Travel and the End of Romance

Black Book
June 2005

By Megan Ratner

Twenty minutes outside of Berlin, it's like a time warp. The city quickly diminishes into snow-dappled industrial remnants of East Germany, their boxy outlines etched against the gray-on-gray winter light. The frantic renovations of the city haven't made it here yet, and graffiti tags point to the only signs of life more recent than, say, 1960. Not quite the spot, unless you're into Cold War nostalgia, for a romantic idyll. Here you could believe the earth is flat and that you're teetering on the edge.

But not before you reach paradise, known in these parts as Tropical Islands. A humongous aluminum oblong perched in the middle of a former Soviet airfield, the world's largest self-supporting hall shelters two serene lagoons, three ample beaches, a bevy of tropical plants, and a steady stream of pleasure-seekers. "My paradise, so close" trumpet the posters that depict a bikinied Barbie-and-Ken couple on a pristine, palm-lined beach. Forget the uncertainties of hurricane, typhoon, earthquake or tsunami: This Xanadu has a weather-flouting, money-back guarantee. You expect a rainforest and you get one – small and quickly viewed, granted, but you can tick that off the list. Beaches? Three, with real sand. Lagoons? Not one but two. Waterfall? A bit chlorinated, true, but gushing just perfectly, the "sea" floor smooth and creatureless.

Is Brandenburg leading the way to a not-so-brave new world of hermetically sealed European tropical vacations? Travel once meant change, unknowns, novelty, the mystery of elsewhere. Even without amorous exploits, travel was more than mere arrival at a destination. It was about the people you came across, the haphazard but possibly life-altering contact of outsider with local.

Theme parks and mass tourism have changed all of this by shifting the focus from discovery to entertainment. The success of enclosures like Tropical Islands in transforming even the dowdiest hinterland into profit-bearing ventures points to a future akin to geographic cosmetic surgery. Where natural beauty does not exist, it will be manufactured, turning economically and visually barren locales into commercial clover. And other countries are lining up plans for own domes in the wake of Tropical Islands' success.

The real beach is all about earthly elements, about mutability and risk. For the Romantics, orgasmic possibility lurked everywhere at the shore. To Paul Valéry, ocean swimming was "fornication with the wave." Tropical Islands and its spawn are the opening salvos in a movement to eliminate surprise, to conform nature completely to us – to make everything merely fun.

The Japanese already have their version. The Seagaia Ocean Dome, which promises "paradise always," is located in Miyazaki, a one-time honeymoon haven a few hours outside Tokyo. Built in 1993, the 300-meter-long dome accommodates up to 10,000 bromidic-thrill-seekers who can enjoy water and temperatures that hover around 80 degrees. And on those occasions when the old-fashioned outdoors cooperates, the roof retracts for some classic sunshine. Bushels of tropical plants, cascades, precisely timed waves, and a volcano that erupts hourly make Seagaia the spot for unvarying good times. Unlike the deeply inland Tropical Islands, Seagaia sits about 300 meters from the real ocean. Ironically, nature gave Seagaia its biggest boost when, shortly after the dome opened, a typhoon blew in, sending conventional beachgoers scurrying to the mother ship. Contemplating the bleak winter outside my train window, I can easily imagine these former GDR locals drawn to Tropical Islands, if only to thumb their noses at the weather.

I arrive at Niederlausitz, a depot so dilapidated that I half-expect the train merely to slow down and for some passing official to give me a firm shove. Two beefy Estonian guys have attached themselves to me, happy to find someone who speaks English, and incredulous that I know where Estonia is. The big winners of their Estonian Airlines flight lottery, they're brandishing day-passes to Tropical Islands. A lumbering shuttle, doubtless a holdover from Iron Curtain days, carries us off. Around us stretches a former East German no-man's land very near the Polish border, the spindly pine and birch forest straight out of John Le Carré.

In moments, we get our first glimpse of the dome, at once imposing and goofy. There is a what's-wrong-with-this-picture quality to a manmade structure this immense: Its sleek stretched roof like a great misshapen orb swollen up out of the frozen ground. The hulking shadow shrinks cars to Matchbox toys, the pedestrians to architectural stand-ins.

Walking in feels a bit like Pier One, the décor harmlessly ethnic and slightly clunky. My mind is still wrapping itself around the idea that I'm now embubbled within this monstrosity. It's not like being indoors; more like being in someone's idea of outdoors. Cleared by security, I'm shown to the sand-colored linoleum path, vaguely reminiscent of Oz's main drag.

The numbers may be of little help, but for comparison Tropical Islands is 360 meters long (nearly four football fields), 210 meters wide (about two more football fields) and 107 meters high (even with her pedestal, the Statue of Liberty would have plenty of headroom). Not exactly my idea of sybaritic surroundings, but undeniably singular. Nothing in what I find myself calling the "original world" compares.

