At dusk I jogged along a sandy road in a secluded nature reserve outside Bolgheri in western Tuscany. A family of bristly boars came charging out of the underbrush with their tails upright and momentarily froze with a wary glare before rambling away. I saw a couple of deer grazing behind dappled trees alongside an estuary dotted with herons. A fat hare sat partly hidden nearby in a tree trunk.
Soon after, I passed through a pine forest, following a path through the dunes to my final destination: the emerald Tyrrhenian Sea. This was the Tuscan coast in August, but there was no one else there, apart from a gray-haired man fishing. I swam in the gentle waves with the sun hanging over the horizon.
I first experienced Bolgheri over three decades ago -- fortunate enough to have been taken there by a family who had in many ways adopted my mother and me in Florence after my father's death. Before we met them, I had spent every summer in Italy on a sailboat, based first in Porto Ercole in Tuscany and then Sardinia. But we saw most towns from the sea, sometimes stopping for a quick jaunt, and perhaps a gelato or plate of clams, before heading off again.
The family who introduced us to this coastal escape seemed straight out of a novel: A Hungarian who had had his estate confiscated after the Communist takeover. A British writer who is still one of the funniest women I have ever met. Two beautiful children. And literally a menagerie in tow: dogs, turtles, a parrot, a pony and all manner of orphaned creatures they found along the way.
The kids and I would catch tadpoles in the nearby creek, eat delicious fish that we picked out on Friday nights on the way to the house and swim after picnicking under the shaded wood pergolas that dotted the private park on the coast near town. But when we moved to the United States, we fell out of touch, and Bolgheri seemed like a far away memory of another life.
The less-known Tuscan coast remains full of secrets like Bolgheri, part of a series of hilltop towns that once kept seaside invaders at bay. A bastion of well-preserved architecture, the beautiful villages are mostly free of the crowds that head to the beaches nearby. And they are the gateway to the Maremma, a land of wiry horses and huge white cows, excellent wines and seafood, chic ports and beach clubs and a region that in many ways is left to its own devices except in the brief high season (mid-July through August).
But when my husband and I first moved to Tuscany about six years ago, like most visitors we first turned our gaze to the interior of the region -- toward the closest major city, Siena, to hill towns like Montalcino and Pienza, and to the beautiful landscapes of the landlocked Val d'Orcia. But as the crow flies, the Mediterranean is less than 50 miles from our home. Our Italian neighbors took off to the coast at every sunny opportunity, pulled like baby turtles in some primordial pilgrimage back to the sea.
Their favored launch points into the sea were whispered to us with almost religious intensity: white sand beaches like Cala Violina; Alberese, part of the large Maremma national park; restaurants like the chic but laid-back Rosso e Vino; and long walks to the deserted coves below Populonia. I wrote down the names in my little notebook, and on days we could get away we drove to each. We sat among the sculptural pine trunks below the watchtowers of Alberese, watched a man on crutches make the almost milelong hike to the white-sand beach at Violina, marveled at the wind surfers of Fiumara and ate more plates of spaghetti alle vongole and grilled white fish than I can count.
We were especially grateful for the recommendations because the truth is the Tuscan coast can be ugly. In the 1970s a desire for economic advancement through industry brought refineries that blighted the undeveloped beaches of areas around Follonica and Piombino, while the inevitable growth of mass tourism filled the long, white beaches of Forte dei Marmi and Viareggio with tightly packed lines of umbrellas and daybeds for hire. But huge stretches were also preserved through the creation of national parks donated mostly by noble families. (The Maremma park was formerly the land of the Grand Duke of Tuscany; the World Wildlife Fund park outside Bolgheri, part of the famous Antinori estate.)
Away from the region's well-known beachfront playgrounds lies a more secluded world that stretches from north to south, often a stone's throw from the discovered spots. In each section there is a gem of a preserved hill town (see accompanying sidebar below). In each there is some kind of wildlife sanctuary or park that provides a sense of what the coastline once looked like before it was developed. In each there is a beach or a beach club that we have grown to love. Even after years of experiencing these little encampments, I always find a new surprise -- this season it was the beach club and restaurant Al Cartello, which features a grand piano set atop Oriental carpets in its outdoor (but covered) "aperitivo" section. So eminently civilized.
