HOW FAR CAN YOU GET FOR£36 Driving in the UK may get you a couple of hundred miles if youre lucky, have a following wind and a fuel-efficient vehicle. On the train before 9am you may get a couple of stops down the track. But look on Ryanairs website and you could reach Italy.
I did. I couldnt quite believe it, either. For the price of a pair of cheap jeans I could reach Genoa, which is fortuitous as I know of an excellent dive centre nearby, so I thought Id pay it a visit for a long weekend.
The Portofino Coast to the east of the northern Italian town of Genoa is stunningly beautiful. As part of the Italian Riviera, the entire coastline is a haven for holidaymakers both local and from across Europe. But, whereas many other parts are characterised by an almost endless stream of pretty villages and towns, Portofino is a protected nature reserve.
Jutting out into the northern Mediterranean, the Portofino headland is a piece of natural unspoilt beauty standing hand in hand with some pretty Italian architecture. Four years ago the nature reserve was extended out to sea and some strict regulations placed on the areas fishermen, boat-users and dive centres. Trawling, rod-and-line fishing and spearfishing were banned. Boat traffic had to use anchored mooring buoys and large boats were not permitted inside the 100m marker buoys.
I last dived the area the first year it became a marine park, and it was good then, so I was as keen as a child at the gates of EuroDisney to see if anything had changed.
We landed at around 10am and by 2pm were in the water at a site known as Testa del Leone. It is so named because some Italian fisherman saw in the rocks what he said was the shape of a lions head. I think hed drunk too much grappa, as I have never been able to see it and I have dived this site many times.
It was famous for being the only site along the headland where you could find Mediterranean grouper. Spearfishermen throughout Spain, France, Italy, Greece and other countries have wreaked havoc on this species and it survives in numbers only where it is protected and fed.
There used to be four wild grouper here, and I already knew at least one had been shot when I last dived. So I was surprised to see the unmistakable fleshy tail disappear through a gap in the rock as we swam back from the gorgonian-covered wall that is the main attraction of this site. The grouper rounded the rock as I swam the other way and wasnt sure where to go when it saw me. It froze for a second, uncertain of what threat I posed, and turned and swam slowly the other way.
Compared to the grouper you find in Sardinia or Tunisia it wasnt huge, but it will be one day and it is in the best place in Italy to become so.
During that final part of the dive we saw three more grouper, all fairly small and quite shy, but in time, as they grow up unmolested, they will develop into fairly hefty predators.
Food wont be hard to find. On almost every dive we did, the sea was alive. Shoals of glittering sardine fry were everywhere, in shimmering clouds so dense they should have come with a warning to epileptics. Above the shallow rocks, black cardinalfish swarmed, as did anthias on the deeper walls, and huge groups of salema, mullet and bass were all over the place.
All the dives had this aquarium appeal, and this was early in the dive season. By late July those fish would have spawned the next generation and the water column would become a pulsating food chain as the equilibrium of underwater life struggled to cope with a million juvenile fish.
I was heartened to also see good concentrations of dentex bream, the northern Mediterraneans equivalent of the barracuda. Picture a bass with a Vinnie Jones make-over - they are mean-looking and voracious feeders.
I have seen them feasting on the numerous damselfish in August, but hadnt seem them hunting in packs in June before. It was a sure sign that the food chain was healthy.
Pretty much all the diving in the area is found along the front of the Promatorio de Portofino, which juts out into the Med from the stunning fishing town of Portofino in the east to Camolgli in the west. The dive centre offers more than 20 sites, plenty from which to choose. My favourites include Secca Isuela, Secca Carega, Columbara and the Dragone.
Why it is named after a dragon I have no idea. Probably another drunk fisherman, but the name matters little. The start of the Dragone is a tube created by a fracture in the cliff face. The entrance is around 5m deep and it spits you out at around 24m.
From there you carry on down around a rocky reef which drops away steeply. You can pick your depth, but most divers head around the corner at between 30 and 40m. The walls here are festooned with brilliant red gorgonia seafans and under ledges the rock is smothered in yellow cup corals.
With a torch its a visual spectacle. Without one it does look a little tame, but thats your fault for not taking a torch.
