My best guess is that Atlantis is a direct result of Sol Kerzner’s own complex relationship with nature. When he built Sun City, an apartheid-era complex in Bophuthat-swana, one of South Africa’s puppet states, where casinos and adult entertainment—illegal in South Africa—were permitted, he threw in a 62-acre fake jungle. “Yes, but that was real,” Kerzner insists. “It was the reality of a rain forest. You’d feel the climatic change.” At Mohegan Sun, the casino he developed in Connecticut, the dazzling décor by the Rockwell Group is supposed to “evoke traditional tribal life.” What this means is that traditional timber construction, flowers, animal skins, and feathers are all used in ways that are much, much larger than life.
Similarly, Atlantis isn’t natural; it’s the antithesis of an eco-resort. It’s all about surrogates: Godzilla-size sea horses appear to hold up portions of the Royal Towers, metallic snakes form the railways of the Lagoon Bar, and everywhere there are huge aquariums and waterways stocked with the most astonishing sea life. One afternoon, I am idly strolling a path that traces the edge of a lagoon and look over and notice a hammerhead shark swimming furiously in tight circles.
Those sharks, no doubt, are real. The tourists, I'm pretty sure, are real. But if the fish swimming through the submerged lost-city streetscape of the Royal Towers’ giant tanks are in an artificial environment on that side of the glass, so are the human beings on this side. Our experiences in this resort are as controlled as the fishes’.
The appetite for contrived environments and their easy pleasures is surely on the rise in the early 21st century, but the fashion for phony terrain is nothing new. It goes way back. King Charles VII, for instance, the Spanish ruler of Naples, built an estate called Caserta in the 1750’s that featured a series of elaborate fountains of gods and sea creatures arranged along a flamboyant cascade, the Baroque equivalent of the Current. And Versailles, with its carefully manipulated sight lines, its painstakingly landscaped greenery, its immense canal system, and sculpted figures everywhere, could be read as the template for Atlantis. Certainly it’s still the gold standard for those who want to improve on nature. As architectural historian Siegfried Giedion writes of Louis XIV, the builder of Versailles, “The notion of mastering nature, forcer la nature, fascinated the King.” Likewise, forcer la nature fascinates Kerzner.
What you'll notice at Atlantis if you pay attention is a tableau representing the past half-century or so of resort-hotel architecture. The older buildings, the Coral and Beach Towers that Kerzner reopened under the Atlantis name in 1994, are boxy, plain-as-dough hotels built by Resorts International in the 1960’s. They date from a period when the Hilton chain’s enthusiasm for clean corporate Modernism dominated the industry. Kerzner razed an equally unadorned 1970’s Holiday Inn to make way for the Royal Towers, which opened for business in 1998 and perfectly reflects its decade’s mania for “entertainment architecture” as exemplified by Steve Wynn’s reinvention of Las Vegas. It’s all overstatement and spectacle.
This spring, however, Atlantis entered the New Age when it premiered the Cove. From the outside, the hotel resembles the Royal Towers, all coral pink with oddball turrets. But inside it’s modern chic à la South Beach and cutting-edge Las Vegas. The porte cochère here is designed not as a gateway to a fish tank–filled fantasy world but as a framing device for a view of the actual ocean. “The money shot is right through here,” the Cove’s general manager, John M. Conway, says, gesturing to a perfect rectangle of blue.
The Cove’s palette is restrained: lots of teak, lots of iridescent mother-of-pearl, and quiet decorative touches, like the perforated copper siding edging the open kitchen at the Mesa Grill. In the guest rooms, even the bathtubs have spectacular water views. The Cove is designed to attract exactly the sort of sophisticates who would snub Atlantis proper. Reality, of a sort, is back in fashion.