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The Independent Culture
ALMOND blossom is beginning to appear on the Algarve, and mimosa on the Cote d'Azur this month. Winter's grip is slackening in the northern hemisphere but truly dedicated sun-worshippers must still head further afield. For fun-seekers, Catholic countries offer a last chance for frivolity and frenzy before Lent with a number of lively street carnivals.

In Brazil, the most passionate (and sometimes the most dangerous) free show on earth happens in Rio in February, when the streets become a writhing mass of bronzed bodies swaying to the rhythm of the samba and rumba in one long, frantic 24-hour party.

Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, the biggest street festival takes place in Trinidad, with costumed parades and the hotly contested final of the steel band championship. There are smaller but nevertheless lively West Indian carnivals in Tobago, Grenada and St Vincent.

February is also the month of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where 50 different carnival clubs (or "krewes") prepare elaborate displays under different themes for their floats. Music and jazz events add further spice to the proceedings.

Closer to home, Carnevale in Venice is well worth a visit this month. In the 17th century it lasted six months, was banned by Napoleon in 1797 and was restarted only in 1979. Now there are a mere 10 days of firework displays, public concerts and private balls which spill out on to the Venetian streets and canals, crammed with masked revellers.

The most petal-strewn Mardi Gras of them all is in Nice, where decorated floats, giant papier-mache heads, banks of flowers and general carnival mayhem herald the start of the spring opera season and the return of the sun to Europe.

For the beach scene at this time of year, it's still necessary to travel much further from home. Thailand is a good bet in February - its sunniest season is from November to March (with the monsoon lasting from June to October in Phuket, and from October to January in Koh Samui). But with February's low rainfall and humidity, even steamy Bangkok is pleasant enough for sightseeing.

The fine beaches and exotic scenery of Krabi were discovered in the 1980s by Western travellers, but are not yet overrun. Package tours have long since reached Phuket, but you can still find simple thatched huts and commune with nature on the powdery-white, palm-fringed sands of Phi Phi island. The island is known for its caves lined with seaswifts' nests, held together by the birds' spit; it is this that is so perilously collected for birds'-nest soup.

Koh Samui, which succeeded Phuket as Thailand's escapist paradise, is catching it up in popularity - especially around the prettiest resort of Chaweng; Boput, Mai Nam and Chong Mon are quieter.

Another place to go in February is the southern United States. For some reason, the British don't really think of Florida as a destination at this time of year; they prefer to go there in high summer, when it is almost guaranteed to be humid and threatened by hurricanes.

If you can avoid the February half-term weeks, there are some excellent cut-price deals to be had on flights and packages. The 78F average temperatures are far preferable to the summer heat for surviving the theme parks of Orlando, avoiding the mosquitoes of the Everglades, and fishing, canoeing and getting lost in the magical back-country lagoons of the Florida Keys.


Rio: revellers need to book well ahead for Carnival, but Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108) could get you there with flights, accommodation and a tour of Manaus, Iguassu and Salvador for pounds 1,750 for two weeks b&b. For independent travellers, return flights in February to Rio cost pounds 548 from STA (number below).

Carnivals: flight-only to Trinidad pounds 582; New Orleans pounds 299; Venice pounds 115; Nice pounds 125 - all from STA Travel (0171-361 6262 worldwide, 0171-361 6161 Europe). These are guide prices and travellers should also try Campus Travel (0171-730 8111 worldwide, 0171-730 3402 Europe, 0171-730 2101 North America) and Trailfinders (0171-938 3939 long-haul flights, 0171-938 3232 transatlantic and European) and other cut-price travel agents.

Thailand: flights-only around pounds 450 return (see STA, Campus and Trailfinders numbers above). Interesting beach and cultural packages, with possible extensions to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma (Myan Mar) from approximately pounds 1,100 per week, flights and room only, from Magic of the Orient (01293 537766).

Florida: 14-night fly-drives (no accommodation) are available from Airfares (0171-707 9000).