On the waterfront

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It being a miserable, rainy morning in October, we're busy researching potential holiday destinations for 2010. Few sunshine meccas gain more consistent praise than the lively, luxury sprawl of the Italian Riviera, where Esquire headed earlier this year for some timely R&R. We'd happily return.

About an hour from Genoa, the town of Rapallo is bang in the middle of the glittering Ligurian coast, between the Cinque Terre (five UNESCO-protected villages overlooking the Ligurian Sea) and the billionaire playground of Portofino. Our home for the week was the Excelsior Palace Hotel, an early 1900s edifice that was constructed as Italy’s first casino, but has subsequently grown into a luxury residence for the likes of King Edward VIII, Ernest Hemingway, and (more recently) George Clooney. It’s much like the set of an Agatha Christie novel, only without the body count and the moustache wax.

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Top: the view from our fifth-floor balcony; Above: the Excelsior Palace Hotel, beach club, and spa

The hotel has plenty to merit the five stars above its door, like the Heavenly Beds big enough to accommodate an A-lister’s entourage, an onsite tailor schooled by Brioni, and the charming and unflappable head concierge, Angelo Cipollina. Its main draw though is the beach club; reached via a private tunnel above the coast road, this sprawling outcrop boasts an infinity pool, a sun deck stretching the full width of the hotel grounds, and the establishment’s principle (and best) restaurant, the Eden Roc. By day, it’s the perfect roost from which to people-watch with impunity; by night, the ideal spot for more enjoying a seafood tasting menu, as the saltwater laps against the rocks below.

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Above left: an Exclusive Room; Right: the view from the Cap Roc restaurant at dusk

Rapallo looks pretty enough from the comfort of your own balcony but, like the rest of this area, it’s best viewed from the water. A few minutes' walk down the hill is the town’s harbour, and you can either hire your own boat or board one of the tiny passenger ferries for the 6km commute to Portofino. The first stop along the coast is the ‘comune’ of Santa Marghuerita Ligure, a promenade of coloured buildings behind which we found L’Ardiciocca, a small restaurant so off-campus the chef insists on personally shaking your hand for being so kind as to patronise his dining room. Thankfully the food is so good (think red mullet ravioli, and creamed barley soup bobbing with prawns the size of your fist) that you’re willing to return the gesture.

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Above left: the infinity pool at the Excelsior Palace Hotel; Above right: night falls over the Ligurian Sea 

Back on board the traghetto, the sudden profusion of private yachts strutting up and down the shoreline heralds the approach of Italy’s most famous sea resort, and when Portofino finally looms into view, it dawns on you just how tiny the landmark is. You can circumnavigate the cobbled harbour in a little less than 10 minutes, without breaking a sweat. The seafront itself is as unlike a British seaside town as you’d expect, the pensioners and ice cream vans replaced by oligarchs and Loro Piana boutiques, interspersed with some of the best seafood restaurants in Italy.

If you sit at one table here, make sure it’s under the awning of Da Puny (+39 0185 269037). Proprietor Luigi Miroli’s outdoor terrace occupies the best spot on the Piazza Martini, and offers classic staples like fresh sardines warmed through and drowning in brown butter, or whole bream baked in salt, with all the trimmings. You won’t get much further than the head waiter’s raised eyebrow if you arrive without your name in ink, so ask Angelo to book you a table in advance. It’s worth the price of the airfare alone.

Doubles at the Excelsior Palace Hotel from around £300. Return flights from Gatwick to Genoa with BA cost from £95. Transfers can be arranged directly with the hotel.

*What we drank: Riviera Ligure di Ponente Doc Pigato 2004 - a local white with hints of almond, sage and bitter honey.

*What we ate: Pappardelle al Portofino – ribbons of al dente pasta as wide as your watchstrap, doused in the region’s two favourite ingredients: fresh pesto and tomatoes.

*What we listened to: Youth Novels by Lykke Li (Warner Music)