From whale-watching to witch spotting and wine tasting, adventure awaits in this stretch of the Italian Riviera.

Liguria is an adventurer’s playground. The northwest portion of the region, called the Ligurian Ponente or Riveria di Ponente, offers a myriad of activities for all ages and preferences, from hiking to diving and whale watching to cycling. It’s also a great destination for food and wine lovers, with a selection of eateries ranging from luxury restaurants to strictly local village trattoria. An adventure-filled journey awaits you if you drive from the western coastal city of Ventimiglia, up to the mountains, and back down to the coast near Imperia.

Explore the Ligurian Ponente

Streets of Imperia - by Federico Perola

Streets of Imperia – by Federico Perola

Genova symbolically divides the northern Italian region of Liguria into two slices—east of the city, on the way to Tuscany, is Levante, and heading west to France you’ll find Ponente. Levante is home to world-famous destinations like Portofino, Santa Margherita, and the much-loved Cinque Terre. If you head west, on the other hand, the seaside villages may not be quite as picture-perfect, but you’ll find far fewer visitors, wilder nature, and an authentically Italian atmosphere.

The Ligurian Ponente is a place where the hills meet the waves. Here, the green slopes of the Maritime Alps kiss the deep blue waters of the Ligurian Sea. Spend a day lounging on the beach, jumping into the sea to cool off, and swimming to work out all those slices of focaccia—and then dust off your hiking gear the following day and make for the mountains.

Here are five ideas for a road trip across the Ligurian Ponente, hopscotching between hills and sea, focusing on the region between Imperia and Ventimiglia.

Garden walks and gourmet cuisine in Ventimiglia

Ventimiglia, the last Italian town before the French border, has been a favorite Riviera destination for centuries, adored by aristocrats from all over Europe who spend their summers and winters here. One of them was Sir Thomas Hanbury, who created the botanical gardens now bearing his name. The Hanbury Botanical Gardens, also known as Villa Hanbury, are a short drive away from the city of Ventimiglia on a steep peninsula surrounded by the Ligurian Sea. The gardens are administered by the University of Genova and focus on Mediterranean flowers and plants, but also include specimens from as far away as Australia, as well as quirky sights like a Japanese bell and a Moroccan pavilion.

Hanbury Villa - by Daniel70mi Falciola

Hanbury Villa – by Daniel70mi Falciola

After a morning or afternoon walk around the Botanical Gardens, drive to Balzi Rossi, a secluded beach surrounded by red cliffs and featuring one of the most important prehistoric archaeological sites in northern Italy. It also happens to be home to a delicious gourmet restaurant. Ristorante Balzi Rossi is the ideal location for an unforgettable lunch or dinner—Menton is only a kilometer away, so you can dine in Italy while looking at France. Enjoy creative dishes inspired by Ligurian tradition with French influence.

Cycling in Dolceacqua

After visiting Ventimiglia, turn your back to the sea and head for the hills. The first stop will be Dolceacqua, a spectacular medieval village built on the banks of the Nervia river, with an iconic arched stone bridge and mighty Doria Castle overlooking from the top of a nearby hill. Dolceacqua is a popular destination to escape the summer heat of the coast. The village is also the ideal destination for cycling lovers; the hills around Dolceacqua include several downhill and mountain biking trails. Or, cycle to Dolceacqua from Ventimiglia following the recently-opened cycle path running alongside the Nervia river, which makes for a scenic and not-too-challenging cycling day trip. Rent a bike in Ventimiglia and ask locally for maps and directions.

Streets in Dolceacqua - by Federico Perola

Streets in Dolceacqua – by Federico Perola

Ghost tours and witch tales in Triora

Approximately 45 km north of Dolceacqua, where the hills are just about to become mountains, you’ll find Triora, the location of Italy’s last witch trials and now self-proclaimed “Town of Witches.” Triora is worth a visit for its secluded, almost spooky atmosphere. Wandering down the village alleyways or carruggi in total silence, a sudden draft of wind may bring to mind the presence of the women who lost their lives at the stake. There are tours on offer to the homes of the accused witches, as well as to the mountains where covens where supposedly held and where the women met their fate. On top of that, ghost tours are organized almost weekly in summer: they start at 10 pm, so you might want to stay in Triora overnight. If so, enjoy dinner at the village restaurant, L’Erba Gatta.

Whale watching in Imperia

Heading back to the coast, Imperia is the largest town in the area. It’s actually made up of two cities, Oneglia and Porto Maurizio, which were joined by Mussolini in the 1920s. Admittedly, the western Ligurian Riviera offers much prettier seaside villages to explore—but come to Imperia for the whale watching tour. The tours take visitors to the Pelagos marine sanctuary, which is home to eight types of cetaceans. Four species of dolphins also live in the area, and you will likely spot them: bottlenose, striped, Risso’s, and the short-beaked common dolphin. If you’re lucky, you may also see sperm and fin whale, as well as minke whale, an occasional visitor. Tours depart daily in high season and are suitable to all ages, and there’s always a marine biologist on board providing information about the Pelagos sanctuary, the cetaceans, and conservation projects.

Wine tasting in Diano Marina

Liguria is famous for its crispy whites, born from the mineral-rich terroir between hills and sea and matching perfectly with the aromatic, herb-rich dishes of Ligurian cuisine. Just a few minutes away from Diano Marina and Imperia is the Poggio dei Gorleri winery, the ideal location for an alfresco wine tasting with a fantastic sea view. From light-bodied yet complex Vermentino with its bitter almond notes to fruity white Pigato and the iconic, dry Riviera red Granaccia, there’s no better way to end a road trip around the Ligurian Ponente than wine tasting.

Poggio dei Gorleri's vineyards in Diano Marina - © Poggio dei Gorleri

Poggio dei Gorleri’s vineyards in Diano Marina – © Poggio dei Gorleri

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