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Arriving

By Plane -- Azul (tel. 084/3003-2985; www.voeazul.com.br), Gol (tel. 0300/115-2121), TAM (tel. 084/4002-5700), and Webjet (tel. 0300/210-1234; www.webjet.com.br) offer flights from major cities in Brazil. Flights arrive at Aeroporto Augusto Severo, Rua Eduardo Gomes s/n (tel. 084/3087-1200), 15km (9 1/4 miles) from downtown and just a few miles from Ponta Negra beach. Taxis to Ponta Negra cost R$30 to R$35, and to downtown or Praia dos Artistas, about R$40.

By Bus -- Long-distance buses arrive at the Rodoviaria, Av. Cap. Mor Gouveia 1237, Cidade Esperança (tel. 084/3232-7312), about 5km (3 miles) from downtown and Ponta Negra beach.

City Layout

A small downtown aside, Natal is a postwar creation; in many ways it resembles the modern, sprawling cities of the southwestern United States. The original city was founded on a peninsula between the Potengi River and the Atlantic Ocean. Just off the tip of the peninsula, where ocean and river meet, the original Forte de Reis Magos still stands, a forgotten bit of the 17th century. Where the fort's causeway touches the mainland the 21st century begins -- a modern ocean-side boulevard that under various names runs from here south through the length of the city and out into the dunes beyond. About 3km (1 3/4 miles) south of the fort the street is called Avenida Presidente Café Filho, and the surrounding neighborhood is Praia dos Artistas. From here the road climbs a bit, becoming Avenida Governo Silvio Pedroso, then Via Costeira, which runs for some 9km (5 1/2 miles) between the ocean and a vast nature preserve called Parque das Dunas. There are a number of five-star resort hotels nestled in between the parkway and the ocean. Where the park ends, the road swings away from the beach a bit and becomes Avenida Engenheiro Roberto Freire, the backbone of the city's best beach neighborhood, Ponta Negra. Avenida Roberto Freire itself is a busy and rather ugly artery, but the streets leading off it down to the ocean are quiet and pleasant, lined with hotels and pousadas. The beach itself has no traffic at all along this stretch, just a pedestrian walkway and sea wall, punctuated by beachside kiosks or barracas. About two-thirds of the way along the lovely 3km (1 3/4-mile) beach, Avenida Roberto Freire drops downhill to the waterfront and becomes Avenida Erivan França, a busy beachside boulevard lined with pubs, restaurants, and nightclubs that runs all the way to Morro do Careca, the 117m (390-ft.) sand dune that overlooks the beach.

Going the other direction from the Forte dos Reis Magos, along the banks of the Rio Potengi, you pass the abutments of a bridge that leads across the river to Genipabu. The road then climbs and enters Centro, also called the Cidade Alta, the commercial heart of Natal. Centro has a few old squares -- the Praça André de Albuquerque and Praça Sete de Setembro. The main street is Avenida Rio Branco.

North of Natal, the dunes and beaches begin as soon as you cross the river. This area is called the Litoral Norte (north coast). The first settlement is the former fishing village of Genipabu, about 25km (16 miles) north of downtown. Genipabu caters to tourists who swim at the beach and buggy and climb through the surrounding dunes.

South of Ponta Negra there's a long stretch of beaches known as the Litoral Sul (south coast), with something for everyone. Búzios beach is excellent for snorkelers, while Barra de Tabatinga is a surfer's hot spot. Capping off the string of south coast beaches is Praia da Pipa, a gorgeous stretch of sand and a destination in its own right.

Getting Around

By Bus -- The bus is a quick way to travel from Ponta Negra to Centro and vice versa. In Ponta Negra, buses run along Estrada Ponta Negra. For downtown, look for buses marked CENTRO or CIDADE ALTA. There are two routes. Buses with signs saying VIA COSTEIRA follow the coast as far as Praia dos Artistas and then cut across to Centro. Other CENTRO buses use the inland route along Avenida Prudente de Morais or Avenida Hermes da Fonseca. To return to Ponta Negra, any bus that says PONTA NEGRA or VIA COSTEIRA will do. You enter buses through the front. Fare is R$2.20.

By Taxi -- You can hail a taxi anywhere. To reserve one, phone Cidade Taxi-24 H (tel. 084/3223-6488) or CoopTax (tel. 0800/842-255 or 084/3205-4455). A taxi from Ponta Negra to downtown will cost about R$25 to R$30.

By Car -- Natal is an easy city for driving; streets are wide, traffic is light, and parking not much of a problem. You can rent a car to explore up or down the coast, but you'll have more fun if you rent a buggy with a driver who can take you off-road.

Visitor Information

Setur, the state tourism agency, has an English-language website at www.brasil-natal.com.br. Natal's airport has a tourist information center (tel. 084/3643-1811) in the arrivals hall, open daily from 9am to 5pm. The main tourist information center is in Natal's Centro de Turismo, Rua Aderbal de Figueiredo 980, Petrópolis (tel. 084/3211-6149).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.