In Brazil, where idyllic beach escapes come a dime a dozen, the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte is ready to reveal that it's more than another sun-and-surf getaway.
Famed for nonstop sands, sea salt products, and the world's largest cashew tree, this region known as Brazil's elbow is where the Atlantic seaboard makes a sensual swerve. The state capital, Natal, three hours by air north of Rio de Janeiro, reigns over a coastline that racks up some 233 days of sunshine a year. Recently, the state's arid interior region, the historically poor sertão, has been seeing unprecedented love and investment from both the public and private sectors. The sertão is rich in local culture (clay figurines, woven palm mats) and cuisine (sun-dried beef, cassava fries). It also is the cradle of forró, a rambunctious musical blend of accordion, triangle, and zabumba drums that sends couples twirling much as it did during World War II, when the area housed U.S. troops who used the state as a "Trampoline to Victory" in North Africa. To this day, Rio Grande do Norte is one of the most welcoming, and sun-splashed, places in Brazil. —Michael Sommers
When to Go: Year round. The first weekend in December is Carnatal, Brazil's largest off-season Carnival. Christmas through mid-March is high season.
How to Get Around: Driving is the most convenient way to travel in Natal, the capital city, and around the state. Rent a car at Natal's new international airport, which opened in 2014, or at your hotel. To ride along the northern beaches and over the dunes, hire a registered bugueiro—buggy driver—through your hotel.
Where to Stay: The oceanfront Serhs Natal Grand Hotel at Ponta Negra Beach is designed for families. The sprawling resort has 396 rooms and suites, multiple pools, and organized sports and kids' activities. There's far less hubbub at Kaná Pousada de Charme, an eight-room bed-and-breakfast that welcomes guests ages 14 and up. From the inn, it's about a five-minute walk to Pirangi do Norte Beach.
What to Eat or Drink: The Public Market in Redinha Beach is the place to try ginga com tapioca: deep-fried and coconut-crusted manjuba (anchovy) kabobs served with tapioca. Beach bars up and down the coast serve plates of fried manjuba and fresh camarões (shrimp). Arguably some of the most inventive shrimp creations—including au gratin, grilled, risotto, and in a pie—are on the menu at Camarões Potiguar, the hippest member of Natal's four-restaurant Camarões chain.
What to Buy: Regional handicrafts to look for include delicate bilro (bobbin) lace items, such as table linens, accessories, and pillow shams, and sand-art bottles—mini-masterpieces "painted" by meticulously pouring sand into glass containers and positioning it with sticks.
What to Read Before You Go: Translated from Portuguese, the Machado de Assis Prize-winning novel Nowhere People (And Other Stories, 2014) by Paulo Scott shines a rare literary spotlight on Brazil's indigenous Guaraní people.
Fun Fact: Pirangi do Norte is home to o maior cajueiro do mundo (literal translation: "the world's largest cashew tree"), a ginormous tangle of tentacle-like greenery covering nearly two acres. A genetic mutation causes the tree's low-hanging branches to take root and sprout new life when they touch the ground. Since being planted in 1888, the Pirangi tree has been creeping out, not up.