TRAVEL: Indoor tropics is a highlight of a winter trip to Berlin and the Baltic SeaAfter exploring the Brandenburg Gate, the Pergamon Museum and Checkpoint Charlie, I went to the beach. In Germany. In January.
By: Fred Swegles, The Orange County Register
BERLIN — After exploring the Brandenburg Gate, the Pergamon Museum and Checkpoint Charlie, I went to the beach.
On a bitingly cold Friday, 3 ½ hours north of Berlin by train, I hiked along the shore of the Baltic Sea, a wide stretch of sandy beach at Warnemunde slathered with sunbathers in summer but flecked instead with snow on my visit.
The next day, less than an hour south of Berlin by train, I stepped onto an immaculate white-sand beach at Brand Niederlausitz. Snow was outside.
But it was summer inside.
The air was 77 degrees, the water deliciously in the 80s, the tropical rain forest luxuriant green.
Tropical Islands, a water theme park, is well known to locals but not to foreign tourists. It bills itself as the world’s largest indoor rain forest, the world’s biggest free-standing hall. It’s housed inside a massive airship hangar erected in 2000 on a former Luftwaffe airfield in the countryside.
Most tourists arriving in Berlin don’t know this rather unlikely beach resort beckons 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, on the outskirts of the German capital city.
But it is why I came in the first place.
I’ve never been a cold-weather traveler. My idea of a winter getaway is to Zihuatanejo, Thailand or Tahiti. But when I stumbled onto the Web site for Tropical Islands, the hot-and-cold mix seemed so preposterous, I did something totally unlike me.
I booked a flight to Berlin for the final week of January.
I had occasionally wondered what Europe might be like in the offseason, when prices are down, crowds down, temperatures at the deep end of the thermometer. I’d go even though I was a warm weather wimp who had no clue how to dress for daytime temperatures barely above zero When I arrived, I thought, as long as it was January, why not punish myself further? For my best-of-Berlin tour, I chose not a comfy heated bus but a 4 ½-hour bicycle tour. Fat Tire Bike Tours, headquartered at the base of the landmark Berlin TV Tower on Alexanderplatz. It offers an array of bike tours in summer, then mostly shuts down for winter. There is still one winter tour per week, if at least five people show up.
I lucked out. Nine other brave souls stepped forward at 11 a.m. on a frigid Wednesday to join me.
We covered an impressive 10K on our tour. Actually it was refreshing, not quite as insane as I had feared. I removed my gloves just briefly enough to drag out the camera and photograph the Berliner Dom, the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and other landmarks.
Our expat guide, Francis Jones from New Zealand, entertained us to the max.
Did you know that Berlin’s mascot, the bear, alludes to a guy named Albrecht the Bear who imposed Christianity on the area’s heathen farmers eight centuries ago? Or that East Berlin’s landmark TV tower, which draws 1 million visitors per year, held a closely guarded secret when East Germany erected it, 1965-69, to tower over West Berlin as a symbol of communist technical savvy? The East Germans had to secretly import Swedish engineers, we were told, because the brain drain from before the Berlin Wall left the Communists unable to build it.
At Checkpoint Charlie, on a side street a block from crowds viewing what’s left of the historic crossing point between East and West Berlin, Francis scrawled a chalk map of Germany for us on the sidewalk. He explained the country and the city had been divided and how, during the Cold War, West Berlin was an island of democracy surrounded by communist East Germany. We viewed what remains of the Berlin Wall. It came down in 1989. This year, Germans will celebrate 20 years of change.
Riding on, we came to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a maze of concrete pillars. Francis told us how there had been a public design competition for the memorial. He described some of the chilling ideas that were rejected.
He also pointed to a ritzy hotel nearby, the Adlon. It has become a novelty part of the tour. Tourists would incessantly ask, “Like, where did Michael Jackson dangle his baby?”
Standing on a sidewalk over what was once Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s bunker, we learned how Hitler died there and how the invading Red Army tried to blow it up but couldn’t, the walls were so thick. Today, the cleared site is nondescript, invisible in a residential neighborhood. We bicyclists stood there by ourselves, no crowd.
We wouldn’t know the bunker had ever been there except for a discreet signboard telling the story. The government, Francis told us, refused to erect anything that might become a neo-Nazi rallying point. The signboard is there only to spare nearby residents from lookie-loos knocking on doors to ask for the bunker.
Later, I toured the DDR Museum, a fascinating collection of interactive exhibits recalling life in communist East Germany under the ever-present eye of the secret police. At the Pergamon Museum, I climbed the marble steps of the Pergamon Altar, a reassembled ruin from ancient Greece dating to the second century B.C.
All these marvels in winter made me wonder: How awful must the crowds be in summer? Yes, we saw tourists, but our “bicycle gang,” as Francis gleefully called us, waded easily through foot and bicycle traffic in downtown Berlin. In summer, it might be maddening. I decided that Europe in winter is actually a rather attractive choice, if you like lower travel costs and are able to brush off the cold.
It helps to be able to flee at any time, just 50 minutes south by train, to this rejuvenated blimp hangar for a tropical swim.
I went on a Thursday, astonished at the size of the hangar as we approached by bus from the Brand train station.
The airship manufacturer that built the hangar to produce cargo airships went belly-up in 2002. In 2003 a Malaysian company purchased the hangar, imported rain forest plants, set up a climate-control system and converted the 350-foot-tall blimp garage into a theme park with water slides, beaches, restaurants, stage shows, saunas and a south-facing foil roof that is said to let in 80 percent of the ultraviolet light, meaning don’t forget the sunscreen, even in January.
Indoors, at the ticket counter, my camera lens fogged because the air was so different from outside. There were surprisingly many guests for a winter weekday, I decided. How did all these men, women and children get the day off? But the spacious hangar was refreshingly uncrowded. Could the place survive, open 24/7, 365 days a year, on modest crowds like this?
I enjoyed a swim and a show and took a train the next day to the Baltic to sample a real German beach. Warnemunde, near the larger city of Rostock, was delightful, even in winter. It is an active port for ferries to the Scandinavian countries and in summer welcomes cruise ships, including those flying the corporate flag of Disney.
I took a long walk along the beach, which was a summertime favorite of East German tourists during the Cold War. Touching the clear, cold water, I decided ...
Summer is precisely what I sought out on Saturday with a return to Tropical Islands.
On my second visit, I was blown away. Pasty Berliners’ bodies carpeted Tropical Islands’ white-sand beach. The place was packed. “Beachgoers” partied on into the night, even after I had to leave to catch a late train back to Berlin.
The Germans are onto something. If you can’t fly to the tropics, why not build them in an airship hangar?
If you go:
A Berlin Welcome Card is 29.50 euros (about $37.25) for five days of unlimited metro bus, subway and light rail. Card offers discounts on many attractions. To Tropical Islands, the rail fare is 15.40 euros round-trip from Berlin Hauptbahnhof (a rather spectacular new central station) to Brand. A Tropical Islands bus meets every train. If you had a rental car, you could drive there too. It’s just off the A13.
Berlin-Dresden motorway. Want a real beach? From Berlin Hauptbahnhof station to Rostock/Warnemunde, the train fare is 43 euros, round-trip.