Ich bin ein Berliner (for a week)

The banner on the building site fence was too much of a gift. Advertising a nearby shop, it proclaimed "Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go to Berlin."

THE banner on the building site fence was too much of a gift. Advertising a nearby shop, it proclaimed “Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go to Berlin.” What's a father to do, other than cajole a moody pre-teen daughter into posing alongside? About time I got my own back.

Petty battles aside, this trip was about having a family holiday somewhere different. The kids had minimal previous experience of big cities. Time to show them there's a big wide world outside.

Virtually all previous holidays have included taking the car, along with enough clothes and footwear to cope with every eventuality. This was going to be different: a case each, and if we didn't have something we needed, we'd get by without.

(While we took the option of flying to Berlin, one can also travel to the German capital as part of a motoring holiday: www.seemoredriving.com)

And why Berlin? Well, the wall might have come down more than 15 years ago, but the city still has an exotic allure for those raised during the Cold War. Nowadays it's rebuilding rapidly.

The journey: We tend to take air travel for granted now, but it's still exciting to think you can be sipping breakfast-time tea in the terminal at Stansted and then savouring a latte on the Kurfurstendamm a couple of hours later.

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Air Berlin flies to Tegel airport from Stansted, reaching the German capital in about 90 minutes. A network of U-Bahn and S-Bahn trains (underground and more suburban-type trains, but in effect pretty much the same thing) criss-cross the city. There's also a wonderful bus service.

A visitor's starting point should be the Berlin tourism service, which has numerous booklets and maps to make life easy, including the indispensable Berlin From A to Z. It's best to gen up before you go - check www.berlin-tourist-information.de.

Well worth considering is a WelcomeCard, a voucher booklet that offers either 48 hours (for 16 euro) or 72 hours (22 euro) of travel on public transport for an adult and up to three children aged up to 13. Since our children would have happily ridden the underground trains all day if we'd let them, such a ticket proved a bargain.

It also gives discounts on a host of attractions: from sightseeing tours to the Checkpoint Charlie museum and from the Jacks Fun World indoor leisure park for youngsters to the five-floor Knaack Klub nightspot.

Somewhere to stay: When you've opted for a city holiday, you don't want to be stuck out in the suburbs. Our Interhome apartment, a clutter-free white-walls-and-laminate-flooring sanctuary, lay just inside what was East Germany: just 250m from the Brandenburg Gate and an even shorter distance from the 2,700 blocks that form the memorial to Jews killed in the Holocaust.

A corner flat on the sixth floor, its tall windows were an invitation to spend the holiday people-watching. One could also lie in bed and stare at the TV tower at Alexanderplatz a little over 2km away -

an icon from cold war days - blinking away at night.

There was a large living/dining room, a couple of large double bedrooms, two sizeable entrance halls, and a bathroom with a washing-machine. The kitchen, with a wide hatch to the dining area, had a microwave oven to complement the conventional electric one. Efficient double-glazing kept traffic noise at bay. (Average weekly cost, out of peak season, about 690 euro.)

So you're in Berlin. Here are a few suggestions of things to see and do

Join the guides: Berlin has so much history that it's worth investing in some expert help. Tours and guides come in all shapes and sizes, including by bus, bike or on foot - even accompanied by a guide dressed as Frederick the Great, Prussia's legendary king.

The Reichstag dome: When you worked round the corner from the glass-paned Willis building in Ipswich (designed by Sir Norman Foster) and flown from Stansted airport's airy terminal (ditto), you simply have to complete the hat-trick and stroll around the glass cupola (and detect more Foster handiwork).

It's free. Visit at the right time and you can look down on to the work of the German parliament. Look out and down and you get a fantastic aerial introduction to Berlin. Somehow, architecture ancient and modern manages to exist in harmony - apart from the 25-storey International Trade Centre, which was built in 1978 and has all the aesthetic appeal of a grey computer monitor. You also notice how much of the city is water or grass.

Distract vertigo-afflicted children by counting the number of cranes turning Lehrter Bahnhof into Berlin's main railway station: 17 when we were there.

It's well worth going at night and gazing down at the city lit up. If you get in before 10pm, the time of the last admission, you can stay until midnight.

The TV tower at Alexanderplatz: A super-high vantage point at 368 metres.

River trip: Reederei Riedel run trips on the River Spree and Landwehrkanal lasting from 60 minutes hour to three-and-a-half hours. We enjoyed a gentle trip on the Spree-Lady that gave views of historic churches and civic buildings from unusual angles.

The wall: Not so much of it left now. We dodged the traffic to take the traditional touristy photos of Checkpoint Charlie, the former border post and then strolled along Zimmerstrasse to inspect one of the remaining stretches. At East Side Gallery, a 1.3km section is covered by more than 100 pictures by artists from around the globe.

Tiergarten is to Berlin what Central Park is to New York: one of those “green lungs” in the middle of a city. Laid in the 19th Century, Tiergarten is the capital's largest and most important public park - ideal for picnics, barbecues or for knocking around a football and pretending you're playing for Hertha Berlin.

That's just a quick taste. As befits any capital, there are too many fine museums, too much ornate and inspired architecture, concert halls, aquariums, botanical gardens, zoos, bars, theatres, restaurants (6,000 apparently) shops (130 on the DaimlerChrysler site alone at Potsdamer Platz) and activities to list. Rest assured that in this laid-back, friendly, affordable and very clean city, boredom is never a factor.

WHEN you're passing the world's biggest indoor beach - snug under a huge bubble that squats on a former Russian military airfield - you can't help but drop in.

Tropical Islands sounded so intriguing that we determined to make the 60km journey south from Berlin's Ostbahnhof to . . . well, the middle of nowhere, really.

The area around Brand, 100km north of Dresden, is well into the former East Germany. It hasn't yet been transformed into glitzy metal and glass by the multinationals; not by a long way. In the Brandenburg region, the unemployement rate is approaching 20%.

The dome, the largest free-standing hall in the world, was built in 1997 by a German company planning to build zeppelins that would carry freight around the world. The venture collapsed virtually before it got off the ground.

Malaysian entrepreneur Colin Au headed a consortium that bought the dome for about £20million and spent another £50million or so turning it into a tropical paradise that's open 24 hours a day.

The bubble is 107m high, which means the Statue of Liberty could stand inside without touching the roof. It's 360m long - slide the Eiffel Tower in on its side and there would be room to spare - and 210m wide. When we visited, a full-size ferris wheel looked lost inside the dome.

Fine white sand that stretches for about 8,000 sqm. The South Sea area has as much water as three Olympic swimming pools. Arranged around it, on one side, is a bank of hundreds of reclining chairs. Behind the water is a screen onto which clouds and blue skies can be projected. It reminds you of the fastasy world in the film The Truman Show, where a boat stops with a bump as it hits the wall masquerading as the horizon.

The Bali Lagoon boasts 31C water temperature, two water slides, current canal, whirlpool and waterfalls - and a shallow shore for young children.

Then there's the tropical rainforest to marvel at, put together with a bit of help from the folk at the Eden Project in Cornwall.

There was much to do between dips: beach volleyball, dancing lessons, hair-braiding for youngsters. In the evening, the two islands in the South Sea are transformed into a stage for a spectacular “Around the World” show.

Find out more:

German National Tourist Office

www.germany-tourism.co.uk

www.germanyfaces.co.uk

Air Berlin: www.airberlin.com

Interhome holiday apartments: www.interhome.co.uk

Tropical Islands Resort: www.my-tropical-islands.de

Berlin Tourist Information: www.btm.de

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