GETTING THERE: The Cinque Terre are a little more than 40 miles southeast of Genoa, Italy. With train stations in each of the five villages, the area is easily accessible by rail. Milan to Monterosso, for example, takes 3 hours 40 minutes and costs $43 for a first-class fare. The trip from Rome is about five hours and goes for $63; from Genoa, 43 minutes and $21. For timetables, fares and reservations: www.trenitalia.it or www.raileurope.com.

Genoa also has an international airport serviced by major airlines. For spring travel, Lufthansa recently quoted Washington-to-Genoa fares from $404 round trip.

GETTING AROUND: Exploring the Cinque Terre is best done on foot. Hiking on the major paths in Cinque Terre National Park costs about $3.60 per day, payable at little wooden booths on the trail heads outside the villages.

Trains, running frequently between the villages, are a reliable way of returning from a hike. Fares from one end of the Cinque Terre to the other are about $1.25. (Check at the tourist offices in advance to make sure there are no strikes planned.) The tourist offices also sell the Cinque Terre card, for about $5.40 per day, good for hiking and unlimited use of trains. Seasonal ferry boats also offer connections. Check at tourist offices for times. Daily ferry tickets cost about $14.

If traveling by car, you will need to park it outside of town, such as at the Monterosso car park (about $11 per day.)

WHEN TO GO: Spring and early fall, before and after the summer onslaught.

WHERE TO STAY: The Cinque Terre is awash in "Rooms for Rent" signs in private residences and small rooming houses. Most of the hotels are in Monterosso. To view most accommodations online, visit www.monterossonet.com.

Il Maestrale (Via Roma 37, Monterosso, 011-39-0187-817-013, www.locandailmaestrale.it/site/indexe.html) is a romantic and well-renovated six-room inn tucked into an ancient residence with ceiling murals and an open-air breakfast terrace. A double room with breakfast costs from about $96 per night in winter to about $155 in high season.

Hotel Porto Roca (Via Corone 1, Monterosso, 011-39-0187-817-502, www.portoroca.it) offers four-star comforts from its beautiful panoramic coastal perch. It's the Cinque Terre's most "Riviera" resort. Doubles range from about $200 (low season, no sea view) to $340 (high season with a sea view). Closed Nov. 3 to March 26.

Hotel La Spiaggia (Via Lungomare 98, Monterosso, 011-39-0187-817-567, www.laspiaggiahotel.com) offers basic, tidy accommodations on the beach boardwalk. Doubles in high season cost about $155 and include beach lounges, a parking place and breakfast. Count on about $96 in the off-season, but no beach chairs.

In Vernazza, the Trattoria Gianni Franzi (Piazza Marconi 1, Vernazza, 011-39-0187- 821-003, www.giannifranzi.it ) not only serves up renowned local cuisine on the tiny port but also rents out guest rooms. A double with private bath costs about $90. Figure about $24 per person, plus wine, in the restaurant.

WHERE TO EAT: At Ristorante Ciak La Lampara (Piazza Don Minzoni 6), in the old part of Monterosso, try the black risotto "La Lampara" and skewered octopus. About $36 per person, plus wine. Il Pirata (Via Molinelli 6, Monterosso) serves delicious seafood and pasta with an excellent wine list. About $33.

Il Ciliegio (Localita Beo; about $22 per person), above the bay of Monterosso and accessible by foot trail and car, may be the town's most local restaurant. Ristorante Marina Piccola (Via Lo Scalo 16; about $24) has regional specialties on Manarola's tiny port.

INFO: Locally run Web sites in English include www.cinqueterreonline.com and www.cinqueterre.it. For general information on Italy: Italian Government Tourist Board, 212- 245-5618 , www.italiantourism.com.

-- Robert V. Camuto