Charming vistas and idyllic villages of Italy's Ligurian coast fuel an indecent obsession for Carol Smith.
I'm having a torrid love affair and my husband knows. In fact, he's actively encouraging it.
After another restless night dreaming about the object of my affection, I wake disappointed to find I'm in my own bed. I eagerly open my inbox each day to see tantalising pictures of my love, with come-hither messages that say "have you booked yet" or "are you still looking for a hotel in Santa Margherita Ligure"?
I've become so obsessed with this seductive old Italian resort town, on the coast of Liguria, and its surrounding areas, which include Portofino - just 4km down the road - and Cinque Terre, a dreamy 50-minute train ride away, that I'm losing time searching for places to stay on TripAdvisor and Airbnb.
It all started when I agreed to be the host for World Journeys' Best of the Med tour. I'd been to Italy and to all the places on the land part of the tour - except Santa Margherita - and even on the same cruise on the latter part of the itinerary, sailing from Venice to Barcelona.
I'd spent a day in Cinque Terre visiting the five villages two years before so I already had a crush on the Ligurian coast, but had not been fully exposed to all its charms, until ...
As our coach winds its way around the coast, also known as the Italian Riviera (if you keep driving around the coast from France's Cote d'Azur, or French Riviera, you end up here), we pass Genoa, the riviera's biggest city, and drive through neighbouring Rapallo before turning the corner and seeing Santa Margherita's pretty harbour floating in front of our flight-blurred eyes, like a vision from an old impressionist masterpiece. It is love at first sight - an idyllic seaside city, bathed in sunshine and nestled beneath lush, green hills dotted with perfect villas in muted colours.
I can't wait to explore this gem, home to about 10,000 people and part of the Portofino Natural Regional Park. For a small place it offers an array of shops and eateries, catering for every tourist's needs.
If you're a Kiwi man you'll get a taste of what being Italian means once you realise in this country there are almost as many men's shops as women's - it's a long way from stubbies, jandals and T-shirts. Before going on holiday my husband wanted to buy a classy, casual mesh belt. Choice was limited and he had to traipse halfway around Auckland to find something suitable. But here he is, in a sartorial store, staring at mesh belts in 50 colour options, trousers in almost as many shades, beautiful tailored shirts and shiny shoes. I have to drag my inspired bloke out of the shop, kicking and screaming.
He settles when I suggest a gelato from Gelateria Centrale, where I spy my favourite icecream flavour, liquirizia (licorice). This is La Dolce Vita.
Having satisfied my carnal needs, it is time to go to church. The Basilica of Santa Margherita di Antiochia is a baroque church with a large facade enclosed by two belltowers and is as worthy a place as any to confess my sins - or look at the masterpieces by Genoese artists.
Santa Margherita - known as Santa by the locals - has Roman origins but later became part of Genoa's naval republic and in the 17th century Genoese families started building grand summer residences here. It has a castle, built in 1550 as a defence against increasing attacks from North African pirates, who naturally also fell in love with the cove.
We head back to our stylish hotel, the Santa Margherita Palace, where the traditional black and white theme pays tribute to the Lombard stonemasons, sculptors and master builders who went to Genoa and used black and white marble to decorate cathedrals and churches.
The peaceful lily-white rooms and the beautiful fragrances that waft through the hotel are like a balm for us weary travellers.
The next morning we catch the train from Santa Margherita to Cinque Terre just before the Italian railway workers go on strike for the day (thankfully they don't down tools as often as the French). We spend most of our time in Vernazza and enjoy a wine tasting and anchovies soaked in garlic and lemon high up on a restaurant's balcony overlooking the cliffs. The walk back down the steep stone steps is at a more sedate pace than the journey up.
Neighbouring beauties Portofino and San Fruttuoso also woo us. If you love walking, the 4-5km seaside walk to Portofino is charming and you'll come to Baia di Paraggi, famous for its emerald green water and one of the few sandy beaches in the Riviera di Levante. Keen divers can explore the wreck of a merchant ship sunk in 1917. But the ferry ride is equally appealing and the vision of Portofino as you arrive is jaw-dropping.
After salivating over Santa Margherita's glitzier neighbour's colourful painted buildings clustered round its handsome harbour, we decide to walk to 16th century Castello Brown and then around the scenic path that leads to the lighthouse and a magnificent view of the gulf. What a bonus to find a terrace bar perched on the cliff offering refreshments. It seems rude not to rest there a while and enjoy the views before heading back to the town that has inspired a love song and the Americans to recreate it at Universal Orlando Resort.
From Portofino we ferry-hop to San Fruttuoso, which can be reached only by boat or energetic walking around the cliffs. I'm certain not many monasteries in the world are built on a beach, so this is a visit you don't want to miss.
Coming into San Fruttuoso by ferry we are dazed by the beauty of not only the Benedictine monastery straddling the beach, but also the lovely colour of the water. We take a welcome dip and then hire a man and his boat for €12 ($20) to see another drawcard - Christ of the Abyss, a massive bronze statue not far from shore, which was placed about 17m under the sea in 1954. We glimpse the statue - to protect fishermen and scuba divers and in memory of Duilio Marcante, a pioneer of underwater diving - through a magnifying glass-buoy contraption, but diving is the best way to see it.
After three blissful days based at Santa Margherita, it is time to say goodbye, knowing that anxiety separation and heartache will soon become part of our relationship. Like a blushing bride, I don't want the honeymoon to be over.
The writer travelled as the escorted tour host for World Journeys' Best of the Med tour.