New Year’s celebrations have come and gone, but there’s life in the old girl yet as February brings with it all the colour and chaos of carnival season – with Brazil, Haiti and Venice leading the sequin-clad charge.
And when you’re all partied out, or just in need of a tempo change, we’ve got some quieter cultural offerings in store, from cruising Cambodia’s waterways to exploring Venice when it’s crowd-free.
Party, party, party in Rio de Janeiro
There is no party on the planet like Rio Carnival. Two million people sequinned-up, samba-ing, cavorting, dancing and drinking in one of the world’s best-looking cities – celebrations don’t come much brighter, brasher or rowdier, or more unforgettable. For some, joining this massive melee might sound like hell on earth; for others this is bucket-list stuff. Early booking is key, as is deciding how to participate: a ticketed seat in the Sambodrome grandstand, watching the parades? Signing up with a samba school to take part in the action? Joining the blocos (street parties) for more informal fun? Also consider different Brazilian cities, for a variety of Carnival vibes. Try Salvador’s enormous African-influenced event, the traditional street parties of Recife and Olinda, or São Paulo Carnival – like Rio but less touristy by far.
- Trip plan: Book well in advance if visiting Brazil during Carnival season. Add on recuperative beach time: Búzios (near Rio) or Ilha de Tinharé (near Salvador).
- Need to know: Upcoming dates for Carnival Sunday are 26 February 2017, 11 February 2018, 3 March 2019, 23 February 2020.
- Other months: Dec-Mar – Rio summer, hot (Carnival Feb-Mar); Apr-May – cooler, humid; Jun-Sep – mild winters; Oct-Nov – warm, uncrowded.
Visit Cambodia when the skies are dry and the lake is still high
The weather is dry and wonderful across Cambodia in February – right from the golden beaches of Sihanoukville to the temples of Angkor. Warmer than the early dry season (October to January) but not yet sweltering, this is a good month for exploring the vast, Unesco-listed complex. Long days of sightseeing are a more comfortable prospect in temperatures of around 27°C (81°F); and there’s always shade to be found amid Angkor’s stonework and jungly pockets. There’s also just enough water left in Tonlé Sap Lake to take boat trips to floating villages that are still actually floating – as the dry season progresses, levels drop, leaving stilthouses marooned in mud and Kampong Phluk (the ‘flooded forest’) inaccessible.
- Trip plan: Start in Siem Reap, granting Angkor the time it deserves. Then cruise on the Tonlé Sap Lake. Head south for the haunting museums of Phnom Penh before beach time in Kep or Sihanoukville; also consider hikes in the Cardamom Mountains.
- Need to know: Angkor passes are available for durations of one (US$20), three (US$40) and seven (US$60) days.
- Other months: Oct-Apr – dry; May-Sep – wet (Apr-Jun: hottest, most humid).
Discover the alternative Caribbean in Haiti
Yes, this is the Caribbean. But few come to Haiti for its Caribbean beaches – sandy and palm-fringed though they may be. No, people come to experience the region at its most offbeat, its most African-influenced and its most resurgent. The 2010 earthquake devastated the country, but there is optimism for the future, and a thrilling destination awaiting those who visit. February is cool and dry across the island, and thus the best time to explore it all. Capital Port-au-Prince is a heady introduction, a mayhem of traffic, rubble, market vendors, voodoo rituals, gingerbread houses and a lively music scene. Jacmel is a more laid-back artsy-craftsy hub, with lovely beaches and a raucous February Carnival. Elsewhere, take a dip in the lagoons and waterfalls of Bassin-Bleu and hike (or donkey-ride) up to Citadelle Laferrière, an 18th-century fort that thrusts up like a battleship from the lush northern hills.
- Trip plan: Allow at least 10 days to explore Haiti. Consider flying from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haitien (for the Citadelle) to save time.
- Need to know: Malaria is present, so take precautions.
- Other months: Nov-Mar – coolest, dry (rainy in north Nov-Jan); Apr-Jun – hotter, rainy in centre; Aug-Oct – humid, wet, storms possible.
Embrace the Carnival, or go crowd-free in Venice
February is a month of two halves in Italy’s Floating City. In part, it’s winter Venice: cold but entrancing, largely untouristed. It can be grey and bitingly cold, but the canals are enswirled by atmospheric mists, and cafes serving thick cioccolata calda offer refuge. Virtually free of cruise ships, this is when locals reclaim the place, while museums and churches remain open but empty. However, pick an alternative February weekend and it’s all different: Carnival takes over. There are masked balls, parades and fireworks, and masked figures swish down the alleys. Photographers will be in heaven, as will anyone who’s ever wanted to play dress-up in one of the world’s most magical cities. It’s busy but beautiful too. Note: most Carnival action stays central, so head to Venice’s more residential areas (Cannaregio, for example) to find pockets of calm.
- Trip plan: Venice deserves several days, to cover sights such as St Mark’s Square as well as outlying islands (Burano, Murano). Vaporettos (watertaxis) run year-round.
- Need to know: Book accommodation well in advance for Carnival. Upcoming dates: 18 to 28 February 2017, 3 to 13 February 2018, 23 February to 5 March 2019, 15 to 25 February 2020.
- Other months: Nov-Apr – cold/cool, quiet; May-Jun & Sep-Oct – warm, not busy; Jul-Aug – hot, crowded.
Looking for more inspiration? Check out our book Where To Go When for 360 ultimate escapes from family-friendly adventures to animal encounters and relaxing retreats.