This is how you want to remember your children: carefree and smiling against a tropical strand, eager to splash in the sea. You hold this picture in your mind, and each time you see it you're transported back to the scene. . . .
In this case, the scene is Atlantis, an extravaganza posing as a resort-casino on Paradise Island, across the harbor from Nassau, Bahamas. You relax with a drink at the Beach Bar, your eyes sweeping over the ambitiously landscaped grounds as you attempt for the second or third time to orient yourself.
Nearby is the replica of a Bahamian grotto, leading to a cave-like cafe. On the other side of the pool (is that the River Pool or the Lagoon Pool?(you never can remember which is which), water pours in a series of cascades over what appears to be a bank of limestone cliffs but is in fact an ingenious concrete facsimile. Your kids are at the children's pool, a towering statue of Neptune spraying water on them, somewhere over . . . hmm, in that direction, beyond the Lazy River Ride but before the suspension bridge above Predator Lagoon. No, wait, that can't be right. You call to the bartender and look him square in the eye: "Please help me out once more,"you say. "I am utterly lost."
Some mega-resorts can do this to you: leave you overwhelmed, even daunted, before you've walked five paces from the lobby. Like a passenger aboard one of the new breed of mammoth cruise ships, you spend your first few days referring constantly to your pocket map of the terrain, saying things like "Weren't we just here five minutes ago?"
Atlantis is an example of such a place. At least, it is now, following last season's debut of the $125 million renovation, which included the construction of the $60 million lagoon-and-pool complex. That's a lot of money to spend on rocks and water (more than it costs to build some entire resorts) but it was money well spent, because the waterscape is the highlight of a stay at Atlantis. It's also the showpiece of a growing Bahamian empire controlled by Sol Kerzner.
The man behind South Africa's Sun City and Lost City hotel and entertainment centers, Kerzner is a hotelier who does nothing by half. After spending $125 million in 1994 to buy Atlantis and two nearby properties from Merv Griffin, he set about his task: not remodeling the place so much as completely transforming it.
The revival of Atlantis has been carried out on the scale of a Cecil B. DeMille epic. While the lobbies, lounges, and other hotel spaces were being reinvented, construction crews created natural-looking pools and lagoons from concrete. Landscape architects took charge of the gardens and other plantings, including more than 2,000 trees representing 500 species. A lighting designer re-created the effects of starshine and moonlight.
The fakery is superbly done, but after a while you begin wondering if you shouldn't be out stalking sharks in a real lagoon instead of watching hammerheads from the banks of the artificial Predator Lagoon. Maybe, but don't tell your kids.
Faced with the maze-like complexity of Atlantis's 14 acres, you regard the hotel buildings almost as an afterthought. There are 1,147 rooms spread among three main towers, plus a concierge wing called the Reef Club (no children frolicking in that lobby), and a series of villas. The accommodations range from the simple, balconied quarters in the Beach Tower to the spacious executive suites of the Reef Club. (Families will want the Beach Tower if only because most other families stay there; the more modest rates are another incentive.) The 30,000-square-foot casino is tricked out with fiber-optic signs, hundreds of new-tech slots, a Vegas-style showroom, and a high-roller salon privy worthy of a James Bond film.
For a resort with such a huge choice of rooms, the selection of restaurants is a disappointment. Variety of cuisine, a range of decoration and theme?No doubt. Plenty of places to take the children?Ugh. Of the 12 restaurants at Atlantis, four are open for lunch only, and the rest are mostly quiet and expensive: not the sort of places for Junior to practice pea-flinging or for a first-grader who regards a tablecloth as a large napkin. High chairs in most of the restaurants are about as rare as the prime rib.
After a day or two, you spread your wings and venture via water taxi to Nassau to give the kids a glimpse into a foreign culture. Let them spend their allowance on trinkets at the Straw Market, on Bay Street. They simply must have a plastic wallet for $8. Well, it's their money, you think, simultaneously wondering who pays $25 for one of the do it deeper in the Bahamas T-shirts hanging from every souvenir stand.
Yet old Nassau still exists. Climb the Queen's Staircase: 66 steps cut from limestone by slaves in the last century, to the hilltop water tower for a 360-degree view of New Providence Island. Walk through the neighborhoods and consider the aesthetic audacity of a people who would paint their houses the colors of sherbet. On the return voyage to Atlantis, you make the biggest decision of the day: instead of sticking with Bahama Mamas tonight, you'll go wild and try a Goombay Smash.
