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.
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.
I had these prawns boiled, salted, buttered, spiced with garlic. 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."
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 live in houses that are simple, squat, red-roofed. I liked that filling-station attendants always smile, and even chat if you so wish. I liked that waiters, shopkeepers, passers-by and fishermen always stop to ask me who I am, where I come 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's guides 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 in 1598 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.
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).
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, spreads the 9-mile-long Parque das Dunas, or Park of Dunes. It's a hiker's challenge that requires an extra water bottle, perhaps two.
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, blue water with not so much as a pebble to stub a toe on.
And then there are the praias, the beaches.
It's difficult to pick a favorite. They all possess a different character, a different pristine-ness, a different magic.
I have known people from Argentina who have sat in airports and on connecting planes for 7 1/2 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.
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.
GETTING THERE: Natal, the capital of Brazil's northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte, is a three-hour flight from Rio de Janeiro. Several European countries - Italy, Norway and Spain - offer direct charter service to Natal, but, for the most part, Americans and Canadians must fly first to Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, in southeastern Brazil, 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 through www.infobrazil.com.br.
CLIMATE: Hot, hot, hot during the day, especially in the sun, but the air is quite dry, which is a big help. At night the temperatures always drop off and steady ocean breezes make air conditioning unnecessary many nights. 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 a day. The city gets about 300 days of sunshine a year. It tends to rain in June and July, and some in January and February, the middle of the Southern Hemisphere summer.
LODGING: There are a number of B&Bs in Natal, with nightly prices that vary between $15 and $25 off-season, $25-$35 high season per person. My hands-down favorite is Pousada Las Palmas, run by a charming old gent from Texas and his Brazilian wife, at the far end of 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 and right beneath the postcard Morro da Careca dune.
There also are 13 world-class hotels along Natal's dreamy southern coast, each complete with swimming pools, private beaches and five-star service.
DINING: Keep in mind that food in Natal is served in large and cheap portions. Often, one serving is enough for two people. Along Ponta Negra there are many great places to eat prawns, my favorites being the aptly named Camaroes (phone 084-219-2424) and the Samo, which always get rave reviews. The most popular dish and the house favorite is Camarao Samo - large prawns stuffed with the creamy Brazilian catupiry cheese and then lightly breaded and fried. The tasty morsels are served with a white sauce on "crazy rice," which is flavored with bacon bits, egg, garlic, onion and tomato paste. Samo also serves a number of fish dishes using either sirigado or garoupa, always fresh and local.
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