Gorgonia grow from 20-25m downwards, so as you come up the red gives way to green algae. But what you lose in colour you make up for in fish life. Shoals of bream, salema and bass seem to be everywhere.
Dragones shallows are a mix of wall and narrow inlets. There are a couple of very pretty gullies with 5-8m bottoms, lovely places to perform either a decompression or safety stop while playing with the small, inquisitive wrasse and octopus.
Or you can just watch the salema bustle around grazing on the algae, like an Anchor butter ad on fast forward.
Several years ago when I dived Columbara, our RIB came around the corner into the bay and we found a couple sitting on the rocks, completely naked and enjoying each others company, if you know what I mean.
This being Italy, they carried on even as we all applauded. The girl even waved.
This time there were no other people, not even a dive boat, within the sheltered bay that forms the start of this topographically endowed dive site.
It starts in a rock-covered bay in around 10m. A wall starts to the west of the bay which becomes progressively steeper until at around 18m it is sheer down to 35m. At around 20m you start to see the first gorgonian seafans, and before you know it the wall resembles a red-tasselled leather jacket.
There is no room for anything else to grow; the seafans have declared it their own. Swimming among them is a profusion of anthias. Similar to the species you see in the Red Sea, the small fish shroud the seafans, picking off plankton and starting fights with the neighbours. Living life as an anthia is probably akin to living in Moss Side in Manchester.
At the bottom of the wall in 35m is a cave which you can enter, though note that there is only one way in and out and it is fairly deep, so time is limited.
If you prefer something a little shallower, there is another cave in around 22m which is more of a tunnel and far easier to enjoy without the added pressure of time and depth.
And thats not the only one, as at around 5m at the back of the bay there is a cave which allows you, if you can find the tunnel, to surface inside the cliff. A shaft breaks the surface and is just big enough to allow two divers to surface together.
In 1967, while being towed to the scrapyard, Canadian freighter the Mohawk Deer and her tug ran into some rough weather. The Deer broke her line and was tossed towards the cliff-face by the large swells.
Quite rightly, the tug captain contacted the local coastguard to see if they could help. They werent too keen. The storm was rather fierce, and risking good men to save a wreck on its way to the scrapyard didnt really appeal.
The upshot was a rather large ship jammed against the rocks. It broke in two, with the stern being smashed to pieces in the shallows and the bow bobbing around and finally coming to rest on the edge of the steep slope of the outer bay wall.
After 37 years, the wreck has become something of a mainstay for divers in the area, but it is still excellent. From the mooring buoy you swim along the lip of the bay edge at around 12m until the outline of the bow appears.
The vessel then extends down the slope. The boilers are the deepest part at 55m, but the rest of the vessel is well within safe recreational diving limits.
The bridge is at 30m and penetrable, but the rest of the vessel is falling in on itself and so not easily entered. It is much better on the outside, anyway.
The stern section is nothing but plates and litter, but being so shallow it makes a nice bimble as you finish the dive. It is covered in all sorts of fish, including large shoals of sardines, bream, bass and wrasse. It is also home to a good number of octopus.
I dont normally dive hunks of metal. Divers who get a kick out of diving an old fishing boat or some other insignificant vessel seem odd to me, a bit like Reliant Robin drivers who believe they are driving a car. Yet the Deer is lovely because she lies in an area of outstanding visibility. You can see it and appreciate it. And that makes a big difference.
We did seven dives that weekend. All were on different sites, and all were more spectacular than I remembered from before because of the boom in fish life. There were plenty of grouper (albeit quite shy at the moment) and the concentration of smaller fish was outstanding.
The ecosystem is clawing its way back. The area had better fish life than most of the Mediterranean before; now it is looking like the Med before some git invented nets and spearguns.
We got all this for a£36 ticket and a two-hour journey. All told, I spent less than on a typical English dive weekend, got there quicker without even having to touch the M25, ate better food, drank better wine, got a better suntan and got to look at more beautiful divers than anywhere else in the world (sorry, but its true).
Italy is a vibrant country and the area around Portofino is classic Italy, with a little gold plate to show that it is a cut above the rest.