Atlantis: Plunging into paradise

  • Article by: KERRI WESTENBERG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 17, 2011 - 12:51 PM

At Atlantis Paradise Island, an impressive resort in the Bahamas, beware of a deluge of expenses amid a watery world of fun.

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My daughter circled the sun, bobbing around the yellow mosaic tile work at the bottom of the pool. Everywhere in the Royal Baths, the water was no deeper than 3 feet, which meant that my 9-year-old could touch the bottom wherever she happened to float.

I felt no need to play lifeguard. My iced coffee was within arm's reach. A newspaper, unopened, lay at the foot of the lounge chair. I closed my eyes, preparing to take my own dive, not into water but deep relaxation, the tropical kind that leaves you sweating, listless and absolutely blissful.

That's when I heard the shriek.

A woman was racing down the Leap of Faith -- a near-vertical slide that starts at the top of a mock Mayan temple and shoots riders in a clear tube through shark-infested waters -- and she was screaming all the way. A few minutes later, another daredevil, another cry; the rhythm kept up all day and soon was nothing more than background noise, like the squawk of an insistent bird.

Complete relaxation was not in the cards for me at Atlantis Paradise Island, and I never should have dreamed it was. The resort, on a spit of land called Paradise Island near the Bahamas' capital city of Nassau, is designed to recall the mythic lost city of Atlantis. It boasts a 141-acre, open-air water park with two rivers, including a mile-long version with rapids and rolling waves, 18 water slides and so many swimming pools that visitors can choose a different one each day for nearly two weeks.

The resort also has more than a dozen marine habitats that show off the likes of clown fish, sea turtles, starfish and sharks. There's "Atlantis Pals," where you can create a keepsake stuffed animal, a pottery place, a Caribbean cottage-styled shopping complex and a movie theater. Given all the enticing options, my daughter and I were often on the run -- or plunging down a slide.

More quiet, grown-up pleasures include a spa, a posh hotel with an adults- only pool, restaurants by big-name chefs and a golf course. Parents can drop their children at a variety of kids' clubs if they want to partake. I left those experiences to others, except for the shortcut to dinner through the casino, where even the cigarette smoke didn't stop my daughter from pausing to ogle the slots with their whirling fruit, flashing lights and chiming bells. You have to marvel at anyone who might go to Atlantis and leave richer.

Deals and dolphins entice

I was at the resort because last winter, banner ads kept popping up on my computer: Atlantis was offering a free airline seat for a companion! The fourth night for free! The fourth night for free plus two free dolphin experiences! The deals keep coming, by the way. Book by Dec. 26, and you can get -- you guessed it -- the fourth night free and up to $400 in airfare credit.

The dolphins finally did me in. My daughter had long wanted to frolic with her favorite marine mammal. More important, I had grown increasingly intrigued by the onslaught of offerings. I knew the resort was huge. With six distinct hotels in a range of prices, it has an abundance of rooms to fill. I also surmised that the economic downturn had left plenty of vacancies. But were the deals actual bargains?

A freebie frolic with a dolphin certainly is, but we still spent boatloads of money. An average of $160 a day flew out of my wallet (or rather, was garnered with a swipe of my room key, making purchases a bit more mindless) -- and that was beyond the $1,000 cost of the room. Granted, we declined the gratis fourth night, so we packed a lot of souvenir buying into three days. And vacationers looking for a more predictable price can sign up for a meal plan (see sidebar). But for us, the $20 breakfasts at Starbucks (two drinks, two muffins and fruit), the snorkeling equipment rental, the pricey dinners and the sundry sunglasses and stuffed-animal purchases added up.

"We waited in line 30 minutes for dinner last night. When we finally got to our seat, we learned it was $49 [each] for the two of us and $25 for the kids," a mother of three from Charlotte told me on the beach after my daughter and I ventured beyond the man-made watery world to soak up God's real thing, the gorgeous, salty Atlantic.

That mom and I bemoaned the long marches to dinner on the tangle of walkways between hotels. We clucked about the costs. She warned me that if you want photos of your child cuddling a dolphin -- and who doesn't? -- it'll cost you $60 for the basic package and more than $200 for one that includes photos and a CD of all images snapped by the resort photographer. That's because you are forbidden from carrying your own camera into the water for the dolphin experience, even if you are only wading thigh-deep.

Then, after the laments, my newfound friend said, "Still, we're very happy here."

"Yeah, we are, too," I said, gazing over the aquamarine water.

I decided that the resort lures visitors with giveaways, but gets their money anyway. And frankly, I am glad the tactic worked with me.

I had far more fun than I had imagined I would, riding the swells on the river in a double inner tube beside my squealing girl, racing down slides and diving into ocean waves.

Passages among the fishes

It was not just easy access to the Atlantic, or the impeccably groomed grounds, or the riotous water park that made me like Atlantis so much. It was also the remarkable marine life, which Atlantis features almost everywhere.

A ray flipped up a wing, as if to welcome us, even before we checked into our room at the Royal Towers hotel. The main lobby is open to the lower level, where expansive windows offer views of an ocean's worth of fish as part of a display known as the Dig.

That aquatic showcase plays up the lost-city theme with grouper, sharks and other species gliding among imaginary Atlantis ruins. The Dig also holds special tanks for venomous lionfish, seahorses, jellyfish and moray eels, among other looky fish. The lighting is dim, the hallways are maze-like and the ruins have mysterious petroglyphs, so you feel as though you're on an underwater expedition. The great find is not the lost city, but the amazing, graceful creatures of the ocean. We spent hours there.

The next day, after paddleboarding in the calm lagoon, my daughter and I grabbed lunch at an open-air restaurant that overlooks a shark pool. The meal was nice, but the best treat came afterward, when we headed downstairs to the powder room.

There again we found walls of windows for up-close views of marine life. Then we rounded a corner and came upon an arched, acrylic-covered walkway, as long as a football field, with the predators swimming overhead. The experience was probably the closest I'll ever come to scuba diving. My daughter liked it almost as much as the puffer fish pond near our hotel.

On our last full day at Atlantis, we walked to Dolphin Cay, a man-made environment filled with seawater and dolphins. We joined a group of 10 others, shimmied into wet suits, watched a video about dolphins and finally headed into the water to meet our pal.

The trainer told us a bit about dolphins, pointing out that the film over its eyes protects it from saltwater and sun (so "don't touch it!"). Then it was playtime. We got to hug and kiss the bottlenose, feed it and watch it twirl and jump with other dolphins in a grand finale show, culminating in a goodbye wave of flippers.

The experience was a microcosm of Atlantis itself: a tad expensive (I couldn't resist the photos), entirely wonderful and over much too soon.

Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282

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