Fernando de Noronha

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Few people can claim they've witnessed the unspoiled and breathtaking beaches of Fernando de Noronha, and it's no wonder: This island off the northeast coast of Brazil was declared a marine national park in 1988, and now a mere 420 tourists are allowed on the island at any time. The lucky few who do visit the island are treated to a spectacle of natural beauty, both on land and at sea. The island lies within a volcanic archipelago of 21 islands, and its rugged landscape includes towering rock sculptures, rushing waterfalls and natural swimming pools. Tucked beneath jagged cliffs and caves lurk exquisite white sand beaches. The waters off Fernando de Noronha teem with colorful fish, dolphins, lobsters, turtles, sponges and corals, making it a favorite diving and snorkeling locale. Even scientists agree the island's watery environs are a gem: Considered a marine ecological reserve, Fernando de Noronha is protected by the government. Surfers consider the large waves at beaches like Cacimba do Padre, Bode and Boldr to be some of the best surf spots in the world.

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The island was discovered by the Portuguese in 1503, and its history includes being a one-time pirate lair and the site of a political prison. Today, the remoteness of this 7-mile-wide island and the lack of crowds yield a peaceful retreat with swimming, diving and hiking as the itinerary. Daily flights depart from the Brazilian mainland towns of Recife and Natal; flight time is about 1 hour, 15 minutes. Remember, the island is remote, and air-conditioned taxis or shuttles are nonexistent. Instead, use the efficient dune-buggy taxi service. Though buggies can be rented, roads are very rugged and those unfamiliar with them risk accidents or rollovers. The island is blessed with consistently warm weather (77 degrees F), but has a rainy season from January until August. It rarely rains in October, generally the island's driest month. Peak tourist season is from mid-December through the end of February; with the island's limit of 420 tourists, it is more difficult to find lodging at this time.

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No luxury, full-service resorts are found on this island. Instead, 1 hotel and more than 70 pousadas (family-run inns usually providing 3 daily meals) accommodate tourists. Most lodgings charge per-person, per-night rates. Some of the lodgings are quite nice, while others are little better than a barebones hostel; the Brazilian government has established a ratings system (based on dolphins rather than stars) to differentiate the establishments' quality for tourists. Check out the 1, 2 and 3 dolphin accommodations on the the Fernando de Noronha website. It isn't surprising that much of the island's fresh fare is seafood-based, namely fish cooked in banana leaves and deep-fried shark-meat dumplings. The island lacks farms and other ingredients have to be imported from the mainland. A meal at Ze Maria (Rua Nice Cordeiro) is a must-do, where owner and local character Ze Maria hosts Wednesday and Saturday night musical jam sessions.

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Some knowledge of the Portuguese language is helpful; English is rarely, if ever, spoken, written or understood. It's imperative that travelers to the island bring reais, the Brazilian currency. There is only one bank branch (Banco Real) on the island and no currency exchange offices. Few establishments accept credit cards. Tap water is unsafe to drink, but bottled water is easily accessible. The crystalline blue waters and stunning beaches of Fernando de Noronha mean swimming, diving and hiking to the island's more than 15 beaches are prime activities. Porcos Bay is considered one of the island's most beautiful stretches of sand, and Conceicao beach is the most popular because of its long shores. The more adventurous might want to dive in the natural pools of Atalaia Beach or visit Sancho Bay -- surrounded by natural walls, it can only be reached by a metal ladder wedged in the crevice of a rock.

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