Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

Twin Brothers formations in Fernando de Noronha, Brazil. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Fernando de Noronha

Few travelers get to visit—or even know about—Fernando de Noronha, a spectacular group of 21 islands about 200 miles off the coast of northern Brazil's Pernambuco state. Only one island is inhabited, the volcanic Fernando de Noronha, from which the group of islands takes its name. The year-round population is about 2,800. The main town, Vila Dos Remedios sits on the north coast of the island, where several small hotels and posados, (bed & breakfast-style inns) are within walking distance to the beach.

The Portuguese first discovered the islands at the very beginning of the 1500s and for centuries they were fought over by the British, French, and Dutch. Today, the government strictly regulates tourism in order to protect the island: Only a few hundred visitors are allowed on the island at any given time.

Until recently, the Brazilian government used Fernando de Noronha as a military base and prison, which actually helped to protect the islands' natural environment. In 2001, the islands and the nearby Atoll Rocas were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The largest population of tropical seabirds in the western Atlantic makes its home here, the world's largest population of resident dolphins lives in Baia de Golfinhas, and distinctive marine life helps to make this among the most prized diving locales in the world. The scenery is simply amazing: Jagged, black cliffs jut out along virtually abandoned beaches, their peaks coated with tropical vegetation as they reach into the sky above the mountainous islands. The coasts of the main island are divided into two parts: the Mar de Fora, or outside coast, which faces the open Atlantic; and the Mar de Dentro, or inside coast, which faces the continent.

Fernando de Noronha is a special place to visit, but it is not easily accessible. It takes at least three flights from the United States or Canada, adding time and cost to the trip. Vacationing here can also be expensive, with almost everything imported from the mainland. So protective are the environmental restrictions that even fishing is generally prohibited. There is also an environmental tax fee assessed on all visitors. Still, for a unique vacation, free from crowds and with some of the world's most spectacular beaches, it's worth the effort.

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