The Bahamas' most over-the-top resort offers serious entertainment options, from the glamourous to the family friendly
At first blush, I thought I’d been conned. Big Al (he’s identified as such on his business card) is a limousine driver who plies his trade at Lynden Pindling International Airport in the almost always sun-kissed Bahamas. The large limo operator promised to take me and my two sons, Adam, 13, and Sean, 9, to our final Bahamian destination — Paradise Island, home turf for the Atlantis Resort — for “about” the same price as an airport taxi ride.
Well, okay, we’d pay a wee bit more than what it would cost to travel in a run-of-the-mill taxicab. But we’d enjoy the tropical commute while ensconced in the somewhat luxurious confines of a Lincoln Town Car. Having just stepped off a plane from the land of the wind-chill factor, I was a tad weary and ended up agreeing to Big Al’s terms.
So it was that Big Al drove us through parts of the Bahamas that looked nothing like those whiz-bang photos gracing the travel brochures for Atlantis (tel: 800-285-2684; atlantis.com). And as we continued to drive for miles and miles, I started getting this unsettling feeling that we were being taken on the so-called “$cenic route.” After all, there was nothing on the horizon that remotely indicated Atlantis was nearby. And it’s not exactly easy to hide such a sprawling resort in the Bahamas — terrain that could give Saskatchewan a run for its money in the flat-as-a-pancake sweepstakes.
And then, just like that, after driving over a resort-concealing berm, there it was: Atlantis. This Atlantis may be real (unlike it's mythical namesake), but this multi-billion-dollar, 69-hectare playpen actually conveys a surreal look, like a Hollywood film set, albeit far more elaborate.
From a distance, this larger-than-life development almost looks as if giant aliens descended on the area, bringing with them tonnes of Prince Edward Island crimson-hued sand, and then got busy making enormous sandcastles that resemble soaring towers.
Much of the resort has an out-of-this-world look, as though it were something created via CGI magic. Beyond the skyscrapers, there are swank nightclubs and gorgeous golf courses, numerous waterslides and sandy beaches, luxurious spas and a high-rolling casino, fine dining restaurants and upscale retail outlets. They don’t call it Paradise Island for nothing.
Under the sea
If there’s a prevalent theme to Atlantis, it is water. Which is fitting, of course. Atlantis was first mentioned in Plato's Dialogues around 360 CE. According to Plato, Atlantis was a naval power lying “in front of the Pillars of Hercules” and which conquered many parts of Western Europe and Africa. After a failed attempt to invade Athens, Atlantis sank into the ocean “in a single day and night of misfortune.”
Scholars throughout the millennia have disputed how much of Plato’s account was inspired by older traditions (and even whether Atlantis ever existed and/or sank to the bottom of the deep blue sea in the first place). Last spring, a team of researchers from Harvard even claim to have found it off the coast of Cadiz, Spain.
Yet, real or imagined, Atlantis continues to live on in modern day pop culture. The sunken and forever lost city-state has inspired a cottage industry of science-fiction and fantasy literature, movies, TV shows and comic books. Chances are if a story calls for a “long lost civilization,” Atlantis is going to be part of the narrative.
Fittingly, the H2O element is absolutely everywhere at the real-life Bahamian Atlantis. Being on an island, the ocean naturally surrounds the resort, of course, but there are also elaborate fountains throughout the property. As well, in some of the restaurants, cascading water-upon-glass is incorporated as a prevalent design element. Then there’s a water park that could qualify for its own postal code, along with massive aquariums, lagoons and a dolphin cay. Bottom line: you’re going to get wet here.
Sharks, rays and slides
The most fun place to get drenched is definitely Aquaventure, a labyrinth of interconnecting rivers, pools, waterslides and even faux rapids. It encompasses some 50 hectares of real estate and requires seven million gallons of water to satiate its kilometre-and-a-half-long lazy river ride, the Current (there’s some high-intensity rapids thrown in just in case you have the inclination to nod off). A baker’s dozen of swimming pools are here, as is a life-size replica of a Mayan temple and a three-hectare snorkelling lagoon.
Aquaventure’s Power Tower, meanwhile, lives up to its moniker. At 36 metres tall, the tower offers guest four adrenaline-inducing waterslide options, including the Abyss, a near-vertical 15-metre plunge into total darkness, careening through a tumbling waterfall. Meanwhile, the Falls drops riders down 17 metres before propelling them up again through twisting turns thanks to innovative water-jet technology.
That replica Mayan temple basking in the sun isn’t just there for show. One of its slides found here is the 18-metre, near-perpendicular plunge that ends in a clear acrylic tunnel submerged in a shark-filled lagoon. Please note: those who suffer from hydrophobia, batophobia, and/or selachophobia (fear of water, heights and sharks, respectively) would be best served by simply going for a walk along the beach.
