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Dubai's aquatic oasis

Pink palace. Ziggurat. Giant aquarium. Atlantis, the Palm is like something out of an ancient myth. Only this Atlantis is a posh playground for the wealthy on the Arabian Peninsula.

March 08, 2009|Chris Vedelago

DUBAI — In the scorching deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, water is always precious, carefully rationed, never wasted. Possessing it separates life from death.

What a difference a few miles -- and bucket loads of money -- can make. At Atlantis, the Palm, Dubai's latest and possibly greatest luxury hotel to date, water is an ornament and a plaything. It flows in ridiculous, seemingly endless quantities, simply for the pleasure of it.

Anchoring the place is a three-story aquarium, with a surprisingly thin layer of glass separating me from 2.9 million gallons of water and the abundance of exotic and dangerous-looking marine life that swims by.

But that's saltwater. Just a short stroll away, the freshwater attractions start with two oasis-sized swimming pools. A few minutes beyond them is the entrance to Aquaventure, a 42-acre water park filled with slides and pools. And beyond that dolphins wait to swim with guests in an 11-acre saltwater enclosure.

Every luxury hotel is expected to have its share of pools and fountains -- and that would especially apply in a place that takes the mythological sunken island of Atlantis as its theme -- but here the water use is extravagant, considering that the United Arab Emirates relies on desalination for more than 70% of its freshwater supply.

But what's even more astonishing is that the entire site -- the hotel, even the land it sits on -- was more than 33 feet under the surface of the Persian Gulf eight years ago.

Today, the Atlantis holds the prime spot on the outer rim of the Palm Jumeirah, a man-made island that juts from the coast of Dubai.

Using 122.9 million cubic yards of sand and millions of tons of rock, the reclaimed land was fashioned into a palm tree-shaped island encircled by a massive habitable breakwater.

It's expected that the Palm Jumeirah will one day support 30 hotels, several marinas and shopping centers and tens of thousands of residents.

Two things about the Atlantis are immediately obvious as you drive up the "trunk" of the palm. The hotel is huge and very, very pink. It's just like its sister hotel in the Bahamas, Atlantis, Paradise Island, both of which are owned by South African property magnate Sol Kerzner.

Why pink? Well, it certainly makes it distinctive (read: an eyesore).

Built at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion, the 1,539-room Atlantis consists of two hotel-room towers, a conference center, a spa, a private beach and the water park. All told, it spans an area 85 times the size of a football field. The place is so large that a complimentary shuttle takes guests, most bearing maps, from one side to the other.

The Atlantis aims for the wow factor right from the start, with lush, terraced water gardens at the entry and an ornate, high-vaulted lobby. But it soon becomes clear that the Atlantis-theme aesthetics are taken way too far: decorative sea-creature carvings, shell engravings on the pillars, cartoon-like murals, a towering glass sculpture. It's like stepping onto the set of a live version of "The Little Mermaid."

Our room is refreshingly understated by comparison. An unsolicited upgrade gives us a spacious room on the top floor of the eastern Royal Tower, with a plush king-size bed and a shower head the size of a bread plate (more water -- delivering one of the strongest showers I've ever had). Sliding open a partition in the bathroom wall allows me to gaze over the Persian Gulf, in total privacy, while soaking in the tub.

All very nice, but not nearly as extravagant as what the hotel can offer.

The Neptune and Poseidon suites, which face that three-story aquarium, have private floor-to-ceiling underwater views from the bedrooms and bathrooms.

The super-rich can take the $25,000-a-night suite that spans the bridge connecting the Atlantis' two accommodation towers.

Breakfast proves to be the enjoyable challenge you find only at top-flight resorts, with an enormous buffet of the best and the freshest.

Packed with carbs, we're ready to experience Aquaventure, with more than 1.25 miles of water slides, streams and 6 1/2 -foot rapids drawing on about 4.7 million gallons of fresh, cold liquid gold.

At the center of the water park is a towering 98-foot-high ziggurat, the launching pad for half a dozen slides of varying degrees of scariness.

There's a near-vertical nine-story drop on the Leap of Faith and a gentle tube ride, both of which send you through tunnels in a shark-filled lagoon.

Surrounding the tower is a network of pools connected by meandering rivers and water escalators, meaning you almost never have to get off your inner tube.

Seeing everything takes hours.

That evening, we settle down to the best Middle Eastern meal I've ever had. The hotel's Lebanese restaurant, Levantine, is one of 11 casual and formal dining choices.

Calling the Atlantis over the top is as easy and as pointless as shooting fish in a barrel. Can a $1.5-billion Atlantis-themed hotel built on a man-made island be anything but?

The hotel is often garish, but the service is faultless. (Someone has even folded the towels into swans, with their necks arched together to form a heart.)

It's worth mentioning that about half of Atlantis' rooms and the pool and beach area face the "fronds" of the Palm Jumeirah, rather than the gulf.

This means you spend most of your time looking at row after row of assembly-line luxury villas, complete with a monorail system that cuts through the view like an open wound. But that's just the reality of a man-made island, I guess.

And, of course, there's the cost. One night at the hotel set us back $500, plus $144 for dinner at Levantine. Painfully expensive. But worth it, just this once.




If you go


In summer, rates as low as $245 a night.


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