These spots are as much an insight into Italian life as they are to particular sections of the beach. From dawn to dusk, rituals take place outside. People read their newspapers and argue over soccer while drinking espresso. Daybeds are picked out, as though they are the most valuable real estate decisions ever to be made; in fact, families have often rented the same row for decades.
Generations of one clan lie in synchronized tanning positions and then siesta together. Lunch and dinner seem set to an alarm clock, with the same table reserved for three-course meals, wine on ice, or for stretching out picnics, lovingly created each morning. There is something very comforting in the regularity of the routine, particularly at this time when the economic future of the country seems shaky, at best. For one month, at least, most things are as they once were, and people will head home tanned.
Like the residents of our interior hill town, we now get positively grumpy without our coastal fix: we wind over the rim of our valley to the sea, have a swim, a lunch of spaghetti alle vongole, a nap, more swimming, coffee and ice cream, and return home or stay for a night or two.
A bit more lingering over that food is probably warranted. A prime example: La Pineta, outside the Marina di Bibbona and about 15 minutes from Bolgheri, is the type of seafood spot that encapsulates the low-key but unforgettable experience of the coast. From the outside the building looks like nothing special, a clapboard structure dropped next to the sea. Through a small door, with its sign for the restaurant, is a light-filled dining room with windows facing the water. It is surprisingly elegant, with white tablecloths, silver candlesticks and parquet floors. But it feels unfussy. The service has the mark of a long partnership: the waiters are identical twins in their 50s, and the chef and owner, Luciano Zazzeri, takes each order himself; specials are created from the catch he makes with his two fishing boats. Fresh fish is stewed in the oven with capers, olives, rosemary and local tomatoes. Shrimp comes with a perfectly cooked quail egg. The "crudo," raw fish, is sushi grade. And a just-made dessert of panna cotta features local honey and baby strawberries from the orchard. We eat the courses with a cold bottle of white wine chosen from the huge list from the nearby vineyards.
After meals there we drive back to Bolgheri. We found our Hungarian-British family again a couple of years ago, and now our son swims and has picnics with their grandchildren on my childhood beach. At night the boars still pad about. The vineyards are still full of some of Italy's most famous wines. And the sea is still just a short run away.
FIVE BY THE SEA
From north to south these picturesque villages by the Tyrrhenian Sea punctuate the often-packed Tuscan coastline.
Bolgheri A charming seaside town overlooking the vineyards of some of Italy's most prized grapes has enotecas where you can try out the best vintages and restaurants whose menus include both seafood and wild game. Don't miss: Bolgheri Ti Amo, an ice-cream cart with organic and seasonal flavors.
Populonia Archaeological buffs come for the Etruscan ruins (some of the best preserved in Tuscany), while beachgoers head below to the wide bay beaches of Baratti. Don't miss: the 15th-century fortress with its ramparts facing a large emerald expanse of the sea.
Castiglione della Pescaia While the throngs of Tuscany fans go right to the beach clubs in front of town, this ancient settlement, once home to Etruscans and Romans, is worth a wander before you head to Porto Ercole or the islands of Elba and Giglio. Don't miss: an early-evening passeggiata, or stroll, from Piazza della Reppublica.
Talamone Sitting on the cliffs overlooking the Maremma national park, Talamone is a tangle of medieval streets with a 13th-century castle as its centerpiece. Don't miss: a plate of spaghetti alle vongole at La Buca di Nonno Ghigo.
Capalbio This city close to the border of Lazio has become a bastion for Romans looking for a weekend escape, and it's clear why -- the hilltop town is only a short drive to the coast. Don't miss: Niki de Saint Phalle's psychedelic Tarot Garden, which includes a 40-foot-tall tower of mirrored mosaics.
