At the newly expanded Bahamas resort Atlantis, Karrie Jacobs dives in to explore the latest in a long line of water-themed landscape entertainments
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.
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.
It’s still artifice, of course. But imitation rivers and wave-generators seem more exotic than the cheerful sophistication manufactured by interior designers Jeffrey Beers and David Rockwell for the Cove. I mean, who do you call when you need a fake river? Where does artificial nature come from? The ancients—the real ancients, that is—had river gods, such as Tiber and Arno. And if this were, say, the 16th century, there would be in-house fontanieri—"fountaineers.” In the Baroque era, when there were no electric motors to run pumps, making the myriad fountains at an estate like Villa d’Este work required incredible strategic skills. According to Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, author of Landscape Design, the fontanieri were “virtuosic hydraulic engineers with an understanding of metaphysics as well as physics, and a reputation akin to that of magicians because of the ingenuity of their creations.” Who, then, are the fontanieri of Atlantis?
One morning I go for a walk with Mark R. Gsellman, whose business card says he’s senior vice president and general manager of marine and water-park operations. He tells me he’s been in the theme-park business since he was 17 and reels off a string of names: Discovery Cove, Seaworld, Boardwalk & Baseball.… It could be the résumé of a 21st-century fontaniere, although Gsellman doesn’t come across as metaphysical. At Atlantis, he’s in charge of making sure that Aquaventure’s three-million-gallon system is up and running every day. “This rapid is sixty thousand gallons a minute at the top,” Gsellman says as we walk past a bucket-brigade line of employees tossing freshly inflated inner tubes into the water. “It’s eighty thousand at the rapids. How you start that up takes a little sophistication.” He takes me inside the Power Tower and shows me a room full of plumbing where all the water that runs through the Current is chlorinated, ozonated, warmed, and filtered. Four waterslides also emerge from this building, and so many huge green pipes—each big enough to hold a large adult with inner tube—emerge from it that it could be an oil refinery.
After my behind-the-scenes tour, I jump on a tube and float to the Power Tower along a slow, narrow tributary that leads to a long, steep, rubberized conveyer belt carrying a line of tubes and riders, like products on an assembly line, up to the top of the tower. The experience is more Rube Goldberg than Fritz Lang. The conveyer belt stops a lot on the way up—traffic—and as our queue of people in bathing suits sit in the temporarily beached tubes, we can hear screams emanating from the big green pipes next to us. Once at the summit, we pop off the conveyer belt one by one and float into a holding area designed a bit like a highway interchange. You can take the first left and go down the gentlest slide, the Falls, or go around a long curve to the Drop (or you can pluck your tube out of the water and dash upstairs to the truly scary slide, the Surge). Taking Gsellman’s advice, I start with the Falls. And I discover that the disturbing part isn’t so much the steepness or the speed, but the fact that a large portion of the swift ride takes place in the dark. I find myself inside one of those green pipes spinning round and round in blackness.
It could be argued that the whole of water-ride history, more than 100 years’ worth, leads to this state-of-the-art moment. Louis XIV’s guests at Versailles placidly floated along his Grand Canal in gondolas. The first real waterslide was probably the Shoot-the-Chutes, introduced in the 1890’s at Coney Island, in which thrill seekers would ride down a steep watercourse in a simple wooden boat and end up in a lagoon. Amusement parks’ long flume rides came later, and since Orlando’s Wet 'n’ Wild opened in 1977, water parks have become increasingly popular. According to John Schooley, who has been in the business since 1980, and whose company designed the new Atlantis water features, “transportain-ment,” as he calls it, means that “pretty much the entire park is designed as one giant ride.”
Schooley informs me that I’ve got it backward. The true meaning of transportainment is that water parks have evolved beyond that isolated moment of raw fear. Now the thrill junkies can divert their tubes into the Power Tower, while those of us who think too much can just float along.
