A military airbase makes for an unlikely tropical getaway, but a military airbase that has been in both Nazi and Soviet hands, and which is located in the notoriously chilly climate of Northern Europe? That sounds positively absurd as a family leisure destination. But some 30 miles south of Berlin, built inside the world’s largest freestanding hangar, that’s exactly what you’ll find.
Tropical Islands Brandenburg stands on land with a storied, dark history that is at odds with its cheery, kitsch, modern-day self. The Luftwaffe (i.e. the German air force) originally built the Brand-Briesen Airfield in 1939 as a pilot school. Boasting some workshops, barracks, and an unpaved runway [PDF], it made for a threadbare operation. When the Soviet Red Army commandeered the base in 1945, they aggressively expanded its use and capacity to include housing for a fighter-bomber regiment, paved and lengthened runways, hardened aircraft shelters, and added a nuclear alert shelter.
At the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union (and later Russia) worked with the authorities of the newly reunified Germany to relinquish its 1800 square miles of military bases in East Germany. The German government promptly sold Brand-Briesen Airfield to a private company that sought to manufacture blimps. The blimp business, however, was not a lucrative one, and the company filed for bankruptcy in 2002. But, as you can imagine, building blimps requires a lot of space, and before the business went under, they completed an expansion of the hangar that made it so large it could fit the entirety of the Statue of Liberty, upright.
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It’s hard to imagine too many people lining up to buy a defunct blimp hangar, but that’s just what a Malaysian company decided to do. In a mere nine months, the hangar was transformed into a faux tropical paradise, containing countless pools for swimming and diving, a shopping street, restaurants, bars, a water-slide tower, a stage for evening entertainment, a miniature golf course, accommodation options ranging from tents to hotel rooms, a multi-sauna complex, a gym, an astounding number of deck chairs, and not one but two hot air balloon ride options.
As you walk around the vast complex that comprises Tropical Islands, you’re as likely to see pink flamingos and peacocks congregating as you are to hear rain forest sounds piped in through camouflaged speakers. Unsurprisingly, it’s all a little surreal and can take some getting used to—particularly during winter when guests must first peel off layers of clothing in the bright orange locker area and change into attire more fitting for the balmy, unfluctuating 77°F that Tropical Islands is kept at. That's right—this tropical paradise, like the Caribbean, is open year-round.
But once in beachwear, and perhaps buoyed by a Mai Tai, Tropical Islands starts to make some sense. Dipping in and out of swimming pools, careening down water slides, and napping under the palm trees stands in such stark contrast to the world outside that it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself.
I’d read that weekend nights at Tropical Islands can get rather festive, so my husband and I played it safe and chose a Wednesday for our overnight stay. Our tent, nestled below the water-slide area, ran $150 and included admission for two days and a breakfast buffet. Where our planning fell short was on towel packing. We had packed towels for drying ourselves, but you learn quickly that you need about three towels each: one for drying off, one for sitting in the sauna, and the third, crucially, for draping over a deck chair. If you do not acquire a deck chair by around 10 a.m., odds are you won’t get your hands on one until dinnertime, as once draped by a fellow beachgoer, the deck chair becomes completely off-limits, even if the towel's owner is nowhere to be seen.
All in all, Tropical Islands makes for a Truman Show-esque affair. A mural of bright blue skies was ripped at one of its cloth seams. Those hot air balloons? Turns out the “free-floating” one is attached by two large ropes to the belt of a young man who walks it across the hangar, at times using his entire body strength to swing the basket low, over the swimming pool, giving his passengers a closer look at the people splashing below.
While there are plenty of spa options across Europe, and in the UK there are even a series of Subtropical Swimming Paradise villages, they were built for their end purposes. It’s hard to imagine any capturing the unique sense of history, imagination, and campiness of Tropical Islands Brandenburg.