You can see them rolling their luggage into the Blue Marlin Bar, the watering hole in Vernazza where Americans seem to congregate. Young, hip rock music by bands like Radiohead and Gorillaz plays from the speakers. The staff speaks impeccable English. What could be more appealing for us Yanks?

"When the train comes in, it's like an avalanche," says 23-year-old bartender Stefano Cato, who hands me a plate of the town specialty, acciughe — fresh-caught anchovies with lemon juice and olive oil. "But for my generation, the tourism is a good thing."

Later, I call Steves for his thoughts about his effect on the region. "I'm the hired hand of my readers. I'm not supposed to find great places and keep them secret," Steves tells me by phone from his Seattle office.

"Every year I go [to Cinque Terre], I visit it nervously. I'm wondering if the crowd is overwhelming the place. But every time I go, the locals are thrilled to see me, the tourists are having a blast, and everybody seems to be happy."

One thing seems for sure. However many visitors crowd these narrow streets, Starbucks and McDonald's will not be coming to Cinque Terre. When McDonald's opened a restaurant last year in the nearby port city of La Spezia, there was much resistance. In Cinque Terre, there would be a revolt.

Next spring, progress will arrive in the form of a cable car taking visitors from Riomaggiore to the hill towns above. The way to alleviate overcrowding, a national park spokesman told me one day, is to take visitors to the Cinque Terre beyond the picturesque waterfront.

So on a misty and overcast Sunday, my last full day in Cinque Terre, I head into the hills.

Hiking trails are among Cinque Terre's main attractions. Most known to visitors is trail No. 2, a scenic route that stretches through all five towns with gasp-inducing sea views. Earlier, I'd walked two segments — a precipitous two-hour portion from Monterosso to Vernazza and an easier 20-minute paved stretch from Manarola to Riomaggiore known as Via dell'Amore (the road of love). It was altogether challenging and relaxing, rugged and steady.

This time, I take a friend's suggestion to hike trail No. 8, unknown to most visitors, which begins in Vernazza and leads several miles up.

The climb, steep but smooth, passes a lonely cemetery ("They've got the best view in town," a local tells me). Vernazza soon becomes a colorful speck below — from up here, the gorgeous ramshackle towns look like collections of colorful wooden blocks about to tumble into the sea.

A mile up, the tiny towns on the hill emerge through the haze as if they were from another time. I come upon a church 1,150 feet above sea level — Santuario della Madonna di Reggio — that looks like something from a children's fable. It is peach and pink, with black and white horizontal stripes rising up the clock tower. Not a person is in sight.

I walk behind the church, find a bench near the bluff and stare into the sea. I look left, at the clusters of pastel buildings speckling the hills.

Be still, I tell myself, as I walk on.

Sometimes, the destination is unknown until you've arrived. I know this is it. Because save the crunch underneath my shoes, all I hear is silence.