NATAL, RIO GRANDE DO NORTE: Brazil is always at the top of its game and the people are always a great pleasure and fun to meet. After another visit to Rio de Janeiro and all the samba music, and then to the state Rio Grande do Norte, visiting Natal and the area in North East, the fifth largest nation on earth feels more than an incomplete planet than a very big country.
Almost everywhere I observed that the economy is booming, from the twinkling clusters of offshore drilling platforms I saw as my plane slide down, to the exclusive fashion at a celebrity party in Natal, was among few things I noticed after my touch down.
No problem. Brazilians are making their smiles and many of them have a lot to smile about. Of course some things still don’t work and the reputation for crime is still there. But compare with other part of the world they are happily far away from political instability. Brazil doesn’t have war, civil uproar, not any huge protesters and demonstrators taking to the streets, no human bombers by al-Qaeda and more or less no problem. Even Vladimir Putin appear to be far away and a not so dangerous figure.
All the beaches. Rio de Janeiro is still the best place to party, Ipanema the best party-beach and Copacabana has the largest concentration of small scale robbers, but if you like to visit some real beaches, the ones with miles of white sands next to the warm Atlantic sea under the most comfortable climate and stabile weather, head north to beaches that no one outside Brazil has heard of.
I don’t know how some magazines in the US and Europe each and every year publish the same list of the word’s best beaches, but I am pretty sure they haven’t put their feet on any of the beaches north of Brazil. I think they publish their well-paid rankings from offices in New York, London, Paris and Berlin.
Here is no lack of beaches. Jenipabu is located in Extremoz, which is the first city north of Natal and close enough to easily visit. Grab a driver and let him take you on a wild dune ride – it’s an experience not to be missed. Eat at Restaurante 21 and have an amazing view.
The food. I sat next to the sea in beautiful Ponta Negra beach eating prawns, oysters, tartar with red peppercorns and Bacalhau croquettes made of salt cod, helped down by cold local beer and white wine, followed by a pâté of sea urchin. For a main course, moqueca of simmering prawns, mussels, oysters, squid and the tenderest octopus. Well, I didn´t eat all at my first visit, but throughout my two weeks stay.
The hotels. It´s hard to find hotels listed on several travel awards as the World´s Best Hotels, most likely of the same reason as for lack of knowledge about the beaches. Here most of the hotels are found next to the sea, by dune-backed beaches, guaranteed your first choice for scenery.
Praia Mar Hotel is located on the Ponta Negra beach, only 8km to downtown Natal and Hotel Esmeraldais also situated on the coast. If you don’t want to walk far to your sun lounger, you have no problem finding a beach-side hotel in one of Natal’s beach hotels. Natal has guesthouses dotted all around the city and I can recommend renting an apartment at Buzios Beach Club, if any available.
Meet the locals. Around the new Arena das Dunas, home for local football clubs, you will find options for eating and drinking. Try Mangai for food, and Bar Original for drinking and football. But Ponta Negra, south of the city, is the most popular place to go – a beach promenade with lots of bars.
Forget samba. In Natal it’s all about Capoeira and the forrò music. Capoeira is a mixture of dance, martial arts, and sports, developed by Brazilians in the northeast. It was developed many years ago by slaves brought over from Africa, as an attempt to train themselves to fight in way that their masters wouldn’t realize what it was. For those watching, Capoeira looks like an elaborate dance ritual – but for those in the dance, the movements are sharp, deliberate, and deadly upon contact.
Think big. The best way to understand the most influential nation in Latin America is to think of it as a slideshow of ever-changing view – an overload of cultures and racial identities. Get out of your office, think big and act local – in the City of the Sun.
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Touch Down: From Europe FlyTap has direct flights from Lisbon to Natal. Condor flies from Frankfurt to Fortaleza and Recife. It takes at least 45 minutes to drive from the new international airport located north of Natal to the city. Renting a car may be convenient if you plan to use Natal as a base.
Stay: Natal has 30,000 guest beds and 12,000 along the coast and inland
Eat: I recommend the fabulous Carne do Sol, sun-dried beef, at Tabua de Carne, Address: 3241 Av. Roberto Freire in Ponta Negra, opened 20 years ago and still going strong. Dishes here are made to serve two. Not ideal for vegetarians. Manary is one of the best seafood restaurants in Natal overlooking the beach at Ponta Negra. Address: Rua Francisco Gurgel, 9067 - Praia de Ponta Negra
Play: You can`t escape a night of forro – an amazing rhythm that originated in this part of the northeast. In places such as Rastapè and Forrò Turista you can watch and learn how to dance with a help of a native partner From north to south, there are nice beaches. Take a buggy ride to Genipabu. Driving south, the most famous place is Pipa, an ex-hippie village, where to watch the dolphins offshore.
Mini Guide: Rio Grande do Norte is one of the 27 Brazilian states with the nickname “Corner of the Continent”. Natal has tropical climate, except light rain from June to August. Temperature averaging 25 – 30C. Bring casual clothes as Natal is very informal.Forte dos Reis Magos, a star-shaped fortress and the most important historical construction of Natal, built in 1598 to protect the coast against French pirates. Located in the water with access from Praia do Forte. Parque das Dunas, a nature reserve located next to the coast. Famous for its sandy dunes. Parque da Cidade, between the South and West of the city. The main sight is the unmistakable eye-shaped tower designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Rua Chile, contains restaurants, museums, clubs and cultural centres, historical street with houses from the XIX century.