Americans Have Overlooked This Beach Gem

From the Via Costeira (Coastal Way), I descend the dirt path to the beach. Kicking off my sneakers, I jog barefoot south toward the breakwater. The near-white sand is so soft that it squeaks under foot.

Though only 8.00 a.m., the sun is high, announcing yet another beautiful day. Already a dozen young surfistas have claimed their spots among the waves driven in by a cool breeze from a storm far off at sea.

Cotton-ball clouds are suspended above. The south Atlantic is steely gray to the north, rich royal blue farther out, but a gentle sea-foam green close to shore. I toss my sunglasses to the sand and crash into the waves. Just another day in paradise.

Natal is the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte in northeastern Brazil. Located atop the hump of Brazil that protrudes into the south Atlantic, the town’s population is around 800,000. Although little-known to North Americans, Natal played a role in World War II when it served as a U.S. airbase. And the legacy includes a number of blonds in the otherwise dark-haired northeast.

The town hugs the coast, oriented north-south. At its southern tip, the coast hooks out at Ponta Negra (Black Point), beneath the iconic Morro de Careca (Bald hill). The Ponta Negra district is the focal point for tourism and also is where many expats live. The beach, shopping, and excellent restaurants are all within walking distance of hotels and condos.

Heading north along the coast on the Via Costeira, you’ll encounter more shopping and businesses on the land side. The beach on your right widens again after a few miles at another popular district, Areia Preta (Black sand).

The downtown area lies inland from Areia Preta and has banking and all the other services you may need. Continuing north of town you arrive at the historic Castle of the Magi-Kings, constructed in 1598 to defend the area from the Dutch and French. And a bit further on, across the Potengi River, lie the beautiful dunes of Genipabú. Many smaller condominium buildings have gone up here in recent years.

The weather is gorgeous. There really is no bad time to visit. There are seasonal rains February through July, but even then most of each day will be sunny. The average daily high is 86 F. and if you don’t like the heat, there is comfort in the year-round breezes that sweep in unimpeded from Africa. (Per NASA, Natal has the cleanest air in the western hemisphere, luring people with respiratory problems.)

These same breezes drive dependable waves for surfers and kite boarders. in a five-minute walk down Ponta Negra (Black Point) beach, the popular if touristy strip, you’ll also see swimming, body boarding, futball (soccer), frescoball(paddleball), the occasional horseback rider, volleyball, and fut volei (a uniquely Brazilian sport like volleyball but played without hands or arms).

Not feeling athletic? Plop down under an umbrella and gaze at beautiful people in skimpy swimsuits. Sip coconut water from a coco gelado or enjoy a cup of caldo de cana (sugarcane juice).

As great as the beach is, you probably won’t want to go there every day. If you enjoy natural beauty spiked with adrenaline, take a dune-buggy tour. Or you can take camel rides or sled down a sand dune atop a narrow ski…zip down a cable into a lake… take in spectacular vistas from an ultraleve (ultra-light airplane).

For a relaxing day trip, visit the artists’ colony of Pipa, 50 miles south of Natal. Located in an ecological sanctuary protecting dolphins and turtles, Pipa consistently ranks among the 10 best beaches in Brazil. “Discovered” in the 1980s by surfers, Pipa quickly became home to local craftsmen. After a light lunch, you can browse simple kiosks and upscale boutiques. On the way back to Natal, you can stop to see the world’s largest cashew tree, which sprawls over a city block.

Back in Natal, there are modern shopping malls and an artisans’ fair in Ponta Negra. The Estádio das Dunas stadium will host some of the 2014 World Cup games. Natal also has a small aquarium. If history interests you, visit the old fort, where early Portuguese settlers fended off Dutch invaders.

Living costs are reasonable. Dinner for two, excluding drinks, at a nice restaurant may run $30. Taxi meters begin at about $2 and are $1.20 per kilometer thereafter. Utilities (electricity, gas, water, garbage) for a two-bedroom apartment average $125, and Internet another $50. The beach, of course, is free. The small charge for chairs and umbrella is often waived if you order food and drinks.

Locals are receptive of foreigners, and friendly even by Brazilian standards. And you’ll find an international community, with many Europeans living part-time in the Ponta Negra and Areia Preta parts of town, as well as in the outlying areas of Genipabú and Jacuma.

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