The thing about Aquaventure is that all those sea creatures are the real deal. Next to the Current and the waterslides are pools that house rays, barracudas and (cue the theme from Jaws) sharks, which pass the time swimming around the prefab ruins that were inspired by what the old Atlantis might’ve looked like.
The vast aquarium complex almost defies description. Design-wise, it incorporates elements of a doomed, sunken, ancient city. But the sentinels that patrol the ruins are gasp-inducing, from Technicolor tropical fish to the “bats of the ocean” — enormous manta rays — alien-like creatures that seem to be flying through the ocean as opposed to swimming. Indeed, throughout the aquariums and the 14 lagoons, guests can observe more than 50,000 sea creatures and more than 250 different species, ranging from moray eels to piranhas.
If you want to get a tad more intimate with the marine life, Dolphin Cay features some 6.6 million gallons of sea water. Guests can don a wetsuit and snorkel with tropical fish in the underwater ruins, or get up close and personal with the dolphins, sting rays and sealions. While Atlantis has created an extremely large and deep-water environment for its dolphins and bills itself as a rescue and rehabilitation centre, some conservationists question whether any program with captive wildlife can be truly humane.
Atlantis is the brainchild of Sol Kerzner, the famed South African developer who gambled big almost two decades ago that the Bahamas had great potential, given its spectacular beaches and its easy access to several East Coast cities. Indeed, what is now Atlantis was a run-down beach resort when Kerzner snagged it in 1994.
Phase One of Kerzner’s master plan entailed spending $1 billion over a four-year period. As you might imagine, 10 figures’ worth of investment in the Caribbean can result in a lot of development, including the various water attractions, more than 1200 hotel rooms and numerous eateries.
But that was just for starters. Over the years, more expansion followed. These days, the resort offers about 3000 rooms and employs 8500 people (up from 700 when Kerzner took over.) It was a good gamble to be sure: Atlantis now draws more visitors than certain Caribbean islands. And there’s also a sister property in Dubai.
As you might expect, the hotel and many of its restaurants ooze sophistication. Iron Chef master Bobby Flay has an outpost of his Mesa Grill here, and celebrity chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa opened a branch of his international and much-lauded Nobu franchise. Obviously there are myriad rooms with spectacular ocean views. Still, the real shocker is — and will continue to be — the various costs of taking in the Atlantis experience. Expect to a pay between $235 to $905 per night for a room, depending on the age of the building and the size and amenities of the room or condo suite. (All prices in US dollars.) Atlantis isn’t giving away its food and beverages, either: entrées at restaurants are in the $40-$50 range and a slice of pizza at a takeaway kiosk will set you back $6.
Granted, to use Monopoly parlance, if you’re going to stay at a hotel on Boardwalk you shouldn’t expect to pay Mediterranean Avenue prices. But what’s grating is the chutzpah of high-end resorts such as Atlantis who believe the tip jar should be mandatory. Case in point, according to the resort’s website: “guests will be required to pay a mandatory gratuity and utility service fee of (i) up to $22.95 per person per day for Atlantis guests, (ii) up to $17.70 per person per day depending on unit type for Harborside Resort guests, and (iii) up to $62.95 per person per day depending on unit type for The Cove or The Reef Atlantis guests.”
Those charges quickly add up, and that final invoice on checkout might induce sticker shock. And a mandatory “Utility Service Fee”? That’s akin to a restaurant giving a diner an itemized bill in which the customer is charged for the natural gas needed to power the oven. That's an expense that should be absorbed as the cost of doing business. In this regard, such nickel-and-diming is surely beneath a resort like Atlantis, given the prices guests are already paying.
Hip to hop
But if you have an extra few thousand burning a hole in your pocket, Atlantis offers a near-perfect mix of high-end elegance and amusement-park frivolity — even for those in your party who aren’t adults.
Club Rush, which reportedly cost $11 million to outfit, serves as a haven for 13- to 17-year-old guests (no adults allowed). The interior design of the club is gasp-inducing. A gamer’s paradise, Club Rush offers high-speed Internet access as well as big screen plasma and LED monitors to support Xbox, Wii, and PS3 gaming systems. Yes, of course I’m envious: when did tweens and teens ever have it this good?
The young ’uns aren’t hurting either in terms of nightlife opportunities: Atlantis Kids Adventures (AKA) is for guests aged three to 12. AKA kids are invited to choose their own adventure within themed spaces designed specifically for children’s enjoyment, hosted by a staff of Adventure Guides ready to help with activities ranging from culinary lessons and interactive electronic art to theatre and outdoor play.
Predictably, my sons loved those two clubs, never wanting to return home — the ultimate litmus test of a getaway.
Bottom line: they say it’s better in the Bahamas. With Atlantis as part of the mix, it definitely is.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.