The word "Riviera" might invoke sunny, sexy images of France – Nice, Monaco, Antibes – but step over the border into Italy and another Riviera begins. Pinched between the Cote d'Azur and Genoa, the Riviera di Ponente might have only one famous town – San Remo, home to one of Italy's four casinos – but it's a coastline well worthy of exploration.
At a glance this Riviera tucked into Italy's hip can resemble one long, unchanging strip – a place of beach umbrellas and burnt skin – but each town has its own distinctive traits and appeal.
Heading west from Genoa, the Riviera di Ponente begins to blossom in Noli, officially listed as one of Italy's I Borghi più belli d'Italia (most beautiful villages).
It was an ambitious person who created Noli, a town crammed and compressed into the mouth of a narrow valley. The crumbled remains of a castle and defensive wall zigzag up an adjoining headland, and its old town stands pressed against the Ligurian Sea (with a suitably medieval regulation that walking through the old town in your bathers is prohibited).
Noli's stony beach has a more egalitarian feel than most Riviera strands, with public space exceeding private space, and colourful fishing boats lying anchored between the sun-seekers.
The most classically beautiful old town along this coast arguably belongs to Finale Ligure, where the medieval walls and gates of Finalborgo still stand at the foot of a castle-crowned hill inland from the town's long beach.
Frescoes stare down into the lanes that radiate from Finalborgo's central piazza, while rock climbers, mountain bikers and a profusion of outdoor stores give it a sense of bustle and life beyond the usual slumber of a European old town.
Just a handful of kilometres west, strung across the slopes that rise from the sea, time barely moves in tiny Verezzi. Another of Italy's I Borghi più belli d'Italia, this stone village of just 50 people is the kind of place that inspires Mediterranean villa dreams.
Osterias line its one narrow lane, while grape wines shroud dining terraces, casting shade and thoughts of wine as you peer down onto the coast 200 metres below. Little happens here, at least until its annual theatre festival, but that's the essence of its magic.
Further west, Alassio at first presents a more contemporary and commercial appearance, but business ends at the beach. One of this coastline's finest beaches, with its shallowest waters, Alassio's sands are covered in seemingly endless lines of umbrellas – you'll struggle to get a plot of sand without paying for it.
Running directly behind the beach is Alassio's budello – literally, its guts or bowels – a tight tangle of lanes that remains intact from Alassio's early days as a fishing village. Today, pastry shops and gelaterias sit side by side with Turin fashion houses, creating the Riviera di Ponente's most interesting shopping strip, selling everything from fine crystal to crap and a universe of swimwear.
The most beautiful hilltop town along the coast is Cervo, draped across a low rise at the sea's edge, 15 kilometres from Alassio. Steep cobbled stairways twist and turn up its slopes to a maze of narrow lanes, where the pleasures are those common to ancient hilltop towns – simply wandering without purpose past flaking wooden doors, stumbling into new piazzas and emerging to sudden views.
The views here provide a striking contrast, with this traffic-free, character-filled medieval town peering down onto beaches covered with umbrellas and bodies, with pedalos scooting across the blue sea.
There's another contrast 10 kilometres away at Imperia, a town with a perfect bay and a huge port filled with yachts and superyachts – it's Imperia and imperious.
All the action is along the waterfront, where beach umbrellas all but smother the sands, but there's also a beautiful old town draped over a hill behind the port. Here, where few visitors seem to wander, old men play cards in the doorways of simple bars, and Liguria's largest cathedral rises 55 metres high, with paintings by some of Liguria's finest 19th-century artists inside its 3000-square-metre interior. It's an extraordinary monument for a town of 42,000 people.
Qatar Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Genoa via Doha and Munich. See qatarairways.com
A Rail Europe Italy Pass allows travel along the Riviera de Ponente from Genoa. UTracks runs an eight-day self-guided Cycle Nice to Genoa trip that passes through all of the Riviera towns. See www.raileurope.com.au, www.utracks.com
Andrew Bain travelled as a guest of UTracks and Rail Europe.
See also: The rules of tipping in Europe