Over the years, I have kissed a lot of things in my quest for a good story – Ireland’s Blarney Stone; my luck goodbye in Las Vegas and shipboard casinos; terra firma after returning wobbly-kneed from the Sydney Harbor Bridge climb. But nothing I’ve ever kissed in the line of duty has given me as much pleasure as smacking lips with Katrina, a 6-year-old dolphin at Atlantis Resort’s Dolphin Cay.
Katrina’s name is an homage to her mother, one of 16 dolphins rescued by the resort from the Gulfport, Mississippi Oceanarium after Hurricane Katrina demolished the building, sending its residents into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, Katrina and her mother Sheree are both part of the Dolphin Experience here at Atlantis. Visitors, after being briefed on what is and isn’t polite behavior around the aquatic mammals, can give them high-fives, rub their bellies and yes, even kiss them.
A RESORT LIKE NO OTHER
The fabled island of Atlantis was first mentioned by Plato in an allegorical work describing its attack on Athens, the philosopher’s ideal state. In the work “Timaeus,” the angry gods punished Atlantis for its hubris by submerging it in the Atlantic Ocean.
In 1998, the gods finally relented and Atlantis re-emerged on the other side of the Atlantic in the form of an ocean-themed resort combining six hotels, 21 restaurants, 19 bars, 11 pools (plus miles of dazzling white beach), casino, shopping, and an assortment of activities ranging from tubing on a man-made river to kissing Katrina and her kin.
All of this surrounds the piece de resistance – a 141-acre waterscape of pools and palms, lagoons and lush tropical foliage. It’s safe to say that Atlantis, like its namesake island, has an identity like no other.
Perhaps the most spectacular feature of the resort is The Dig, an architectural rendering of the submerged continent of Atlantis. Located just off the main lobby of the Royal Tower, the Dig is a series of mazelike pathways lined by glass-walled aquariums featuring marine life.
That marine life ranges from the fearsome (six-foot moray eels, piranhas, poisonous jellyfish) to the benign (starfish, seahorses and black and yellow clownfish), all showcased against a backdrop of reconstructed temple columns, cenotes and colorful pottery and statues.
I found myself coming here every day to see the shimmering aquaria, and decided my favorite time was at night when I frequently had it all to myself.
On my only previous visit to Atlantis a few years back, I was a bit of a daredevil – trying several of the thrill-a-minute water experiences – the most thrilling of which was tubing through a dark cavern and ending up in a tank filled with hammerhead and Caribbean reef sharks. It really wasn’t as dangerous as it sounds since I was actually encased in a glass cylinder that prevented me from being chum for the circling sharks. Still, it is a bit unnerving to come out of inky blackness and see sharks and barracudas swimming just inches away.
This time I decided on more sedentary pursuits. First up was a treatment at the resort’s Mandara Spa. The spa building resembles a Balinese temple (not surprising as the company was founded in Bali) with gorgeous water and plant-filled public spaces and 32 treatment rooms.
The name Mandara comes from an ancient legend about the gods’ quest to find a special elixir that promises immortality and eternal youth. I’m not sure about the immortality part, but their line of Elemis products and treatments that combine the techniques of Asia with natural fruits, spices and minerals from the Bahamas go a long way to making one feel rejuvenated and youthful.
If there’s one thing I love as much as a good spa treatment, it’s a good meal, and that’s easy to find at Atlantis. My first evening’s dining adventure was at Bimini Road. This colorful, casual spot in the Marina Village is where, as they like to say, you can “savor the flavor of Caribbean life.”
Seafood is the star attraction, and regardless of what else you order, try the island staple, conch chowder. (I would highly recommend the pineapple bread pudding as well).
If I started out casual, I ended up classy – at Cafe Martinique. James Bond fans will recognize it from its cameo in the 1965 film “Thunderball.” The luxury and ambience remain, but international chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has put his own stamp on the restaurant. Diners enjoy the classic French menu in a setting that features a dramatic mahogany staircase and etched glass windows.
During dinner, a parade of Junkanoo carnival dancers in elaborate attire wended their way past the large glass windows. Letting my imagination take flight, I decided the man in the black eye-patch bore more than a passing resemblance to Emilio Largo, Bond’s SPECTRE nemesis.
As much as I enjoyed Bimini Road and Cafe Martinique, my favorite dining experience was at 77 West, the resort’s newest fine-dining restaurant. The sophisticated setting and service may be reminiscent of Manhattan, but the menu is a compelling fusion of South American and Caribbean cuisine. Bahamian cracked lobster is a specialty of the house, as is duck and chorizo empanadas and for dessert, Dulce de leche cheesecake.
As for accommodations, many visitors opt for the Royal Tower due to its proximity to all the action – the Dig, casino and arcade of shops and restaurants. However, if you are looking for something quieter and oh-so-exclusive, book a suite at the Cove.
From the open-air lobby cooled by island breezes to the stellar service to the adults-only stretch of beach, the Cove can only be described in superlatives.
A DAY IN NASSAU
With everything available at Atlantis, it’s tempting not to stray off the property. However, it would be a shame not to spend at least a day in Nassau, just across the causeway.
If your time is limited, skip Bay Street. You will miss the rows of luxury and duty-free shops, but you will also miss the influx of cruise ship passengers who make a leisurely stroll on the street next to impossible.
I started off my day with an excursion to John Watling’s, a craft distillery that provides an excellent way to learn about the production of rum, the Bahamas’ signature spirit.
It’s located on the Buena Vista Estate, built for King George III’s counsel to the Bahamas (although the distillery itself was named for a less savory character – John Watling was a notorious 18th century British buccaneer).
The free daily tour takes in the production area, shop and tavern where visitors indulge in rum tastings and hear tales of two ghosts that allegedly roam the estate.
After fueling myself with a Goombay Smash, suggested by Shawn the barman, I took a short walk to Graycliff for a leisurely lunch. Nowhere is the romance of old Nassau as alive as it is here. Built in 1740 by a pirate (are you sensing a theme here – that piracy paid handsomely in the Bahamas?), it is today a combination boutique hotel and elegant restaurant, and also has a chocolate shop, cigar bar and museum on the premises.
I started with a tour of the impressive wine cellar, said to be the third largest private collection in the world with 275,000 bottles, 60 percent of which are French. One shelf alone contains wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux valued at more than a million dollars. Just for the record, the cellar also holds the oldest registered bottle of wine in the world (1727) – a German dessert wine.
I will say the after-effects of my Goombay Smash made me more than usually cautious as I didn’t want to do any smashing of my own – not with wines priced at six and seven figures.
I opted for a considerably less pricy vintage to go with my excellent lunch of the ubiquitous conch chowder, Bahamian smothered grouper with rice and peas and guava duff, a local specialty that resembles a jelly roll, served with rum sauce and whipped cream.
After a satisfying day, I was ready to head back to Atlantis, confident that it hadn’t slipped back into the sea.