Sunday, January 25, 2009

Paradise Remembered

As I sit here shivering, on a frigidly cold January evening, I longingly recall this beautiful island I had the pleasure of visiting last fall. Crystal blue waters, brilliant under the hot sun. Palm trees swaying under a cloudless sky. Gentle waves lapping across white sand beaches. Hibiscus fluttering in the warm breeze. Sound like paradise to you? Well, maybe because it is. Paradise Island, that is.

Some 60 miles off the coast of South Florida, Paradise Island is one of the 700 islands that make up the Bahamas, and one of 30 of which have permanent residents. And on this perfect little island you’ll find Atlantis. No, not the legendary lost continent of an ancient civilization. But probably as close to it as you can get in this modern age. With a few modifications, of course. Like a casino, a waterpark and a resort.

When our cruise ship, the Disney Wonder, docked at Nassau, I asked the excursions desk what was the fastest way to get to Paradise Island. I was told a water taxi would be the fastest. While this is technically correct once the water taxi actually moves, what I learned was a water taxi is essentially a small passenger boat that needs to be full before it makes the 10 minute journey to the island. After waiting an hour, we were finally on our way. Treated to entertaining tidbits of information by a captain who looked a lot like Chris Tucker with dreadlocks and a Bahamian lilt, we learned some of the vacation home owners of Paradise Island were Mick Jagger and Nicolas Cage, and that the house between their two properties was for sale for a mere 25 million dollars.

Once on Paradise Island, we enjoyed a 10 minute walk that took us past a few enterprising vendors and into Marina Village a small shopping plaza that houses high-end boutiques. When we spotted luxurious yachts, we knew our destination was near.

Atlantis, Paradise Island is the flagship resort of Kerzner International, an international developer and operator of destination resorts, casinos and luxury hotels. This unique, ocean-themed destination features a variety of accommodations, all built around a 97-acre waterscape comprised of over 20 million gallons of fresh and saltwater lagoons, pools and habitats.

Atlantis is a breathtaking resort from a distance. Up close it’s even more fascinating. Upon entering the hotel, we were greeted by a towering display of hand-blown glass crystals soaring over 20 feet in the air. The Crystal Gate is one of four Dale Chihuly creations that Sol Kerzner commissioned for the resort. As we made our way to the Royal Tower where we were to meet our guide, I tried to take in as much of the lavish surroundings as I could.

I sensed more than saw the world class gaming rudiments of table games and slot machines, because my eyes were drawn to the visual extravagance of the casino. The chimes and jingles of a thousand slot machines were muted, the interplay between dealer and gamblers hushed by the airy architecture that brings the outdoors in with skylights and windows, very atypical for a casino.

I spent much of my time looking up, entranced by the brilliance of the glass scultptures atop the Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon and the Atlantis Chandelier, a 900-element sculpture animated by crystal sea life. Upon arriving at the extravagant lobby of the Royal Tower, we were treated to one of the most incredible collaborations of art and architecture as we admired an artist’s larger than life depiction of the legend of Atlantis that rounded the lobby.

Home to the largest open-air marine habitat in the world – second only to Mother Nature – there are over 50,000 marine animals in lagoons and displays, including The Dig, a maze of underwater corridors and passageways providing a journey through ancient Atlantis. Day visitors can purchase an educational tour as expert “navigators” guide them through the wondrous civilization recreated in impressive detail with well-preserved artifacts, hieroglyphics and partially submerged archealogical sites.

Last year, Atlantis unveiled AQUAVENTURE, a non-stop water experience consisting of thrilling new water slides, a mile-long river ride with high intensity rapids and wave surges, and never-before-seen special effects. Bobbing lazily in a float tube with nothing but blue skies above, it was easy to lose track of time and wish for the possibility of never having to leave the island. A word of warning: even the not-so-fair-skinned need to be aware of generously applying and re-applying waterproof sunscreen.

Also opened in early 2007, was the resort’s dolphin interaction and education center, Dolphin Cay, created with the goal of enlightening visitors about the wonders of these remarkable ocean inhabitants. The 14-acre habitat is one of the largest and most sophisticated of its kind. Swimming with dolphins is something everyone must do at least once in their lives. The Atlantis’ Dolphin Cay invites you to take part in the dolphins’ playful shallow water antics or experience their speed and agility first-hand in the deeper waters. You’ll meet a friendly family of dolphins, some who were rescued after Hurricane Katrina devastated their home at the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport Mississippi.

The Cove Atlantis, a new 600-room resort, opened in March 2007, features oversized rooms with a step down living space, spectacular designs by acclaimed interior architects Jeffrey Beers and David Rockwell, unprecedented services and amenities, private all-adult and family pools, lavish cabanas and breathtaking views of the ocean. Atlantis is also known as the culinary destination in The Caribbean with a collection of restaurants from world-renowned chefs including Nobu Matsuhisa, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Bobby Flay and Angelo Elia. The resort boasts an impressive collection of luxury boutiques and shops and the largest conference center, meeting and convention facilities in The Caribbean.

For its magnificence, Atlantis is very much a family destination. The savvy traveler can find a lot of excellent deals, especially in the off-season. For those who fear hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through November 30, the friendly taxi-driver who took us back to our ship (we were smarter this time, no water-taxi return ride) clued us in on the fact that Nassau is essentially surrounded by the other islands, Andros to its west, Eleuthera to its east, which take the brunt of the storms, while Nassau stays nice and dry. The lifelong resident said he’s experienced only one bad storm in his young life and essentially it was “just a lot of rain.”

As for this traveler, while I’d seen enough travel shows and read enough travel books and magazines to know I’d find breathtaking sights and delight in perfect weather on my first trip to the Bahamas, I did not know I’d find Paradise. Atlantis, Paradise Island, that is, which is definitely on my “revisit” list, sunburn and all.