Islands 2005

Taking the Plunge at Atlantis

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005

For the past decade, a 45-acre enclave hugging the ocean near Nassau has served double duty as a faux lost underwater empire. It holds the grandest casino in the Bahamas (and the rest of the Caribbean), a garden of lush tropical fauna and exotic sealife, and a water park with thrills at every corner.

When the Atlantis resort and casino opened in 1994 on Paradise Island, across the harbor from the Bahamian capital, it instantly became one of the splashiest destinations in the islands. But 10 years is a lifetime in the travel world, where changing tastes can be the death knell for the Next Big Thing.

As a traveler who knows a thing or two about deluxe resorts, I was curious about how this AAA four-diamond property -- where the cheapest winter rate is $360 a night -- has fared. And, more important, how does it compare with other top-ranked island destinations where I've stayed? Did it offer the hop-to-it service of Jamaica's Half Moon, where a personal butler and cook stood at my ready? Would its amenities match the Bose compact disc player and orchid-infused lotions in my room at Barbados's Sandy Lane? Would it rock with the kind of theme parties staged nightly at Moon Palace in Cancun?

A three-day stay earlier this month gave me a chance to find out.

Atlantis got an easy "A" in the looks test. Even the most jaded travelers are awed by the coral facade of turrets, spires and columns that towers like a Brobdingnagian sandbox over tiny Paradise Island. The 70-foot domed gilded rotunda, sculpted pillars and marble floors made the lobby of the Royal Towers, the most popular of the three main buildings, one of the most dazzling hotel foyers I've seen. Small wonder this is a favorite getaway for stars like Oprah Winfrey.

My room, alas, was less impressive. It was spacious enough, with a king-size bed, 36-inch television and sea-foam carpeting. But the special touches that transform a place to sleep into an experience -- high-thread-count sheets, top-drawer bath amenities, designer furniture, top-quality mattresses -- were more three-star standard than five-star premier.

But the view! My 16th-floor double overlooked an alluring sweep of palms, lagoons, swimming pools and, beyond, the ocean. To behold that scene in the orange dawn or blue light of early evening made the $550 cost of an ocean view room worth it.

After a day on-site, I had the sensation that I was on a gargantuan land-locked cruise ship. Like most ships, the Atlantis provides a daily schedule listing activity options, from nature walks and ping-pong tournaments to tennis clinics and poolside escapades. Off-site excursions include walking tours of downtown Nassau and catamaran trips, all for additional fees. There's also a shiplike range of dining options, including 35 restaurants, bars and cafes. Entertainment venues include a comedy club and a posh nightclub.

Unlike a Carnival cruise, however, this getaway charges extra for almost everything, save for access to the beach, pools, cinema and aquariums. Buffet breakfast in the Marketplace came to $24, including mandatory tip. The health club costs $15 a day, and a 50-minute massage at the Mandara spa was $109. A martini in Plato's, the lobby bar, went for $8.05. Parking a little one at the Discovery Channel Camp, which arranges activities, runs $79 a day.

And yet, on a weekday earlier this month, the 2,300-room resort was booked solid. Young families with a toddler or two were everywhere. But there were others -- couples in search of a romantic escape, business execs and a few solo travelers.

The crowds probably explain why the hotel's staff, while cordial, was rarely personable. Jeremie Debomy, down from Miami with his wife for a few days, didn't mask his disappointment. "The service was not really what I expected. . . . The staff seemed so nonchalant," he said. "It was okay, but I doubt I'll be back."

Others differed. Ellen Elson, a Pittsburgh business executive, was pleased. "Having a place with so many things to do is perfect," she said. "We can drop the 4-year-old off at the Discovery Camp for the day. Our teenager can glide down as many slides as he wants. And we can hang at the pool."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company