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Tropical Staycation: Feel the tropics without leaving town

We're getting to that time of year again. The time of year when Buffalo starts looking less like a beautiful snow globe and more like a salt-smudged wasteland.

Those pretty, cheery Christmas lights are gone. Hawaii and Florida are looking pretty good. Or a Caribbean cruise -- or a Gulf coast getaway, or --- or ---

But what if you can't get away?

You'll have to enjoy yourself without getting on a plane. Luckily, there are ways. Our challenge, and many of us have no choice but to accept it, is to re-create a bit of the tropics right here in our own snowy  back yard.

Combine a few of these things, pack your sense of humor, and you'll have what you could call a tropical staycation.

Let's start with the low-hanging breadfruit: The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens blasts you with equatorial equanimity as soon as you walk through the front entrance.

Directly ahead of you unfolds the great atrium, with palm trees reaching up to the high-domed ceiling. Walk through the atrium, find the coat room, and shed that parka. For once you will not need it. Then wander at will.

Breathe in the beauty of the atrium. Linger in the Aquatic Garden and Asian Rainforest. When you're finally ready to leave, or when the place is closing, stop in the gift shop and buy a tropical plant to take home to your own windowsill to remind you that there's life outside the Snow Belt. Info: 2655 South Park Ave., 827-1584.

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It's a jungle in there. The Rainforest Cafe in Niagara Falls, NY (inside the Sheraton at the Falls, adjacent to Seneca Niagara Casino) maintains a tropical ambiance no matter what the weather outside. And there is another one across the border in Niagara Falls, Ont.

Kids love this place because you dine while enjoying the rumble of thunderstorms and the roars of tigers, elephants, crocodiles and gorillas, plus the occasional erupting volcano.

Validated parking is available for restaurant guests. Grown-ups can order cocktails at a bar shaped like a mushroom. And on Family Fun Night (4:30 to 8:30 p.m. every Wednesday), children eat free with the purchase of an adult entree. Each child gets a free arcade game card and take-home balloon animals. Beat that, Disney World. Info: 300 3rd St., Niagara Falls, 278-2626.

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A place in the heart of town where it is always 78 degrees? Count us in. The Rainforest exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo is a blessing because it is so handy.

Modeled after the Amazon basin in Venezuela, it has a two-story waterfall and ramps that allow you to view colorful birds. Plus other species, including vampire bats, those arresting giant anteaters, cuddly-looking ocelots and capybara, armadillos and somewhere in this mix -- eek! -- an anaconda. One winter perk: Zoo parking is free from Nov. 1 through Feb. 28, and admission is just $5. 837-3900.

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That weight on your shoulders? It's not the winter, suddenly. It's a parrot. Bird Kingdom, the world's largest indoor free-flying aviary, made The News' list of 100 Plus Things every Western New Yorker should do at least once, and the time to cross it off your list is now. The place brims with exotic birds and tropical birdsong.

The highlight of your visit is a massive, multi-story glass space brimming with exotic and beautiful birds -- and also featuring a waterfall, greenery, winding paths and a meticulously re-assembled Javanese nobleman's house. It's like being in Java -- and we don't mean Java, N.Y. 5651 River Road, Niagara Falls, Ont.; 905-356-8888.

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For more than 70 years, the glass-walled Floral Showhouse in Niagara Falls, Ont., has been whisking people away into a balmy paradise of ponds, songbirds, and lavish floral arrangements. Join those people.

The Annual Spring Display, running through April, promises a spectacular collection of flowers. The admission price makes this an especially cheap solution for your sanity. Tickets are $5, $3.75 for kids 6-12; younger kids are free. 145 Niagara Parkway, Niagara Falls, Ont. For info visit niagaraparks.com.

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Maybe it's because a lot of their land lies north of the Arctic Circle, but the Canadians are pretty good at synthesizing the tropics. The Butterfly Conservatory, also in Niagara Falls, is to butterflies what Bird Kingdom is to birds. An expansive place filled with free-flying butterflies and surrounded by gardens, the Butterfly Conservatory is part of Ontario's Niagara Parks system.

It is closed for a month every winter and reopens this year on Feb. 18, when, face it, we will still need its tropical allure. 2565 Niagara River Parkway, Niagara Falls, Ont.; 905-358-0025.

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We all miss the sight of that cute Tiki boat, bouncing around in the water. It won't be back for months. You'll have to find a tropical cocktail on land. Winfield's Pub (1213 Ridge Road, 821-0700) takes pride in its Tiki drinks, which it varies by the year and the season.

One winning libation at the moment is the Rx Queen, with creme de cacao, spiced rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, and passion fruit juice, all shaken up with bitters and served with a float of dark rum. Yum!

Lloyd Taco, (1503 Hertel Ave., 863-9781) also knows how to serve up that south-of-the-border sunshine. Ask for a Nautical Disaster. It features three varietal rums, falernum, lime, and grapefruit.

Tiki reminds cocktail fans of the tropics

Mexican restaurants can rival Tiki bars to give you a taste of the tropics. Boozy worlds collide at CanTiki Tuesdays at Cantina Loco in Allentown. Just because you're not leaving the 716 doesn't mean you have no excuse to get your Hawaiian shirt out of storage.

The staffers on CanTiki Tuesdays wear tropical duds, and you can fit right in. Not only that but the bar will be decked out with a tropical theme, and the Tiki cocktails will be flowing. 191 Allen St., 551-0160.

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Seek out entertainment with a tropical vibe.

Mardi Gras gives us the chance to pretend we're in the steamy Big Easy. The trick is to find a place where the good times roll, where it's crowded, and above all, warm. May we suggest C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band.

Buffalo nailed him on Fat Tuesday, and he plays at the Sportsmen's Tavern, where it is known to get crowded and mighty warm. The music starts at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 13. 326 Amherst St. $12-$15, 874-7734.

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Go to see  "Jumanji: Welcome To the Jungle." In which the danger of being devoured by prehistoric wildlife is well worth it for being in a place where there are no ice scrapers.

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Pianist Marcus Lolo leads a band at 7 p.m. Feb. 8 at Pausa Art House in music with North American, Latin and Caribbean music influences, featuring the music of Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Tito Puente and Jazz adaptations of Haitian traditional folk songs. $7.

This is all well and good, you say. But I'm not happy unless I'm actually in my bathing suit, wallowing in blue waters. No worries! And minimal expense, at least next to that Caribbean cruise you're craving.

[Related: Pausa Art House celebrates the art of listening]

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Dig out that swimsuit, hope it still fits, and head for the Fallsview Indoor Waterpark. It is said to be the biggest indoor water park anywhere. That boast could be true, seeing that it has 16 water slides, a giant wave pool, and the huge Beach House Rain Fortress that features a 1,000-gallon tipping bucket. (Whatever that is, we want in.)

There is also an outdoor activity pool and sundeck, and, they add, grown-up-only hot tubs. And a Tiny Tots play area and a Planet Hollywood Beach Club. 5685 Falls Ave, Niagara Falls, Ont. 905-374-4444.

Email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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