chose the Cinque Terre in Italy, a collection of fishing villages on the Italian Riviera, famous for its colourful buildings and breathtaking scenery. Our plan was to hike the mountain trail, then the coastal trail and then paddle the length of the coastal trail on our last day.
Bizarrely, despite the region being super famous, it was actually pretty difficult to get clear information about the trails & distances online, so we mapped it out as best we could from home and hoped for the best.
We flew into Nice on a Friday evening and checked into our hotel (we chose this place as it was super close to the station for the next morning). Thanks to PJ and the team from Starboard UK there were two 12’6 Starboard Touring Zen inflatables waiting for us at the hotel, so we excitedly unboxed them and packed everything ready for the start of our journey the next morning.
Stay: Villa Otero
Eat: L’Ecurie, in Vielle Nice
Do: Walk the Promenade des Anglais, check out the old town, grab a table at one of the bars in and order some socca (delicious local flatbread made from chickpea flour) and a cold glass of rose.
Up early the next morning to get the train to Levanto. Travelling with the inflatables was a breeze, they’re super light and easy to either wheel around like a normal suitcase or carry on your back. So awesome to know you’ve got everything you need for an epic adventure all in one bag.
We’d connected with a travel agency before we left and they were kind enough to let us leave some of our gear with them for a couple of days whilst we hiked. Levanto is an amazing little surf town (which was completely unknown to us ’til we got there and realised there was actually a pretty decent swell running). We grabbed a cold drink, picked up some last minute supplies and then found our way to the start of the Red Trail.
The hike from Levanto to Drignana was pretty spectacular, with a steep startup to a ridge that overlooked all five of the Cinque Terre villages. Then we plunged into winding tracks through the pine forest before joining the mountain road for a seemingly never-ending uphill mission! Every corner we turned, we imagined we must have reached the top, but somehow, around every corner was another stretch of hill awaiting us. By this point it was late afternoon so we knew we had limited time to make it to Drignana before it got dark, so we abandoned the idea of stopping for a snack and pushed on at a pace in the hope we wouldn’t be hiking in the dark.
By the time we saw the sign for Drignana we were pretty damn stoked – we figured we’d made it and that within a few minutes we’d be pulling off backpacks and celebrating with a good meal. But that’s not quite what happened – you see our accommodation was actually at the bottom of a ridiculously big hill – much like we’d just spent the last few hours climbing. And it was a winding one – which meant the distance along the road versus the distance straight down was at least five times as far. By the time we arrived at our Agriturismo we were smashed – 19k in just over 4 hours and pretty much none of it flat. Our accommodation was great – super simple, but comfortable and with a welcome hot shower, we weren’t complaining. Any dreams of epic Italian food were somewhat dashed when we found out the only way to get down to the nearest town was another hour hike (plus longer to get back up) – so we settled for a picnic in our room and a much-needed yoga stretch.
Stay: Costa di Campo
Eat: We grabbed picnic supplies from one of the many stores in Levanto – homemade spinach tart, fresh tomatoes & of course, a stash of dark chocolate
Do: Hike the 20km from Levanto to Drignana on the mountain (red) trail
We woke up early the next day dreading walking back up to the trailhead. It had taken us at least an hour to get down the hill, so the thought of hiking uphill for a couple of hours before we even got to the start of the actual path had us searching for alternatives. We ended up getting a ride with a local guy who charged us a ridiculous amount of money – but one we gladly paid to arrive at the trailhead with (somewhat) fresh legs.
The morning climb was insane – insane in terms of the view but also the physical challenge. We needed to keep up a good pace, so the hill climbs were fast and rest stops short. By this point, we were hiking directly above the Cinque Terre, with incredible views below and glimpses of the villages below. We welcomed the flat trail after a morning of climbing and were even more stoked when we stumbled on a lone restaurant perched at the top of the ridge. We were starving and hadn’t eaten a proper hot meal since we left Nice, so we ordered lunch and stretched our legs. A huge bowl of pasta with homemade pesto showed up and we demolished it within minutes, quite unlike the other folk eating there who had arrived by car and were leisurely drinking wine & enjoying the view.
We still had a pretty solid distance to hike, so we set off for the afternoon and were soon descending back towards the coast to follow the path to Portovenere. The trail hugged the cliffs (probably not suitable for anyone with a fear of heights) with a few sketchy hold-on-tight-to-the-rock moments as we scrambled along the path. The views were incredible and by the time we started the hike down to Portovenere, we could see a solid swell hitting the coast. As we watched a sailing boat abandon its attempt at getting into the harbour we had our fingers crossed that the swell would drop before our paddle 2 days later!
Portovenere is a rad little town with narrow streets dotted with bars & restaurants. After much deserved hot showers & tiger balm application, we headed out to explore. Our host, Fabio was an absolute character, and told us the best place in town to eat (and exactly what to order) – so after a welcome cold beer in the town square, we walked along the harbour to a hidden away little restaurant and ate what is probably the best pasta we’ve ever eaten in our lives.
Somehow we managed to sneak dessert in too, so the moonlit walk home was a slow but happy one.
The plan the next day was for a much more relaxed hike – the coastal trail. This is the most popular hiking trail on the Cinque Terre, and no way as physically demanding as the mountain trail. We got up early to jump on the boat to Riomaggiore only to find out that swell still hadn’t dropped. The guy selling tickets to the boat told us, in the most quintessential Italian way, that they would ’try’ to get to Riomaggiore, but would probably not make it. So we opted for a slightly more reliable option and jumped on a bus to La Spezia and then the train to Riomaggiore.
