Tropical Islands Resort, Berlin
In a once-abandoned aircraft hangar, on a former military base in a forest in Germany, you’ll find Tropical Islands. Under a cavernous ridged-steel dome lies a fully self-contained, climate-controlled, artificial tropical village, replete with beaches, rainforest, birds of paradise and gift store. The dome is one of the largest freestanding single structures on Earth. More than 100 metres high and comprising nearly 5.5 million cubic metres of space, you could lie the Eiffel Tower down in it comfortably. Imagine a stately pleasure dome decreed by Kublai Khan, had he founded Xanadu in the Spreewald while in the depths of a mild depression.
It’s built on the site of the old Flugplatz Brand-Briesen. Once a Nazi airbase, it was annexed by Soviet forces in 1945 and over the decades was steadily expanded to house regiments of fighter-bombers, dozens of hardened aircraft shelters and a nuclear alert shelter as the superpowers threatened each other with annihilation. After reunification, a private company bought the base and designed futuristic heavy-lifting airships. The company went bankrupt in 2002, but not before building the dome at a cost of €78 million. In 2003, the site was purchased by Tanjong Public Limited Company, a Malaysian pan-national with vast resources and a crazy dream. They would use the shell of the airship hangar to build a place styled as “Europe’s largest tropical holiday resort”.
My mind cannot parse the existence of such a thing, or the need for it, or understand why nobody I speak to in Germany seems to find the idea as delightfully wackadoo as I do.
“You want to go to Tropical Islands? Are you researching fungal infections?” a journalist friend asks when I invite them to accompany me. “It is a place for people with not-so-much sophistication.” They search for the English term. “Like your basic bitch.”
Undeterred, I persuade them to come, on the understanding it will be a fun, campy adventure, the sort you stumble upon when you tumble out of a nightclub of a Berlin morning. A commuter train takes us from Berlin to Brand Tropical Islands station, a desolate, overgrown platform built alongside a few run-down former guard houses. A shuttle bus is waiting. It too is sparsely populated – we are two of five passengers sitting on seats upholstered in a cheerful pattern featuring tropical birds. We wind through the forest, past trees and overgrown military buildings, before the bus decants us outside the dome to a field of wild grass and Ford Fiestas. Even from the outside, Tropical Islands is truly magnificent, a vast steel monolith that gives no clue to the world enclosed inside, the breathtaking extraness of it all.
Scattered throughout the facility are seven spas and saunas, a 3000-square-metre warm-water lagoon lined with clean white sand, a giant waterslide and a white-water river modelled on the Amazon. There are a total of 12 restaurants, bars and lounges. Two hot air balloons offer guests scenic flights under the dome – while a giant LCD screen beams footage to those on the ground of the view from above: the lagoons, the Balinese architecture, the rainforest.
About the rainforest; there’s a rainforest. About 80 per cent of the resort’s 66,000 square metres of floor space is taken up by an artificially engineered indoor garden with more than 500 species of tropical plants, including palm trees, orchids and ornamental vines.
To keep it a living jungle, one side of the dome is stripped of metal and replaced with UV-permeable transparent panels. This exposes plants and sunbathers to natural sunlight and essentially turns the building into a giant greenhouse/solarium. With the right genes and a little patience, it’s possible to acquire a tan here.
The air is climate-controlled at a constant 26 degrees and 64 per cent humidity, all year round, weather be damned. The outside world can be frozen solid, while the dome retains the ambience of a tennis shoe.
You can also spend the day lounging on deckchairs in a raised wooden bar that overlooks a heated lagoon, which overlooks a wall painted to look like the summer sky. If you want to spend the night, a range of accommodation options are on the table, from airconditioned cabanas to camping out in tents.
I check out the luxury rooms, which are styled after various tropical idylls in space and time – mine after some kind of swashbuckling pirate dominion. The rooms are comfortable and spare – an en suite, a neatly made bed with coconut biscuits on the pillow. The room is chilly with airconditioning, so I throw back the curtains to let the light in and find myself staring at a hot, steel sky. The room is aggressively retro-styled, but I get the uncanny feeling that I’m looking into the future. The dystopian charm of building a tropical climate from scratch is a little lost on me, but I grew up in Australia, where we have so much sunlight and natural beauty we have no idea what to do with it all except dump a coalmine on it. Once the ice caps go, this might be what all beach holidays look like.
The weirdness compounds while exploring the various features of the island, many inspired by real-world counterparts, re-created in various degrees of uncanniness and outrageous cultural appropriation. Hidden away in the forest is a village cobbled together with traditional buildings from across the Asia-Pacific region, each constructed in their country of origin, flown to Germany and reassembled. Nearby, we come across a wooden shanty, an example of the housing of “ethnic groups that live in the rainforest”.
There’s also Borneo Cafe, a frozen yoghurt specialist, and the Bali Pavilion, which is a billiard hall. See also the Elephanta Temple, an Ayurvedic spa named for an ancient temple complex near Mumbai. Then there’s the Angkor Wat Temple, a high-heat, low-humidity sauna modelled on the Cambodian holy site, in which you can shvitz naked next to a Bavarian family.
We pass a cardboard cutout of the Tropical Islands children’s mascot, a zeppelin pilot with a moustache and a monkey called Kapitän Ecki.
“I wish we’d brought eccies. This place would make sense if we had drugs,” my friend says, staring glumly at a flamingo. Did I mention the flamingos? They stand in a few centimetres of water, occasionally raising a leg to kick world-wearily at the snapping turtles that mill about their feet, that are themselves harassed by giant catfish slinking through shallow streams.
I go down to the lagoon for a swim (as promised, a steady 29 degrees) and a spot of soul-searching. Night falls under the dome and the glaring artificial sun overhead switches off, replaced with a moody purple twilight glow. We retreat to one of the bars to drink brightly coloured cocktails, bought with an electronic wristband that handles all micro-transactions in the Islands.
Lamplight guides the path as all around us families wander about in their bathing suits, the kids holding beach balls, the parents holding mugs of beer. Against the darkened dome, fairy lights twinkle to life. On the mini-golf course, two teenagers in bikinis play against their sunburnt, cheerful dad. It’s all so wholesome it gives me the creeps but, at the same time, I start to understand.
I’ve been wrongheaded in coming here. I shouldn’t be trying to enjoy this place ironically, but instead should be trying to approach it as I would a microwave burrito – finding it deeply unnatural, an affront to decency, but quite pleasant really and, in the middle of a dread winter, probably heavenly.
I lament all the carefully crafted mean-but-woke tweets I’ve prepared while exploring the ethnic delicacies of Tropical Islands. Who am I to judge? It takes a special kind of schmuck to go irony-hunting at a family holiday resort. And when one factors in the carbon miles and locavore beer, this hulking rebuke of divine creation is infinitely more morally defensible than a weekend in Bali. I have no moral authority here. That’s me in the corner, struggling with my middle-class guilt, screaming silently into my blue curaçao.
We catch the last bus to the train station and wait on the platform. The night is still and cold. Abandoned military posts litter the field around the train station. In one of the old guard houses, someone has lovingly tended a flower garden. The rails sing out as the train comes to take us back to Berlin.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 8, 2019 as "Tropical paradigm". Subscribe here.