Tamsin Blanchard relaxed in Parati, a Brazilian haven of cobbled streets, fine food and old-fashioned charm
Along with other horrendous tales circulating around the tourists of Rio de Janeiro, there is a story about a man who had his eyes stolen after being drugged while he slept. It may be one of those apocryphal stories designed to make visitors to the city feel jittery. But it works. It is possible to see the sights of Rio in 24 hours, and if that leaves you in need of a haven in which to recuperate, the ideal refuge is just a four hour bus ride away, on the luscious Costa Verde between Rio and Sao Paulo. And, in particular, the town of Parati.

Parati has seen its fortunes rise and fall three times: once with the gold rush of the 18th century; second with the coffee boom of the 19th century, and third with the tourist explosion of the late 20th century. Now its glory days are once more on the wane, as Brazilian tourists are finding it cheaper to spend their holidays outside their home country, and even European and American tourists are not as plentiful since the Real was pegged to the dollar.

Out of season, in the winter months of May to September, the charming, roughly cobbled streets of Parati (locally known as pes-de-moleque, or street urchins' feet), are wonderfully free from both traffic and other holiday makers.

After a visit to the tourist information office, it becomes quickly apparent that there is very little to do in Parati but enjoy the beauty of the perfectly conserved Portuguese colonial architecture, go in search of local musicians strumming and drumming the sounds of samba and the more folksy pagode, and relax. Indeed, it is impossible with those ankle-twister cobbles to walk at anything but the pace of the sloths that sleep their lives away in the jungly forests of the Serra do Mar mountains that run along the coast. The town has been declared a heritage site by Unesco and is as far away from the commercial tourist tat of Rio as can be.

Parati is dependent on the sea, not least for its abundant catches of fish, but also for the cleaning of its streets. Twice a day, the tide rolls in and gently laps its way up the grid of narrow streets to wash away the day's dust and grime. At full moon, the tide runs right up the gridded car-free streets. Horses and carts, the most logical form of transport on the irregular cobbles, splash through the streets on their way around town.

The weather can be changeable in winter, and hotels and pousadas (both of which are plentiful and of a high quality, not least the Pousada do Ouro which boasts past guests including Mick Jagger and Tom Cruise) leave umbrellas in the rooms in case of rain.

When the sun shines, however, the best plan of action is to make your way to the wooden pier, so old and precarious, it is currently being rebuilt plank by plank. Schooners leave Parati at 11am and noon for trips around the nooks and crannies, storybook islands and golden sands of the bay. For 15 Reals (about pounds 10) off season, and a good few Reals more in summer, you can join a five-hour boat trip that takes you to Vermelha or Lulas beaches.

Many of the other beaches are also only accessible by boat, like the dreamy lagoon just off the tiny Ilha dos Cocos where the schooners drop anchor to serve lunch of fried fish, rice and salad, with fish picked up from a fishing boat along the way. Our skipper threw banana chunks overboard to attract the shoals of yellow-and-black stripey fish that swim in the crystal clear, jade-green waters of the lagoon. Diving overboard into the warm, salty water is irresistible, and some boats carry goggles so that you can take a closer look at the fish.

Back at Parati, there is a small beach five minutes walk away from the old town if boarding a boat is too much effort. A few traders sell ice- cold bottles of guarana champagne (consumed like water in Brazil and tasting a little like dandelion and burdock) or even colder beer and fried fish Not to be missed are bolhinos de aipim e camarao, fried balls of vegetable root paste with a delicious spicy shrimp filling in the middle.

There are enough restaurants in Parati to keep the most ardent foodie happy for a month. If you are travelling off season, however, you might be the only customer in the place, which can be a little intimidating. Most of the restaurants have identical menus, with the emphasis on fish and seafood, cooked "a Brasiliana" with tomatoes, coconut and aromatic oil.

One of the best of the restaurants for both atmosphere and food is the Hiltinho, situated on Praca Matriz where the town's children gather at night to play hide and seek in the trees or basket and volleyball in the purpose-built court. After each meal, diners are offered a complimentary shot of one of the local liqueurs or cachaca. The waiters are prone to dipping into the complimentary supplies it seems, not to mention the chopp (draft beer) served at the bar. By the end of a long dinner, our waiter was positively leery.

If Parati is a haven, the Pousada Pardieiro on Rue Tenente Francisco Antonio is a veritable paradise within it. Never has a hammock been more perfectly slung than within the walls of the pousada's tasteful rooms which surrounded a garden where banana trees grow, caged birds sing, marmasetts swing in the trees, and Frank Sinatra croons for the benefit of guests who want to swing genty in their hammocks in the shade near the pool.

It is not until you are safely cocooned in your hammock with a good book or an afternoon doze, that you have found the real Brazil. And in Parati, you don't have to worry about the possibility of eye thieves creeping closer while you sleep.

Getting there

There is considerable competition on flights to Rio de Janeiro between now and November. For example, Alitalia is offering a ticket from London to Rio via Rome for pounds 503 including tax through Lupus Travel (0171-306 3000).

Tamsin Blanchard travelled by bus from Rio to Parati for pounds 12 each way. In Parati, the Pousada Pardieiro cost pounds 65 per night double. These are off-season rates, and are likely to be higher during the southern hemisphere summer.

Further information

There is no Brazilian tourist office in Britain, but the the tourist information department of the Brazilian Embassy in London (0171-499 0877) may be able to help.