It is, admittedly, a long way to go for a party. Even the eye-popping, booty-shaking, gargantuan excess of the biggest street party in the world, the Rio Carnival.

But it's worth it. We arrived in Rio de Janeiro in the middle of Carnival a year ago to be caught up in a throbbing river of humanity, swept along in the humid Brazilian night air before being spewed out again to join the next band of dancers snaking through the city. Young and old, friends and strangers, tourists and locals – we were instant members of a community of a new and unfamiliar kind.

It has its drawbacks – I will come to those – but it is an intoxicating experience, in more than the obvious ways. Nevertheless, if you are contemplating joining in the festivities 12 hours flying time from London, what happens when the partying ends? It would be a pity to visit Rio and not see at least some of the country beyond the city.

By combining Rio with a trip down the glorious Costa Verde – mountains clothed in velvet green on one side, perfect beaches on the other – you can see the best of the country without straying unmanageably far from the city. Build in a stop at Ilha Grande, a tropical island where the only motorised transport is the boat. And make sure you see Paraty, the old Portuguese port, especially at dusk. Do all this, and you can be a party goer, beach bum, hiker and culture vulture in the space of a fortnight.

Prices for accommodation in Rio soar at Carnival time, but reasonable deals can still be found. It is worth ringing hotels direct and negotiating – don't take the price quoted on the website as immutable. We found a hotel prepared to offer a room at the normal pre-carnival rate – but then we found a house to rent and took that instead.

Our residence was halfway up the Lapa steps, a tiled stairway in the heart of the city – and provided a much-needed refuge we could retreat to when the clamour got too oppressive. In the four days we spent there, our schedule developed a pattern: we got up late and lazed around in the morning, before going out in the afternoon to catch the start of that day's celebrations. On the main street bands of performers, wildly costumed and elaborately coiffed, would start to congregate around a stage where they would appear in sequence, dancing crazily and psyching up the crowd.

Later we would drift to the beaches south of the city, or the botanical gardens with its avenue of impossibly vertiginous palm trees, or Sugar Loaf mountain which we ascended to glimpse the astonishing geology of Rio – serpent-like peaks and valleys – around which the city is draped.

One afternoon, a friend took us sailing in a dinghy beneath the Sugar Loaf and for a moment we could imagine we were Portuguese explorers arriving at its lush, sweeping shores from across the ocean for the first time. What a strange, magical and forbidding place it must have seemed back then.

Returning from the beach one evening by Metro, we found ourselves jammed in a carriage full of half-naked people, clad in bathing costumes, singing at the tops of their voices, on their way to the carnival parade. At our stop we had to squeeze ourselves out – we were the only ones making an exit – and earned a loud cheer as we plopped clumsily on to the platform.

Rio during Carnival is noisy, hot and boisterous. It is not a good time to visit the tourist sites in the city because, other than the main ones such as those already mentioned, many are closed. You have to keep your wits about you, too. One late evening walking under the aqueduct near our house, I was jumped by a man who grabbed what he thought was a roll of dollars from my top shirt pocket. It was actually a map. As soon as he realised, he threw it to the floor. A girl picked it up and handed back to me, but then a crowd of kids, none older than eight, sensed an opportunity. They began closing on me, hands sliding into my pockets. We had to hoof it down the slope. It was our last evening and it was a reminder how visible – as pale-faced, middle-aged tourists – we were.

Next day, as planned, we caught a bus to Angra dos Reis, three hours down the coast, and took the ferry across to Ilha Grande. The island was struck by disaster at the New Year when a mudslide swept one of its best hotels, the Pousada Sankay, into the sea, with the loss of at least 26 lives. Pousada Sankay was situated on a beach an hour west of Abraao, the island's port, which is full of places to stay and was unaffected.

Ilha Grande is like a Brazilian St Ives – full of young people and families looking for a beach holiday with a bit of partying and surfing thrown in. We stayed in the lovely, quiet Pousada Oasis at the far eastern end of the beach.

From here we walked to half a dozen other beaches around the island. They are some of the best I have seen anywhere: perfect, palm-fringed crescents of sand (rather than long, bleak stretches disappearing to the horizon). Each had a single café, fronting a bay of clear blue warm sea – uncrowded, unpressured, uncommercialised.

Walk a little further and you come to the biggest beach on the far side of the island, which has, admittedly, more of a motorway feel to it, though still low-key with nothing but a few hawkers selling cans of cola. This is the surfing beach where the breakers are big enough to carry you a few yards, though they will not impress surfers brought up on Cornish seas.

One day I climbed to the distinctively shaped Parrot Rock, the highest point on the island, which gives wonderful views over the thickly forested slopes down to the azure blue water. The path through the trees is distinct enough to follow (just) but I took care at points to check my bearings to make sure I could find my way down.

Having got up late I did not start till 10.30am, by which time the sun was high. It was sweaty work – and by the time I regained the harbour I needed serious rehydration.

Back on the mainland, we took the bus on to Paraty, 300km from Rio. We spent a couple of days wandering its broad, cobbled streets (closed to traffic), transfixed by its perfect colonial architecture. The streets are arranged in a grid with channels to the sea so they are washed at high tide. The cobbles are so big that walking over them takes practice – even Brazilian women in high heels totter along. The town is little changed since its heyday as a staging post for the 18th-century trade in Brazilian gold, though today the gold comes chiefly from tourist's pockets.

After the madness of Rio, Paraty was a haven of peace. At dusk, we went out on the quay beside the small and beautiful church of Santa Rita. Caipirinhas in hand, we watched the light change over the salt marshes, as the last of the boats docked and darkness slipped down from the hills. Then we went in search of supper.

Getting there

* Rio de Janeiro is served non-stop from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) and via Sao Paulo by TAM Airlines (020-8897 0005; tam.com.br ).

Getting around

* From Rio, Costa Verde buses (00 55 21 3622 3100; costaverdetransportes.com.br ) depart for the ports at Mangrabita and Angra dos Reis – from where ferries depart for Ilha Grande – and onwards to Paraty, which is 300km from Rio.

Staying there

* Pousada Oasis, Praia do Canto, Ilha Grande ( oasis.ilhagrande.org ). Double rooms start at €70, including breakfast.

Visiting there

* This year's carnival takes place in Rio de Janeiro from 13-16 February.

* Botanical Gardens, Rio de Janeiro (00 55 21 3874 1808; jbrj.gov.br ).

More information

* Brazilian Tourist Office: 020-7396 5551; braziltour.com

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