Top 10 places to celebrate Carnival

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fat Tuesday. Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras. No matter what you call it, the last day before Lent’s 40 days of repentance (between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday) brings out a wild side in populations around the world.

A masked reveller poses in Saint Mark's Square during the Venetian Carnival in Venice February 12, 2012. REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri

As the party season of carnival nears its end, events heat up and online travel adviser Cheapflights offers its top 10 list of places to enjoy a last fling with hedonism before it’s over for 2012. Reuters has not endorsed this list:

1. Mardi Gras - New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Thousands of tourists flood The Big Easy annually for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, deemed “the biggest free party on earth.” The entire city loosens its (already loose) reins, and douses itself with endless strings of beads, colourful floats and costumes to celebrate the naughtiest time of year. Floats of all sizes roll through the streets in spectacular parades for two weeks prior to Mardi Gras. Endymion (Saturday), Bacchus (Sunday), Orpheus (Monday), Zulu (Tuesday morning) and Rex (Tuesday night) are the most famous of the parades, drawing rowdy attendees to partake in song and dance free of inhibition.

2. Carnival of Binche - Binche, Belgium

It’s an honour for a man from Binche to be picked to join the Gilles on Shrove Tuesday. Gilles are clown-like performers - dressed in fanciful costumes, wax masks and plumed hats - who dance throughout the city starting in the wee hours and lasting through the night. The 1,000-plus men are the centrepiece of Binche’s carnival, named a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

3. Trinidad and Tobago Carnival - Trinidad and Tobago

Its vibrant history and French roots set the tone for Trinidad and Tobago’s most significant celebration each year: Carnival. The Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday draw the Caribbean destination’s population to the streets to show off elaborate costumes that groups take months to create. Bands compete against one another for the title of Band of the Year as individuals vie to become Calypso Monarch, one of the greatest honours in the country.

4. Carnival of Brazil - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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There’s really no comparison when it comes to Carnival celebrations when Rio is thrown in the mix. Brazilians take their weeks before Lent very seriously, putting on large-scale parades and festivities that in 2011 drew nearly 5 million people. The most famous holiday in Brazil features samba schools, or large groups of dancers and performers, who build spectacular floats and compete in one of seven divisions based on music, costumes and theme. Individual neighbourhoods more and more are seeing smaller-scale parades, blocos, which feature drum parades, samba and other high-octane sights and sounds.

5. Mardi Gras - Sydney, Australia

Sydney takes the opportunity during pre-Lent celebrations to support its LGBT community through more than 60 must-attend events at Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The most popular spectacle, of course, is the evening parade down Oxford and Flinders streets. Other musts on the line-up include drag races on Bondi Beach, Fair Day at Victoria Park, a sunset cruise, and a harbour-side dance party on Sydney Harbour.

6. Notting Hill Carnival - London, United Kingdom

It’s not until August, but London is the place to be in 2012. Though the Olympics will be most folks’ focus, the Notting Hill Carnival will come a close second for more than a million visitors. Trinidadian and Tobagonian Brits lead the charge, directing musicians and participants clad in colourful costumes through Notting Hill’s narrow streets. Claustrophobic travellers should consider staying home - Caribbean-flavoured festival lassos large crowds over the course of two - typically hot - summer days.

7. Quebec Winter Carnival - Quebec City, Quebec, Canada

Quebec City comes to life every February for the Quebec Winter Festival. Outdoor sports like snowboarding and dog sledding, snow sculpture contests and masquerade balls are all on the schedule each year as Canadians celebrate a winterized version of Carnival. Visitors bundle up during the coldest time of year for a reason: zip lines, concerts and ice skating make for tons of fun for kids and adults alike. Like with most pre-Lent celebrations, the parades - both during the day and at night - are the highlight of Quebec’s ode to Carnival.

8. Carnival of Venice - Venice, Italy

Beginning 40 days before Easter, thousands of Venetians and visitors to the City of Water alike disguise themselves in ornamental masks, a site to be seen for anyone planning a trip to Italy. What used to blur the lines among social classes has evolved into a festival that could rival any other Carnival in the world. Fashion designers from around the globe sit on a panel to vote for “la maschera piu bella” or “the best mask” as events like the silent water parade and the Flight of the Angel take place across the city.

9. Mardi Gras - Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida, USA

Though Orlando may not be the first town that comes to mind when you think of Mardi Gras, Universal Studios puts on a celebration of beads and live music that the whole family can enjoy. For nearly two months on Saturdays and certain nights, the park entertains with headliners like Kelly Clarkson, and dishes up Cajun treats like jambalaya and shrimp gumbo - a wonderful homage to New Orleans’ French Quarter.

10. Carnival - Montevideo, Uruguay

Uruguayans have the longest Carnival celebration in the world, letting loose for more than 40 days every year, most vibrantly in the country’s capital, Montevideo. Theaters throughout the city are assembled and locals take to the stage to present the social and political climate of the country through operas known as tablados. Taking the real spotlight, though, are two colourful parades where musicians show their skills - and African roots - through the drum-based rhythm known as candombe.

Editing by Paul Casciato