Actually, thinking too much might get in your way of fully enjoying Atlantis. For instance, how you feel about the word “transportainment” may be an indicator of how you'll respond to the theme-park ambience. Similarly, your philosophical position on artifice versus authenticity will determine how you regard the resort’s finest dining experience, Café Martinique.
In 1962, A&P heir Huntington Hartford turned the boathouse on his extensive Paradise Island property (where he recreated some of Versailles’s gardens) into a restaurant called Café Martinique and it became a local society hot spot. It was the setting for James Bond and Bond-girl Domino’s romantic dinner and dance in the 1965 movie Thunderball. Over the years, the café changed hands with the rest of the property, from Hartford to Resorts International to Donald Trump to Merv Griffin and finally, in the early 1990’s, to Kerzner.
"Café Martinique was the one place on the island where the standards were good,” Kerzner recalls. He adds, “I guess the place was pretty famous.” Unfortunately, Kerzner’s master plan called for a marina and there was no room for a ramshackle waterfront restaurant, even one with the imprimatur of James Bond, in his conceptual universe. The forcer la nature impulse, in Kerzner’s case, also plays out as forcer la man-made. “When we decided to build the marina, I talked to the prime minister and I told him that Café Martinique would come down,” Kerzner continues. “He was horrified. I promised to rebuild it.”
Indeed, he did. The new Café Martinique opened in early 2006 in Marina Village, an open-air shopping mall. The formally dressed doorman escorts diners into an antique birdcage elevator to a bar decorated in restrained French-colonial style. There’s no trace of the festive outdoor dining area depicted in Thunderball, but while waiting for your table you can sit on the balcony and check out the yachts moored in the marina. The big surprise is the genuine beauty of the dining room, designed by Adam Tihany. The lamplit space features exposed, whitewashed beams, holding up a steeply pitched roof. I have excellent peppered-crab dumplings, fresh local snapper, and crème brûlée. Somehow this reinvention of Paradise Island history is so compelling that I actually forget about the shopping mall downstairs. The restaurant—like the resort that surrounds it—is an enormously effective piece of art direction, a demonstration of the seductive power of artifice.
Karrie Jacobs is a T+L contributing editor.
Most major airlines fly directly to Nassau. Paradise Island is a 35-minute taxi ride away.
Where to Stay
Atlantis 1 Casino Dr., Paradise Island, the Bahamas; 888/528-7155 or 954/809-2100; www.atlantis.com; doubles from $329.
The Cove 1 Casino Dr., Paradise Island, the Bahamas; 877/268-3847; doubles from $575.
1550 Villa d’Este
Mythology-themed park near Rome with spectacular fountains, including this one by Bernini.
Designed by André Le Nôtre, the gardens are fed by a 120-mile-long network of canals.
1904 Coney Island
Before it was destroyed by a fire in 1911, Brooklyn’s Dreamland featured an indoor re-creation of Venice.
1977 Wet 'n’ Wild, Orlando
One of the first modern waterslide theme parks.
The hulking, coral-pink fantasy castle of the Bahamas’ only megaresort is visible from miles away (by land or sea); the towers don’t just dominate the Bahamian skyline, they are the skyline. In terms of size, glitz, and hype, billionaire developer Sol Kerzner’s property dwarfs every other in the commonwealth: the main resort has some 2,300 guest rooms, a massive casino, a 63-slip marina filled with luxury yachts, 40-odd restaurants and bars, and too many activities and entertainment options to count (did we mention the 63-acre waterpark?). It’s Disney on the Caribbean, and there are plenty of folks—especially families with kids, and even visiting high rollers like Michael Jordan and Britney Spears—who are just fine with that. Those wanting access to the snazziness without being in the middle of it will prefer The Cove Atlantis, a separate resort within the resort that opened in March 2007. The glamour here is lower-key, with 600 elegant, clean-lined suites (as opposed to the tropical whimsy that prevails at the main resort). The cavernous Mandara Spa, and the fact that no kids under 12 are permitted in certain areas, make this the one part of Atlantis where you’ll feel relaxed rather than dazzled.