Marinated prawns, a bottle of beer with ice stuck to it, and surf whispering on dusk-blushed shore: It's what I call the Holy Trinity. Having hiked a fair bit of beach to get here...

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NATAL, Brazil — Marinated prawns, a bottle of beer with ice stuck to it, and surf whispering on dusk-blushed shore: It’s what I call the Holy Trinity.

Having hiked a fair bit of beach to get here, I’m lying in a hand-woven, cotton hammock with my salty, sun-reddened toes turning the sand and my thumb and forefinger holding a page in a Jorge Amado novel.

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OK, so it wasn’t a torturous hike — with the ladies in skimpy bikinis, the seagulls and a stumpy, barefoot coconut vendor named Itamar to keep me company. But it still was a mile or so. That can get a guy pooped. And hungry.


Besides, the fishermen had just come in, their reed baskets heavy with lobsters and prawns. They had gone out before dawn. I saw them from the terrace of my pousada. They gathered on the beach below in their wind-torn shirts and shorts, shivering themselves warm and unfurling the white sails of their jangadas, log rafts which were lined up in a row of 14 under the great dune and the low, sharp moon.


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How to join the count: Getting there: Natal, the capital of Brazil’s northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte, is a three-hour flight from Rio de Janeiro. Americans and Canadians must fly first to Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo and pick up a connecting flight north with a domestic carrier.

All four of Brazil’s biggest airlines — Varig, TAM, Gol and VASP — have service to Natal at varying price levels. There are no direct flights. Expect to stop over two or three times before arriving at the new Augusto Severo International Airport. The airport is not far from town, and cab fares into the city will set you back no more than $10. There are more than a half-dozen car and dune-buggy rental agencies in the airport, or you can book a reservation on the Internet.

Climate: Hot during the day; temperatures drop off at night. Natal lies just 3 degrees from the equator, so the temperature hovers between 82 and 93. In the summer, Natal gets 15 hours of daylight. The city gets about 300 days of sunshine a year.

Lodging: There are a number of B&Bs in Natal, with nightly prices that vary between $15 and $25 off season, and $25 to $35 high season per person. My favorite is Pousada Las Palmas, run by a charming old gent from Texas and his Brazilian wife, on Rua Erivan Franca, 94, right on Ponta Negra beach (phone 084-236-2823). For just $25 a night in high season and $15 in low season, you can get a spacious double with a terrace right on the best beach in the city beneath the postcard Morro da Careca dune.

There are 13 world-class hotels along Natal’s southern coast, each complete with swimming pools, private beaches and five-star service. If you don’t mind spending $75 to $95 a night for a double, then you might like to check out the Ocean Palace, www.oceanpalace.com.br, the Piramide Palace Hotel, www.piramidepalace.com.br, the Rifoles Praia, www.rifoles.com.br, the Visual Praia Hotel, www.digi.com.br/visual, or the Manary Praia Hotel, www.manary.com.br. Major credit cards accepted.

Information: Stop at the tourism booth near the airport’s arrivals hall. It’s open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (phone 084-643-1811). The main tourist information center is in Natal’s Centro de Turismo, Rua Aderbal de Figueiredo 980, Petropolis (phone 084-211-6149).

A boy placed three logs a foot apart on the sand before the raft. He shouted, “Vai! Vai!” and the others pushed. The jangada rolled on the logs, and as it rolled, the thin, dark-haired boy kept running back, grabbing the last log and placing it in front of the advancing raft, over and over, until the jangada was pitching in the breakers.

Within minutes the sea was flecked with the silhouettes of jangadas, fathers and sons pushing the crafts out over the shallows with long poles, the triangular sails filling with wind and the light of the stars.

Now it’s twilight and I’m munching on their catch. I had these prawns boiled, salted, garlicked, buttered. I squeeze a few drops of lime juice on them, too, which makes the prawns tangy, which makes me take a long swallow of the beer.

A buddy of mine, Mike, who flew 14 hours from London to Sao Paulo and then another 3-1/2 hours to Natal to lie in a hammock and eat these prawns, says: “Todd, you worthless character, what are you doing to those prawns with that lime juice?”

“It makes them nicely bitter,” I say, “kind of like first love.”

“You’ve been holding out on me. I didn’t know you had a first love.”

“Still do,” I say, popping a prawn. “It’s this place.”


Beauty in simplicity


It even has the loveliest of names — Natal, Portuguese for Christmas Day, which is when it was founded in 1599.

I fell in love with Natal the first time I came to visit, several years ago. It was something I felt without pride or prejudice, formula or reason, and I felt it within three hours of arriving in the place — something limpid, restful, soothing.

One thing I liked was the skyline downtown, or rather, the lack thereof. The northeastern sky was wide and a vigorous deep blue. The wind would run up the dunes along the shore, stirring the sand, rustling the vinelike bushes. Over the sea there always sailed a fleet of billowy white clouds, painting shadows on the green and turquoise Atlantic.