WHERE TO STAY
Near Bolgheri, Relais Sant' Elena (39-0586-671-071; relaissantelena.it; doubles from 140 euros, $180 at $1.29 to the euro) is a quiet refuge with a secluded pool and pretty rooms. Poggio ai Santi (39-0565-798-032; poggioaisanti.com; doubles from 149 euros) makes an excellent base for exploring both the Bolgheri area and Popolunia, with a destination restaurant, Il Sale, and sweeping views of the sea. But neither Sant' Elena nor Poggio ai Santi take children under 12, so if you have kids in tow it is best to rent a house through an agency (most villas come with private beach access too). Trust and Travel (trustandtravel.com) and the Cedric Reversade agency (uniquepropertiesandevents.com) have nice portfolios.
Near Talamone and Castiglione della Pescaia, Alain Ducasse's L'Andana (39-0564-944-950; andana.it; doubles from 300 euros, breakfast included) is a more formal and pricey option, while Il Pellicano (39-0564-858-111; pellicanohotel.com; doubles from 420 euros) has been a jet-set fixture since the 1960s. More intimate and low key is the Relais Vedetta (39-0566-370-23; relaisvedetta.eu; doubles from $250), which opened a few years back and is a jumping-off point to the Maremma and gorgeous gems like the town of Massa Marittima. And in Capalbio, Locanda Rossa (39-0564-890-462; locandarossa.com; doubles from 160 euros), one of the coast's most recent arrivals, is surrounded by vineyards with a beautiful pool and a playground, and is only a short drive to the town and nearby beaches.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
One of the coast's pleasures is the series of beach clubs that dot the seaside. The best have excellent seafood restaurants, comfy daybeds and lifeguards. It is best to make reservations for the middle of June through September, and many close after Oct. 1. Near Capalbio, Rosso e Vino alla Dogana (Localita Graticciaia; 39-0564-890-344) has delicious seafood on a shaded terrace, and Al Cartello (Via della Spiaggia, 22; 39-0564-881-211) features a grand piano and a mean spaghetti alle vongole. In this same area L'Ultima Spiaggia (Localita Chiarone Marina, 39-0564-890-295; ultimaspiaggia.com) is the choice for the well-heeled Roman fans who come here in high season. Near Marina di Grosetto, Fiumara Beach (39-0564-340-40; fiumarabeach.it) used to serve the best three-course lunches in the area but now do only full-service dinners -- but the beach club is still lovely and the bar serves salads and panini all day. La Tana del Pirata (Via Milano 17, Marina di Castagneto Carducci; 39-0565-744-143), not far from Bolgheri, has a beautiful beach with gentle water, and the aperitivo hour there is one of the most festive in Tuscany.
Dining standouts include La Pineta (Via dei Cavalleggeri Nord 27; 39-0586-600-016; closed Mondays and Tuesday lunch; reserve well in advance) for its daily seafood and extensive wine list. Zanzibar (Piazza del Porto 2; 39-0565-702-927) in San Vincenzo is a local favorite for its whole grilled fish. And Il Salino (Piazza Vittorio Veneto 5; 39-393-967-8145) offers a light lunch, as well as incredible picnics, which include local salami and pecorino, to go. Overlooking the Bay of Baratti under Populonia, Il Canessa (39-338-272-6584; canessacamere.it) has sweeping views of the sea and plates of fritto misto. In Capalbio, Il Frantoio (Via Renato Fucini 10; 39-0564-896-484) has equally good meat and seafood options and, unusually for Tuscany, even a vegan menu, served on a lovely terrace.
The region's series of national parks are one of Italy's treasures for their undeveloped beaches, sandy trails for hiking and biking, and wildlife. Among the ones to visit during the summer are the Maremma national park (parco-maremma.it) in Alberese, 25,000 acres of trails that attract both wild boars and hikers, and miles of beach; and the Orti Bottagone World Wildlife Fund nature reserve below Populonia, with a series of secluded coves great for hiking.
Correction: June 20, 2013, Thursday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a family-owned estate outside the town of Bolgheri that a World Wildlife Fund park is part of. It is the Antinori estate, not Antonori.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.