Here’s what the beautiful photos don’t tell you about the Cinque Terre – it gets insanely busy. Like, London in rush hour busy! There’s no access to the villages by car, so pretty much everyone is reliant on the train. The other thing that is almost impossible to know until you arrive is how much of the coastal path is actually open. We’d read different things on different websites, so we’re still none the wiser – but soon found out that the path between Riomaggiore and
Manarola was closed. In fact, two of the four sections we needed to hike were closed, which meant only two options – have a lazy day and just get the train between villages and stick to the coast, or summon up the energy to head back up to the hills and hike the middle path.
We’d come to hike, so we chose the latter – not before stocking up on ibuprofen in a local pharmacy and then climbing what seemed like a zillion steps to Volostra. The trail between Volostra and Corniglia was super narrow and jammed with American tourists who had been dropped off at the top of the hill to hike down to the next village. Their pace was, er, slow and we quickly realised it would take hours if we were polite and trailed behind them – so instead, we apologised a lot as we sneaked past them (hey, it’s in our British blood) and ended up using it as motivation to keep the pace. How many hiking groups could we overtake on the way? Turns out my sister and I have a very competitive streak in common.
If we thought the steps up to Volostra were tricky, the path down to Corniglia was even worse. Definitely not a hike for anyone with bad knees (and chances are, even if you don’t have issues you’ll end up pretty sore if you’re walking with all your gear like we were). Lunch in Corniglia felt like a dream after that descent – and we reaped the benefits of hiking so much by ordering everything and anything we wanted on the menu.
The next part of the path was closed (mainly due to storm damage) so we had to get the train to Vernazza for the last stage. Vernazza has a beautiful harbour and the hike up out of the village has some of the best views we saw on the whole trip. The trail to Monterosso (the last of the villages in the Cinque Terre) was stunning, and as we finally made our way down to the village, after clocking up another 17km we celebrated with gelato before hopping on the train to Levanto.
If you’re doing a Cinque Terre trip I’d really recommend finding accommodation outside the 5 main villages – it’s way cheaper and you’ll have heaps more options. Plus they’re no way near as busy and really easy to get to by train.
Levanto has a really nice vibe to it – check out the local surf store, Brothers (follow them on IG to see the waves they get there – I had no idea Italy got such fun waves).
We picked up our boards and whilst grabbing the keys for our apartment from the night asked for a dinner recommendation – what we didn’t realise was that when we were told it was the best pizza in the world, it was quite literally the best pizza in the world. The restaurant had been awarded 1st place this year in an international competition and, holy smokes, it lived up to its reputation! After three solid days of hiking and the night before our paddle, it was the perfect way to end the day.
Stay: B&B La Perla Blu
Eat: La Picea – & good luck trying to choose which pizza you want to eat.
Do: Hike the 17km from Riomaggiore to Monterosso (we hiked high trail #6 because the coastal paths were closed during our trip !)
Our last full day on the trip started at 5 am squeezing two inflatables and all our gear into a Piaggio. We’d booked the ride the night before and somehow they’d forgotten to tell us we wouldn’t actually be in a real car. By the time we got to Monterosso, the sun was just starting to come up. The swell had died down and the wind wasn’t due to come up till after lunch so we were psyched for the 10k paddle ahead.
But halfway through pumping up one of the boards, I heard that hissing sound that you never want to hear. There was a 2-inch tear down the rail – not quite the best start to the morning. So we pulled out the repair kit and despite the fact that we had a rapidly decreasing window to paddle, and none of the kit we needed to do a proper repair, we made it happen. I raced around the tiny town desperately trying to find duct tape whilst Nat held onto the repair patch in the hope that it would magically cure before we needed to jump in the water.
Deciding whether to go ahead was a tricky call, but we knew we had places to pull in pretty much every 2km if needed, so we delayed our start time as long as possible before packing all our gear on the boards and setting off. Needless to stay we paddled a bit faster than normal for the first leg, just to make sure, with a board loaded with about 15kg of gear, I wasn’t going to end up swimming!
We pulled into the harbour at Vernazza and pumped some extra air in just to be safe. The duct tape was coming off by this stage, but thankfully the glue was holding. We headed back out and took in the epic views – we’d spent the last few days seeing this coast from the land, but the view from the ocean was so much better. No place we’d rather be.
The paddle itself was pretty mellow – the swell had dropped significantly and although there was a bit of wind, the conditions were still good. It’s 10km all up and an amazing perspective to see the coastline – plus the perfect way to get away from the crowds.
As we pulled into Riomaggiore (the last of the five villages) and packed down our boards we met a Kiwi guy who laughed and told us how stoked he was to see we’d made it. Turns out he’d been watching us from his hotel room in Monterosso early that morning!
We sat in the sunshine with all our gear and had a celebratory lunch before jumping on the boat back to Portovenere for some much-needed downtime before a late arvo aperitif with Fabio & his wife, at their little food stand in the village square and dinner back at our favourite restaurant.
Wednesday morning saw the transition back to normal life – trains & planes and work calls at the airport. But we had sore muscles, sunburnt noses & big smiles on our faces. It’s incredible the shift that happens when you simply unplug for a few days and immerse yourself in nature. This had been the most rad nature fix. Now we’ve just got to figure out what adventure to go on next year…
Picture Credits: Linzi Hawkin