By Laura Madden, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Rio Grande do Norte State is situated on the part of the South American continent that sits the furthest out in the Atlantic Ocean, blessing a year-round summer climate with a steady ocean breeze. The state’s capital is named Natal (Christmas) which has a history of lodging U.S. armed forces during World War II, and has experienced notable growth in the last decade.
This sleepy beach town of around 800,000 woke up in the mid-2000’s to a construction boom due to a favorable exchange rate for European tourists.
It has also been a draw for Brazilians, as Adriana Paschoalino, and her husband Júnior moved to Natal from São Paulo’s interior with their two children to start a car and apartment rental business thirteen years ago.
“Everything is more beautiful here. The blue is bluer, the greens more green. Every morning I wake up, open my window and say ‘Good morning, beautiful day!’”, Paschoalino says.
Prior to the European economic crisis, ninety percent of Paschoalino’s business was foreigners, but those numbers have been flipped. This year she notes that 80 percent of her fleet of rental cars are rented to Brazilians. “Cariocas come to Natal to escape Carnival,” she says, giggling.
Yet she is optimistic more foreigners will make their way to Natal again despite Europe’s gloomy economic forecast: as four games in the 2014 World Cup are scheduled for the new 42,000-spectator Arena das Dunas.
Day 1: An obligatory right of passage for any tourist in Natal is a dune buggy ride. The all-day excursion kicks off by riding up and then down any number of the city’s sand dunes, guaranteed to get the adrenaline going after your morning coffee has worn off.
Day 2: Marine life lovers will enjoy a boat ride from Pirangi do Norte’s Marina Badaué, jumping over the side of the boat to snorkel among the reefs. Stop by the largest cashew tree in the world on your way to or from the boat. Carne de sol for lunch can be found at Amarelinho, within walking distance from the Cajueiro.
Day 3: Adriana Paschoalino’s favorite beach is about 200 km up the coast, in Galinhos. “It’s a peninsula with very few cars,” she explains. “If you need a taxi, it’s a horse and buggy. Click-clock, click-clock. I tell my clients ‘Galinhos is paradise.’
Day 4: Road trip slowly back to Natal, heading south from Galinhos. Stop along the way at Cabo de São Roque, drive through a nearby coconut grove, and have lunch at an oceanfront restaurant in Muriú or Jacumã.
Day 5: For a family-friendly day off from the beach, check out the arcade at Midway Mall, complete with bumper cars. Try lunch among Natalense families at the traditional and delicious Farol Bar on the scenic Via Costeira.
Day 6: Heading south, Praia do Pipa has a bursting nightlife, diverse restaurants and a branch of the Tamar project for sea turtle research and marine conservation.
Day 7: Gift shopping that supports local artisans can be found at the Feira do Artesanato, next to Praia Shopping in Ponta Negra.
Nightlife in Natal is along Rua Manoel Augusto B. De Araújo and surrounding streets. Ponta Negra’s oceanfront bars and restaurants are also open late. Those looking for a quieter evening should try Piazzale, a pizzeria with an enchanting outdoor deck overlooking the woods.
Several five-star hotels dot the coast along the Via Costeira. Budget travelers will enjoy the pousadas in the Ponta Negra area.
The best way to get to Natal is on a three-hour flight from Rio, often arriving at or after midnight. Book in advance to avoid long stopovers in other northeastern cities.