Cinque Terre (pronounced CHEEN-kway TEHR-reh) is "five lands" perched upon a stretch of lush, terraced hills on Italy's western coastline halfway between Genoa and Pisa. It is a place of unrivaled beauty, a national park, a United Nations World Heritage Site.

On the southbound train that brings visitors from Genoa, the shimmering Ligurian Sea is on one side while the five towns - the "lands" of Cinque Terre - appear one after another as pastel jumbles dotting the rolling slopes of green.

Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore - each punctuated by the railroad tunnels in between.

Roads as we know them don't exist here, and even the few residents with vehicles have to park their cars and motorbikes behind gates that separate the villages from the outside world. There aren't many museums here, either, but why should there be?

Nearly all the buildings stand five stories tall, with green wood shutters and well-worn pastel façades of pink, yellow, purple and orange. Time has faded the paint, leaving a rustic warmth behind.

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WHEN TO GO

Peak tourism season in Cinque Terre falls during the summer months. Expect sold-out guest rooms, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds (even on some parts of the hiking trails) and sticky humidity. Go between September and early April and you'll likely have the place all to yourself.

THE VILLAGES

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The five villages are living, breathing museums of the Italian essence. No matter what village you're in, you'll walk the narrow pedestrian ways among apartments, trattorias and olive oil purveyors that could be no place else. You can base yourself anywhere and move among them as you wish by train, boat or hiking trails - only 7 miles separate the five villages. You just can't drive beyond Monterosso. Like five sisters, each village in the Cinque Terre has its own personality:

Monterosso

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IT'S LIKE . . . the big sister.

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YOU'LL FIND It's the closest thing to a resort community, with a sandy beach, several hotels and the most modern amenities.

GOOD TO KNOW The largest of all the villages, Monterosso is known for its good trattorias. A short tunnel separates one side of the village from the other.

Vernazza

IT'S LIKE . . . the pretty prom queen.

YOU'LL FIND With its town square and natural harbor, it's the most picturesque and the favorite Cinque Terre town among tourists.

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GOOD TO KNOW People-watching is a favorite pastime. Visitors can grab a picnic lunch and settle themselves anywhere on the long dock that juts out into the harbor to watch the power boats come in, or gaze up at hikers trekking the long trail that winds down the side of the hill.

Corniglia

IT'S LIKE . . . the quiet sister who keeps to herself.

YOU'LL FIND Perched high above the water, it doesn't feel like a tourist trap (it's a grueling 365-step stair climb from the train station to town center, or ride the convenient $2 shuttle bus).

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GOOD TO KNOW Located in the middle of Cinque Terre, Corniglia is the only village that isn't situated directly on the sea - rather, it's perched high up on a hill with vineyards and lush terraces that step down to the water.

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Manarola and Riomaggiore

THEY'RE LIKE . . . fraternal twins.

YOU'LL FIND They're similar in layout and feel, with a workaday rhythm and intimate, homey charm.

GOOD TO KNOW The two villages are connected by a paved path, Via dell'Amore (the road of love) - it's a leisurely 20-minute stroll.

GETTING THERE

Milan is the best international gateway to Cinque Terre. From Milan's Central Station (Milano Centrale), it's a three-hour train ride to Monterosso for about $30. Add roughly another $10 for first-class comfort. More information at trenitalia.com.

Consider Genoa, halfway between Milan and Cinque Terre, a good rest stop if three hours on a train is too much after a long flight.

GETTING AROUND

Buy a Cinque Terre Train Card at the train station the minute you arrive. A two-day pass costs about $20 (one day is $11), which covers unlimited train rides between the five villages and access to the hiking trails and museums (by "museum," they mean small rooms with glossy photos on the walls). Revenue from the card helps maintain the national park. The card does not cover boat rides, which run between the villages and beyond during spring and summer; one-way tickets begin at $16 (navigazion egolfodeipoeti.it).

WHERE TO STAY

There are plenty of guest room-locating services - to find one, step off the train and throw a rock in any direction. You'll also find locals soliciting their private rooms at the train station to arriving visitors. Look for ones advertising "camere con bagno" - a room with private bathroom. Know that many places accept only cash. And if you can't find a room (especially during the summer months), consider nearby La Spezia home base, 10 minutes by train from Riomaggiore. Levanto, five minutes by train north of Monterosso, is a prettier option.

WHERE TO EAT

In Vernazza, Gambero Rosso is a sit-down restaurant by the harbor serving top-notch (and fairly expensive) Ligurian cuisine (the address is Piazza Marconi 7).

In Monterosso, Ristoranti Il Gabbiano is just steps away from the train station and serves simple, inexpensive pastas, such as the ubiquitous spaghetti al frutti di mare, the tomatoey seafood pasta, for $9 (Via Fegina 78).

The spaghetti al cartoccio at Riomaggiore's Ristorante la Lampara -just like spaghetti al frutti di mare, but steam-baked in foil - was especially enjoyable (Via Malborghetto 10).