I liked that most of its 650,000 inhabitants lived in houses that were simple, squat, red-roofed. I liked that filling-station attendants always smiled, and even chatted if you so wished. I liked that waiters, shopkeepers, passersby and fishermen would always stop to ask me who I was, where I came from. Once I spent a half-hour strolling along a beach and shooting the breeze with a cop who looked more like a beach volleyball star. He was wearing shorts, a T-shirt, sunglasses, a navy blue cap, and a holster — his shore patrol uniform, he said.

When I told him I’d lived in New York, he asked if the cops there really had to wear those dark uniforms and all that stuff around their belt. I told him they really did.

“Really?” he asked. “Even in the summer?”

Natal is no Rio, of course. You’re not struck with the feeling of grandeur that Rio de Janeiro impresses on the visitor, with its sheer mountains and wide lakes and colossal Christ. You don’t have pages and pages of traveler-guide listings of bars, nightclubs and restaurants to choose from, as you would in Rio.

You also don’t get afternoon shadows on the beach cast by rows of apartment high-rises that line the shore. (City officials concerned with beach blight banned any buildings more than three stories along the waterfront.) You don’t get the mall-to-mall traffic, the polluted seawater, the pickpockets or the tourists-only con, either. I never got a hard sell in Natal, only a soft handshake.

Not that there’s nothing cultural to see or do in Natal. Ao contrario.

For starters, there’s the Forte dos Reis Magos, a star-shaped, white-walled fortress rising from the reefs, surrounded by water, just off the tip of the city’s northern beak.

The Portuguese built the fortress to fight off foreign invaders, mainly the Dutch and French, throughout the 17th century. Today, Brazil more than welcomes outsiders.

The fortress remains in remarkable shape, thanks to a federal program and the donations of private businesses. The half-hour, guided tour is free of charge, and you’ll be helping put a needy teenager through school; the government trains local youths to be guides, pays their school tuition and gives them a stipend as long as they maintain a certain grade average.

At the Casa Zas Tras, there are nightly performances of the most engaging and traditional dances of Brazil, from capoeira, samba and lambada, to the local and quite sensual forro (roughly pronounced faw-HAW).

The Tourism Center is also worthy of a visit. Complete with an art gallery and 36 artisan shops, the colonial-style complex offers a top-notch restaurant that serves only typically northeastern Brazilian cuisine and an outdoor courtyard where forro dancing is on display Thursday nights.

In Natal, though, outdoors is where you really want to be.

Along the Via Costeira Coastal Freeway separating the old downtown area from the city’s popular southern beaches, the 9-mile-long Parque das Dunas, or Park of Dunes, spreads out. It’s a hiker’s challenge that requires an extra water bottle, perhaps two. Between its cactus and shrub-covered dunes are several miles of winding trails to get lost in.

For buffs of nature’s genetic rarities, a stop at the Cajueiro de Pirangi, the Pirangi Cashew Tree, is a must. About 10 miles south of town, a bumpy, dusty road leads to what looks like a forest. It’s actually a single tree with a circumference of 500 yards.

Not much farther down the coast lies a series of large, freshwater ponds, known to locals as dune pools. In town after town — Pitangui, Jacuma, Guaraira, Arituba — the visitor is greeted with hills of silvery sand, and between them, flat, dolphin-blue water with not so much as a pebble to stub a toe on.


Lure of the beaches


And then there are the praias, the beaches.

MICHAEL VAN WEEGEN / AP
Itamar, a coconut vendor, chops coconuts on Ponta Negra beach. Visitors enjoy the simplicity and beauty of life in Natal as well as the friendly nature of the people.

It’s difficult to pick a favorite. They all possess a different character, a different magic.

I have known people from Argentina who have sat in airports and on connecting planes for 7-½ hours in order to spend three days at Pirangi beach, watching soft breaths of wind comb the palms and sculpt chalk-white furrows in the sand. I’ve met poor families from the interior of Rio Grande do Norte state who have ridden in rickety buses and in the back of trucks for the better part of a night to feel the diamond-like spray on their skin in Ponta dos Aneis, Portuguese for Point of Rings.

I have a good friend from Norwich, England, who slugs it out in the investment banking business so he can fly to Natal once a year, sit on ribbons of sand with names like Ponta Negra, Buzios and Camurupim, and eat prawns — the freshest, most succulent prawns this side of heaven.

It’s early evening, and the only sounds are the breeze in the coqueiro trees, the soft slapping of boys’ bare feet on the newly wet sand as they chase a soccer ball, and the tumbling of one wave, then another, then another.

And the prawns are here.

This batch is steamed, dappled with olive oil. On the side is sautéed potatoes, barbecued pineapple with cinnamon and rice with broccoli.

I’ll pick at the rice, maybe even take a sliver of pineapple. But I’ve ordered the all-you-can-eat prawn rodizio. And these are from Camaroes Shrimps, the prawn-palace of the city, to my taste. They get their stuff straight from the fishermen.

For one price, the waiters are going to bring me prawns until I drop.

“Go easy, go easy,” Mike says. “What do you want to do, get yourself sick?”

Perhaps he’s right. No need to overdo it. We’ve still got three days left in Natal.

On our last night I’ll eat shrimp till I’m stuffed.