The near vertical plunge on the ‘Leap of Faith’ waterslide elicits a shrill scream, though this is nothing to the scream I suppress on seeing the price of wine in Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant in the Atlantis resort.
A 2014 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc costs 990 Dirham. That’s $395 for a $35-bottle of Kiwi wine. As Ramsay himself might say: are you havin’ a larf?
Atlantis, The Palm is eight years old, but it’s still a prominent – indeed famous – landmark on Dubai’s extraordinary coast.
The ‘Atlantis’ bit refers to the 1539-room mega-resort that submerges guests in the mythology of a lost city. ‘The Palm’ is what Atlantis sits on, a $US12-billion palm-shaped island reclaimed from the Persian Gulf. Underpinning both is a layer of oil-rich limestone called ‘Arab D’.
The marine habitat at the Atlantis is stocked with thousands of marine animals
Dubai is one of the seven Emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates, and on this, my first visit, I meet precisely two citizens of the UAE. One stamps my passport on the way in. The other stamps my passport on the way out.
They’re fine-featured and handsome men, dressed in spotless white dishdashas and wearing headdresses encircled with black cord.
From here I am delivered into the lost city of Atlantis and that’s pretty much where I stay for the next three days. Feeling lost.
Suites cost from $610 to $52,000 per night (the ‘Bridge Suite’ is fabled as the world’s most expensive) and in keeping with this theme, the Atlantis lobby is very splashy indeed. A cathedral of glassy, undersea colour, it gurgles and glitters, the columned roof features murals of the ancients.
Some 3000 staff from over 80 countries work here; most of them are hard-working Indians and Pakistanis, the people who do the great bulk of menial jobs in a country where, for every native Emirati, there are nine expats.
Atlantis hosts 5000 guests, and they too are from all corners: the modern genius of the UAE has been to build Emirates Airlines, strike meaningful alliances (Qantas is a partner) and reinvent Dubai as the default crossroads for airborne nomads.
So the lobby is filled with people in Italian suits, Saudi chadors and even German lederhosen. And yes, around the resort’s pools and white sand beach, there’s also swimwear, since the UAE has special moral dispensations for its resorts.
I expect the guests to be bling-tastic, but aside from some conspicuously expensive iPhone covers, I mostly see moderately cashed-up families with kids, plus at least two Brits on a stopover who gallantly admit they’re “trying not to think about the cost”.
It’s a wise course. Unless you’re sitting on your own bed of Arab D, all you can do is hold your breath and jump in.
Clearly, Plato’s original story of Atlantis (a city sunk by angry Greek gods) wasn’t enough for the resort’s original owner, the South African Kerzner group.
Other submariner tropes have been borrowed including Roman god Neptune, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and even some ‘Alien’-like set design with a nod to sci-fi and Jules Verne.
Of course there’s also fish.
Beneath the towering 23-floor edifice is a demimonde of brand-name shopping (Tiffany, Omega, Longines), restaurants, and a series of eight-metre tall windows. Guests stand before these glass panels of turquoise light, peering up at a water ballet of manta rays, reef sharks and silvery schools that twinkle like slowly-turning chandeliers.
Consider that Sydney has one of the world’s largest aquariums housing some 13,000 fish; now consider Atlantis has 65,000. It’s not only beautiful, it’s mind-boggling.
A behind-the-scenes tour reveals a small hangar filled with 45 car-sized filters ensuring the water stays poop-free and crystal-clear. There’s also a fish hospital, and a fish kitchen serving everything from home-grown plankton to special bloodless fodder for the 28 sharks.
I spend a lot of time walking past the sublime undersea vistas, mostly on the way to some of the 23 Atlantis restaurants. Some are branded with princely names like Ramsay and Nobu, while the stylish Chinese restaurant Yuan serves me the best Chinese food I’ve ever eaten. The entry level restaurant Kaleidoscope is also very good; and ‘entry level’ equates to $80 per head for the buffet dinner.
Leaving the underground chambers I find myself in Aquaventure, the hotel’s 42-acre water park. This has also been developed around a lost city theme, with Mayan ziggurats linked by many kilometres of water slides and lazy rivers and its own shark tank (through which I shoot in an acrylic tube after plunging from the Leap of Faith). Entry to Aquaventure is free to guests and it’s a lot of fun.
At the sea lion pool and dolphin marina, guests can have intimate animal encounters. As part of a group of five, I have a half-hour ($220) Dolphin Encounter with Lilly. When we lay hands on the 120kg mammal she’s soft, even a little squidgy. At whistles from her trainer, she waves, cackles, dances and puckers-up for kisses with each of us.
I do as I’m bid to interact with ‘my dolphin’ while a photographer shoots endlessly. And hard as I try to enjoy it, all I can hear is British comic Joyce Grenfell sending up the ladies of the Women’s Institute who gild beechnuts: “We take nature’s gifts and make them even more lovely…” I politely decline the $27 photo of me kissing Lilly’s beak. I certainly don’t want the album of dolphin memories for $830.
The closest I get to a real marine environment is Atlantis beach and ‘real’ is a stretch. Atlantis sits on an outer-most ring encircling Palm Island, looking back onto reclaimed ‘fronds’ that are still being filled with apartments. The sand is whiter than I expect, the Gulf water is cleaner than I expect, and the view onto a walloping construction-zone is like nothing I could ever expect of a five-star island retreat.
At night I take the lift up to my eighth floor suite. Rooms are spacious, thickly carpeted and well-appointed. They’re more restrained than the public areas, except for the neo-Greco-Roman bathrooms which are round with deep, standalone bathtubs at the centre. All suites have a huge balcony; mine looks down onto the main half-acre tank turning slowly with its sharks and manta rays.
But while the view extends all the way to those other monuments of Arab modernity – the Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa – the truth is I feel like I’m in a bubble. So I grab a taxi to The Creek, the original heart of the old fishing town that was Dubai before petro-dollars did their thing in 1972. Though no less touristy, it’s still a working quarter, a frenetic estuary lined with huge wooden dhows, sharp-looking luxury launches. The air smells of diesel smoke and rings to the cries of angry gulls.
A 40-cent ‘abra’ boat ride chugs me to the mud-walled quarters of a district called Bastakiya where I have a $2 coffee in the courtyard of a gorgeous contemporary art gallery called ‘Make’. I chat with a young Indian undergrad about how it’s virtually impossible for expats – many of whom were born here – to become citizens of the UAE. The gallery carries expat art which is distinct and surprisingly whimsical for people who can be deported ‘back’ to places they never actually came from. The afternoon is one of substance, aesthetics and simple pleasures.
Of course if you want substance, aesthetics or simple pleasures you don’t go to Atlantis – just like you don’t go to Las Vegas or Disneyland. But at least Vegas has a sense of self-parody. And at least Disneyland has a cultural legacy, one that the park designers actually understand.
On my last night in Atlantis, I leave the door open to my balcony. All Muslims must be within earshot of the muezzin as he calls the faithful to five daily prayers, including the first at 5am. His is an ancient, powerful song, but at dawn I hear nothing because the lost city of Atlantis is far, far removed from everything remotely Middle Eastern.
For the resort’s Arab owners, for its foreign guests and perhaps for you, too, I guess that’s the point. The question is this: would you like wine with that?