While I pause to let a procession of dragon-costumed Chinese New Year revelers pass, I begin to realize that my low enthusiasm may be due to a lack of imagination. Taking in the big picture, I can't get past the ersatz. I'm hung up on all the surveillance, on the fact that there are no clocks, that the projected red-rubber-ball "sun" is always obediently setting, that the igloo tents look more like a sale at Sears than an inviting way to overnight on the beach.

I catch a faint, loamy whiff of distinctly hothouse plant life. Murky light drifts in from south-facing panels, though several of the staff members assure me that a new system will make it brighter. For the time being, it displays rather than dispels darkness and the effect is less appealingly misty than disturbingly gloomy. Looking up, I would be at all surprised to see a giant, Gary-Larson-style child peering in the roof.

Matthias, one of a group of students from Berlin tells me it's his second time there. He balks when I ask if it's a substitute for vacation, saying it's just a good way to get a break. And to avoid security fears? "Oh, maybe for you Americans, but that's not a worry for us."

Those particular fears may not be theirs but Tropical Islands holds actual foreigners and foreignness at a mollifying remove. There's a push to keep you constantly busy, to drive out contemplation. Days break down into busy modules, with classes in African hair-braiding, Indian hennaing, or a visit to the trinket-filled gift shop to get a handcrafted souvenir of your mass-produced holiday. The place has more than a hint of the zoo habitat, though even captive animals get a little privacy. Slinking off to a secluded spot for a sexy tryst is apparently not part of the Tropical Islands scheme, and its beaches, rainforest, and "seas" are chastely unsuited to pitching any but the most well-behaved woo.

Wandering over to the South Sea Lagoon, I watch the floor show "Viva Brazil," while images of the real Brazil are projected on the manmade "horizon." We're presented with a history of Brazil so doctored it's simultaneously ludicrous and offensive. No one else seems to notice that several of the "indigenous" performers on the islanded stage sport coppery body makeup – not quite minstrel-show worthy, but perilously close. The most embarrassing moment occurs as a pas de deux between the "lovely native" and the Portuguese visitor from whose night of love, the smarmy voiceover announces, "Brazil is born." Everything devolves into sambas with successive sequined outfits that echo the skimpy coverings of the opening scene. This business continues for two hours.

But two young local women near me say they learned a lot. As carefully as I can, I ask them if the artificial horizon backdrop (which was preceded by a map showing escape routes out of the building) bothers them. "No," say Gabi, adjusting the sarong she bought at a gift shop and tugging at her bikini top. "I like that it's finite. We look at the real horizon and know it's not the end. It's fun to leave reality."

Like canned laughter, there's nothing improbable about Tropical Islands. It includes every food group in the steady diet of paradise we've been fed by the movies, advertising and TV. Cocktails, whose very names are clichés, are served up in wide-rimmed glasses with paper umbrellas. The "native" singing and dancing has "It's a Small World" familiarity, so that every brush with the "other" leaves visitors at ease and unruffled. The Tropical Village offers a rotation of Thai, Brazilian, and Indian dishes, though most people opt for wurst and fries at the homely snack bar.

Domes like Tropical Islands point the way to other forms of discrete, unearthly travel. Wimerly Allison Tong & Goo (WATG), an architectural firm in Hawaii, stands at the ready for space hotels. These bring together airplane, hot-air ballooning and the amenities of a cruise ship, with just enough gravity to take a shower and flush a toilet. And back here on Earth there is plans for pod hotels, which can be moved anywhere, from the Siberian tundra to sub-Saharan Africa. The pods have no relation to their environment and will allow guests to pick any "mood" they want: ocean panorama, jungle scenes, or Alpine snow. And then there's Hydropolis, scheduled to open in 2006 in Dubai, an urban phenomenon in its own right, and touted as the Las Vegas of the Middle East. This underwater hotel will have three discrete parts, one on the Jumeirah coast, which will be connected by a tunnel to a submarine complex with separate underwater villas.

It seems that having tried everything, people are anxious to feel nothing.


On my way out of Tropical Islands, I see a fly on one of the large orchid posters that decorate the cashier area. A real fly! Something unplanned for, unintended, a rogue reminder that for the time being the natural world will trump us every time.

With nature so wily and often outright hostile, it's no wonder people want definite perimeters and limited vistas. Why wait for an unhappy surprise when you can ditch it all in a reliable, if confined, Shangri-la? At Tropical Islands, the exotic remains safely bell jarred and kept at a consoling distance. Other than payment, nothing is asked for you. Yet there's a lifelessness to it that bears out Samuel Johnson's scheme of merriment verdict: "Nothing is more hopeless."

MiscellanyDavid & George