The wife and I have just left Blow Up Hall 5050, which (depending on your viewpoint) is either the classiest or most pretentious luxury art hotel in Poland – so we're feeling a bit aloof and sophisticated and thoroughly grown-up as we barrel down the autobahn.
But if there's one place on Earth that could knock just about anybody off their high horse, it's our destination. Sitting right on the Polish-German border, Kulturinsel Einsiedel (which translates as "Culture Island") is a giant, lovingly handcrafted fun park where childish adventure rules the day and creature comforts are left … well, to the creatures.
We're here to stay in the Baumhaushotel, or Treehouse Hotel, but first we have to make our way there, which is a little more difficult than it looks. Our English-speaking guide Ulrike Konrad explains, "what looks like the short cut is never the fastest way here" as she leads us through maze-like bamboo channels, over rope bridges and ladders, and through underground tunnels to the back of the complex. Word to the wise: don't bring your oversized suitcase on wheels. Your correspondent was not wise in this regard.
The five hectare Island (it's not actually an island) is the brainchild of one man, explains Konrad: "The founder of this place is called Jürgen Bergmann. He started off as a forester, but then he learned the craft of … let me think how to say it in English – like wood carving? Specifically in the way of being an artist, like big sculptures and stuff. Sculptures for playgrounds all over the place. He also had an exhibition of all his playground objects, and every time people visited, even if they were just passing by, they were playing with those things. So he finally decided, let's open up a park. It grew from just being a farmhouse to being an area of five hectares."
She points at a purple tower – the Zauberschloss, or Enchanted Castle: "See that on top? It's an antenna. It's supposed to make people who grew accidentally into adults – it returns them into children." And with that we're going in an oddly-shaped wooden door, up a claustrophobic spiral staircase, across a balcony, down a tube slide in pitch darkness into an underground cave, before finally popping back out, completely disoriented. "The tunnels are really fun," says Ulrike, "especially when there's lots of guests and everyone gets stuck in the middle."
There's no such thing as a right angle at the Culture Island, yet every piece of wood fits perfectly against the next, and structures often weave themselves in with the landscape and trees. It boggles the mind how the Island’s craftsmen can work with such organic shapes.
"In the shared living complex, there’s a horse, and donkeys, and a buffalo – they’re housemates,” Ulrike points out as we cross a high and narrow wooden bridge. "And over here, this is a hot tub, you can light a fire underneath and take a bath. We call it the cannibal pot."
Finally we reach the Treehouse Hotel, and it’s a marvel in itself. There are nine tree houses in total, connected by a series of ramps, walkways and platforms built into and around the tall trees. Everything is hand-carved in a precise yet ramshackle style that defies photography but feels quite magical. Some houses sit around 10 meters off the ground, others are higher, and there’s a conveniently located tunnel slide at one end of the complex if you want to take the express route down.
Each house is totally different, naturally, and each has its own name, theme and resident fairy or troll. "You are staying in Fiona’s Luftschloss (Castle in the Air)," Ulrike explains. "She’s a fairy and she likes buttons. We ask guests to leave a button as a gift when they stay."
Entering the "castle" is a bit of a mission with my giant suitcase and camera gear in tow – you’ve got to duck low to get in under the entrance way and then climb a short ladder up through a trap door to get in. Once inside, with the trapdoor shut, it’s a cosy little space with a big flat sleeping area covered in comfy mats, a second room to sit in, and a balcony that looks out across the treetops toward the river that forms the German/Polish border.
The sink and toilet are the same carved wooden unit, with a swiveling tap that doubles as a flush. In the cold Autumn air we found it cosy and comfy with a heater on, and the gentle movement of the wind rocked us to sleep like babies.
Fiona’s Luftschloss is one of five "regular" rooms. There’s an additional 3 "luxury" rooms including "Modelpfutzen’s Wipfelgipfel" which I refuse to translate because I’m sure its true meaning is far less fun than what it sounds like in my head. The luxury houses have showers and kitchens in them, where the regular ones share showers. There’s also treetop camping spots and ground based teepee and hut villages and all sorts of other options.
We’d come here to see the treehouse hotel, but the sheer scale of the rest of the place soon became the focus. Off to one end there’s a very hearty German restaurant/bar built from stone and wood, attached to a frankly indescribable performance area where each weekend, there’s a stage show that introduces Fiona herself as well as a bunch of other characters from around the park. The audience seating winds up and around the walls, joined by walkways and rope bridges, and there’s a cage where naughty audience members can be locked and ridiculed. Sadly we missed the show, but it sounds like a riot!
Then there’s the annual festival held on the site, an all-ages event that sounds even crazier: “Once a year, we have a festival for people who love folk music,” explains Ulrike. “Three days, 13 stages around the park. There's a bazaar and lots of funny activities. This year they had a band playing up in the trees, there were musicians suspended in wire eggs … last year we had a platform installed and there was a rope slide on it. There was a sign up saying "free ride for naked sliders." I think 30 percent of people had a slide.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of the place. There’s 4-horned goats in a spooky tree maze, there’s a “roof llama” who lives on top of the restaurant, wire-framed sky tunnels and dozens of other bits and pieces that you’re left on your own to discover throughout the park. But one area not many guests get to see is the zoned-off workshop out the back where a team of craftsmen are constantly engaged creating new treehouses and unique buildings, both for the Island and for other parks around Europe.
"We produce tree houses for other clients," Ulrike explains, "camping grounds, other parks, zoos. Every building is unique and they take a really long time to develop it with the client so we can realize what they're dreaming of."
It’s a truly unique spot to visit and an unforgettable place to spend the night. It’s not what I’d call cheap – at least 200 EUR (US$275) per room – and it’s certainly closer to camping than five star. It’s not very accessible if you’re disabled, and it’s also not for the risk-adverse – the wooden walkways get slippery in the rain and there’s probably a hundred different ways you could cause yourself grave injury. Just like kids’ playgrounds used to be before the age of OH&S took over and pulled the fun out of everything.
It’s also not really set up for English speaking guests at this point – everything is signposted in German, and while Ulrike tells me the Island is trying to become more bilingual, it’s Polish they’re shooting for before English. Honestly, that didn’t really bother us, the locals were a friendly and very eccentric bunch and it was a pleasure battling through the language barrier to get things done once Ulrike had left us to our devices.
So much time, love and effort has gone into making this a magical place for children and the young at heart, and yet we were struck with a poignant moment on the way out – a mother and father watching their toddler. In the midst of all the looming bizarre buildings, animals, tunnels, caves and activities, the kid was transfixed on a pretty yellow leaf he’d found, and stared at it for a good five minutes. It reminded me of my own childhood, when my brothers and I had a stack of toys to play with, but the best by far was the old cardboard box our fridge came in. Even when everything is geared towards making them have a great time, kids will find fun in the oddest places!
And with that, we trek back to the car park, signposted by a couple of cars impaled on tree branches, and hit the autobahn headed for Berlin.
More information: Kulturinsel Einsiedel (German site with limited English options)