There are other day trips to make. Want to kiss a dolphin at Blue Lagoon Island, a small cay off Paradise?Pound through the Gulf Stream on the Powerboat Adventure?Go parasailing, Jet Skiing, waterskiing, or . . . ?Nah, let's just get in some serious pool time today, maybe look at the fish.
You'll lose count of the fish. After a day or two among the aquariums and saltwater lagoons, you might even consider it a matter of course to see a Caribbean reef shark trolling for dinner. Your son sits inside the concave window of an aquarium and appears to be floating among the parrotfish, angelfish, and jacks. Walk through the 100-foot-long viewing tube beneath Predator Lagoon as a baby hammerhead glides within inches of your brow. Being in the clear Plexiglas tunnel is as close as you can come to scuba diving without getting wet. It's only 14 feet deep; call it the rapture of the shallows.
Another day is done, and you're done in. Buck up, splash some water on your face, and do not call room service again. There's always Julie's, the Italian place in the Radisson next door, where the Bahamian waiters insist on singing "O Sole Mio" in a tropical accent while they pour your wine. Or you might wander over to the Pirate's Cove Resort and try the Paradise Grill. You'll find a friendly atmosphere with pool views, banquettes shaded by market umbrellas, and a moderately priced menu to please kids and adults. If there are no high chairs available, it's because so many other families are already using them.
On at least one day at Atlantis, an hour before sunset, stroll a mile or two east along Hartford Beach. There you'll see a spit of land (actually jagged coral) that separates this stretch of sand from Cabbage Beach. Let it be your vantage point as lengthening shadows darken the shoreline. A parasailer dangling beneath a multicolored chute makes his last ride of the day. Bob Marley sings "We're jammin' ..."(where is that music coming from?), and you find yourself humming along because you never have figured out the words.
You wonder whether perhaps this vacation is too tame. Paradise Island isn't exactly the back streets of Bombay. But when you travel with small children, intrigue and adventure aren't high on the list. You want reliable hot water . . . certified lifeguards . . . speedy room service . . .infrastructure.
Fake Bahamas?Maybe, but it's not a question you care to consider just now. The sun is down, the wind is up, and at the far end of the beach, in the vicinity of the Lagoon Bar, a fruity rum drink beckons. Go wild. Make it a Goombay Smash. That way, even if the kids never fall asleep, you won't really care.
ATLANTIS PARADISE ISLAND
Paradise Island, Bahamas; 800/321-3000 or 809/363-3000; doubles $130-$325.
Paradise Island Vacations (800/722-7466, fax 800/232-9748) is the best source for planning a trip to the resort; it can arrange anything from rooms only to a complete air/hotel/meals package.
Following are a few restaurants where children are more than tolerated. Prices are for two adults, without drinks:
CAF CASINO ATLANTIS, Paradise Island; 242/363-3000; $25.
A coffee shop within hearing distance of the gaming tables and slot machines. Sandwiches, pizza, and other light fare in a casual setting.
JULIE'S RISTORANTE ITALIANO RADISSON GRAND RESORT, Paradise Island; 242/363-3500; dinner $40.
A boilerplate Italian menu: chicken cacciatore, linguine with white-clam sauce, and stuffed-shell pasta, plus singing waiters who do to opera what a trash compactor does to glass.
THE VERANDAH RADISSON GRAND RESORT, Paradise Island; 242/363-3500; buffet breakfast $10.95 per person.
Next door to Atlantis and a fine alternative to that resort's $16 per person buffet at the Seagrapes restaurant. Omelettes, a cornucopia of fresh fruit, steaming rashers of bacon, and a wonderful ocean view.
PARADISE GRILL PIRATE'S COVE RESORT, Paradise Island; 242/363-2100; $30-$50.
Lively and popular. Steaks, grilled chicken, pasta primavera, ribs, sandwiches.
DOCKSIDE BAR & GRILL UPSTAIRS FROM PRINCE GEORGE PLAZA, off Bay St., Nassau; 242/322-5854; $25-$50.
Open-air dining on a rooftop. Just the place for lunch after a walking tour of downtown Nassau. Sandwiches, salads, seafood, and steaks, along with a few local favorites, such as pan-fried conch.
The resort's guest-services desk can arrange for a wide selection of sports, including golf, tennis, kayaking, windsurfing, and snorkeling.
CAMP PARADISE ATLANTIS, Paradise Island; full day $45, half-day $30. For children ages five to 12.