When I arrive at Atlantis, the epic 2,900-room resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, I barely glance at the imposing fountain full of life-size winged horses. I zip through the tall porte cochère entryway that looks as if it’s been lifted from an M. C. Escher drawing and check in as quickly as possible. I have no time to soak up the opulent Greco-Mezzo-American-Egyptoid décor of the Royal Towers lobby—a.k.a. the Great Hall of Waters—or to admire the tall columns, smothered in peaks and volutes, that seem to have been borrowed not from the Parthenon but from a buttercream-frosted cake. No, no, no. I’ve just flown in from New York, daylight is fading, and I want to get to the beach.
I quickly learn my first lesson about the peculiar geography of Atlantis, as my beachward scramble takes on the illogic of a trip from point A to point B in a dream: I find my way down a long, dimly lit, medieval-looking covered walkway, and around one blind corner after another. Eventually I cross a bridge that deposits me at the top of a formal garden. I follow a classical-style cascade to a fountain—this one features oversize flying fish—and then a large round swimming pool, and then a long wooden bridge over a lagoon, and then, finally, beyond a cluster of hair-braiding and fake-tattoo huts, the real beach. Until almost the very end, it isn’t clear that I am actually going to reach the ocean.
Of course, the beach, lovely as it is, is not the main reason people vacation at Atlantis. Not that Sol Kerzner, 71, developer of Atlantis, is indifferent to the beauty of his property’s extensive waterfront. He tells me that when he first saw Paradise Island in the 1990’s, when he was considering the purchase of a hotel group that was then in a steep decline, he gazed on the pellucid waters and the long expanses of white sand and thought, “I'll bring the ocean into the resort.” In other words, he wasn’t simply going to build a beach resort, he was going to build a resort that was about the beach.
I’ve come to Atlantis specifically to experience a newly unveiled section of the resort, a complex of rides and attractions called Aquaventure. As described in a breathless press release, this “unprecedented 63-acre waterscape” sounds spectacular: waterslides; a river ride with rapids and “wave surges"; and special effects. Guests will ride inner tubes “propelled along by water escalators, waves, and Master Blaster technology…guests never have to leave the water as they are propelled back up the slide tower via water conveyors.” I picture Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, except with swimsuits.
On the way to Aquaventure, I stumble on the Predator Tunnel, a sealed acrylic walkway right through a lagoon stocked with large, fierce-looking fish: sharks, barracudas, and enormous manta rays. As I watch their white bellies slide smoothly over the top of the tunnel, I begin to ponder Kerzner’s approach to canned nature. What exactly is the appeal of all this artificial landscape? Why do people flock to it? Before long I arrive at a tall boxy building—the Power Tower—tricked out to look like a Gothic cathedral, or rather, the way a Gothic cathedral might look in a Nintendo game.
I notice people floating in tubes in a man-made river beside the building, so I wade in, grab a tube, and go. I bob along, looking up at the smooth, dirt-colored concrete banks of the faux river, past ersatz coves and beaches. Background music wafts from hidden speakers. As I float along, I decide that what artificial nature offers that the real thing can’t is instant grat-ification. The Current, as this “river” is called, is as easy to use as a TV or a Game Boy. I can just jump into an alternate reality and stay as long as I find it amusing. When I get bored, I can hop out and find some other form of entertainment.