Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
Beach-hopping around Brazil, I kept hearing about this mythical place. Over and over the Brazilians told me, If you really want the most unspoiled beaches, the most spectacular diving, the best waves, go to Fernando de Noronha.
An archipelago of 21 islands about 200 miles from the mainland, Fernando de Noronha allows just 700 tourists to visit at any time. Imagine Hawaii without the people — that's Noronha, says Sergio Fernandes de Lima, a former pro surfer who grew up in Noronha and now lives in Hawaii. "Beautiful white sand, water that is superblue and clean and warm," he says. "But no crowds."
Getting there takes some work: It's three hours by plane from Rio to the northeastern city of Recife, then another, hour-long flight to the eponymous main island, the only one that's inhabited, with about 3,000 full-time residents. The only town, Vila dos Remédios, doesn't offer much; it's a mellow hamlet with a few merchants, restaurants, and dive shops. But that's not why you're here. Drop off your bags and head to the beach.
I went to Sancho's Bay, one of the three beaches here regularly named Brazil's best. (The others are Bay of Pigs and Lion's Beach.) I descended a ladder wedged into a sheer rock crevice to a bay flanked by rising rock cliffs. Aside from a frigate bird circling overhead, I had this stretch of paradise all to myself. Sea life is abundant — barracudas, manta rays, spinner dolphins. I grabbed my mask and snorkel and played hide-and-seek with some sea turtles.
Big resorts are verboten here, so lodgings are funky rather than glitzy — a bungalow near the beach at Pousada Teju-Acu goes for about $500 per night; a basic room (with a hammock on the porch) near town at Pousada Mar Aberto is about half that. The locals are friendly and helpful. Most speak only Portuguese, but they're quick with a smile and the Brazilian salute: a thumbs-up.
Getting there: From Rio de Janeiro, fly to Recife, then take a one-hour flight to Noronha. Space is limited, so book at least a few months in advance.