I knew it was going to be hot. But like the Matrix you cannot describe extreme heat; you must experience it for yourself. And experience it I did as I stepped onto my balcony for the first time at the Atlantis Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. We had flown in rom London overnight and had transferred almost seamlessly from air-conditioned plane to air-conditioned airport to air-conditioned cab, to be driven up the spine of The Palm Jumeirah island to the air-conditioned hotel. But the temperature on my balcony was a whole other ballgame – over 40C and 80%+ humidity. My camera lens instantly misted over with condensation and rendered itself useless for a good 20 minutes. It was going to be a memorable weekend in more ways than one.
Im the interest of full disclosure must confess that I have always had a soft spot for Sol Kerzner’s over-the-top hotel visions. I practically grew up on the lawn of the spectacular Beacon Island Hotel in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, which was designed and built for Kerzner’s then-company Southern Sun Hotels. I also have an affection for the Palace of the Lost City (an astonishingly impressive and slightly bonkers hotel and leisure complex a couple of hours outside Johannesburg also built under his supervision as then-head of Sun International), as well as the Saint Geran and Le Touessrok hotels on the island of Mauritius, both of which were under his companies’ ownership for a considerable time. So given my past Kerzner hotel experiences, I already had a fair idea of what to expect from Kerzner International’s Atlantis resort on The Palm, Jumeirah island in Dubai: no expense spared, big, brash, unsubtle, but ultimately jaw-droppingly impressive… and I was not disappointed. Think Vegas redecorates the lost civilisation of Atlantis and you won’t be far wrong.
As you walk into the Grand Lobby, the sight that greets you is a 10m tall glass sculpture by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly, created using 3,000 pieces of handblown glass that were individually placed. I found it utterly mesmerising; less so the murals painted on the walls and arches around it. Decor-wise, the place is a little unsettling – rather like looking in a funhouse mirror and seeing an image that does not quite match what you were expecting to see. The basic premise (rather like that of the Palace of the Lost City) is that the resort is some sort of phoenix growing out of the ruins of a rediscovered Atlantean civilisation. This means there is rather a lot of fish and shellfish motifs and pieces of preturnaturally aged masonry in the aquariums, but confusingly also a shopping mall that would not be out of place in suburban California; a vaguely Balinese spa; a lot of strident turquoise and pinkish carpet in a scarily swirly pattern; and an entire building exterior painted the colour of smoked salmon with dark green trim. Eclectic.
My room (a Regal Suite) was considerably larger than my house. Seriously. Once you had taken into account the private lobby, the guest loo (!), the kitchen, the dining area, the study area, the lounge, the bar/kitchenette, the bedroom with seating area and kingsize bed, and the bathroom with two separate vanity slabs & basins, a free-standing spa bath (plus space left over for a chaise longue!), the shower room AND the walk-in dressing room, you were nearing 165 square metres – excluding the huge terrace overlooking one of the pools and the Palm island itself. And yes, all this space was for me and me alone! (The rate for August when I visited was about £700 per night for this suite).
After a quick breakfast at Kaleidoscope, our first engagement was a brief tour of the hotel, taking in the Avenues shopping mall, the huge conference facilities, the very impressive supervised kids’ entertainment area (my nephews would be in heaven) as well as the entertainment club for teens, the two enormous swimming pools, the serene ShuiQi luxury spa, a glance into some of the 17 restaurants, and a promise to return later to the Lost Chambers aquarium and the Aquaventure waterpark. The centrepiece of the hotel is the Ambassador Lagoon: an 11 million litre seawater tank housing (together with the Lost Chambers) as many different species as the London Aquarium. The best thing about it is that you can view the lagoon from giant double-volume windows in one of the lobbies of the hotel – literally a wall of aquarium window through which you can marvel at the sharks, rays and fish as they glide past, day and night. I was absolutely smitten.
The introductory tour was followed by lunch at Ronda Locatelli (previously blogged about here) and then it was time to go backstage at the Lost Chambers aquarium. We got to hear about the logistics of keeping all the fish in such a large aquarium alive, we got to help feeding the fish, and we visited the fish hospital where new arrivals are quarantined and sick fish are treated. And we finished off with a tour of the aquarium itself which is styled to look like the imagined subterranean caves of Atlantis, with appropriate scuptures and knick-knacks scattered throughout. Suspend your disbelief and cynicism and you will love it. And even if you can’t manage that, the fishy exhibits themselves are very beautiful and super-impressive.
After a couple of hours to ourselves to unpack and relax, we rendezvoused in the lobby for dinner at Asateer, a large function venue on the beach decked out as a traditional tent for Ramadan. I had wondered what a visit to Dubai in Ramadan might be like. Ramadan is the Muslim holy month, a time during which observant Muslims fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset and offer more daily prayers than usual. It is a time of spiritual contemplation and charitable works, but also a time for visiting family and friends. Given that it is illegal for everyone (even non-Muslims) to eat, drink, smoke or chew gum in public in Dubai during the hours between sunrise and sunset, including while you drive in your car, it didn’t sound like visiting at this time would be a lot of fun. Shops are open (although sometimes with different trading hours) but restaurants outside of the resorts are closed during daylight hours, and even in the resorts no alcohol may be served during daylight hours. However, many businesses extend their opening hours at night and night-life during Ramadan is usually lively as people pack all their eating activities into the hours of darkness (although there is no nightclubbing or concerts). And of course, Ramadan is the only time when you can enjoy two unusual traditional meals – Suhoor (a pre-sunrise or late-night meal to see people through the day’s fast) and Iftar (the evening meal at sunset when the day’s fast is broken) – as we did at Asateer. And after dinner, we relaxed with drinks on the Levantine shisha terrace at the hotel.
On our second morning we got a peek into How the Other Half Lives when we were treated to a private breakfast in one of the two Lost Chambers suites (called Poseidon and Neptune) - which come at a price of roughly £4,900 a night in August. These luxury split-level apartments have their own elevators and double-volume lounge-dining areas (also kitchens which we never got to see) – and butler their own butlers to attend to your every need. But the piece d’resistance comes when you descend the stairs to the bedroom and gigantic en-suite bathroom. Both these rooms are below the water level of the Ambassador Lagoon aquarium and one wall of eac is a floor-to-ceiling window looking into the aquarium itself. So you get to lie in bed or in the bath and stare at the oddly hypnotic sight of fish, sharks and rays gliding silently past your window all day. Yes, it sounds pecuilar – but it is truly entrancing. Breakfast wasn’t half bad either (and yes, that is MY breakfast tray, not a tray to be shared by all four of us!)
With breakfast out of the way, our day was largely set aside to enjoy the vast water-based entertainment facilities at Atlantis. Dolphin Bay is a 4.5 hectare complex set in tropical gardens and containing three large man-made lagoons to house the Atlantis dolphins. Here, guests have the option of experiencing various dolphin encounters, from dolphin photo opportunities to a shallow-water encounter where you can touch and play ball with one of the dolphins in waist-deep water, to swimming with dolphins in the deep waters of the lagoon and expriencing a dorsal fin tow. All packages (preferential rates for hotel guests) include wetsuits, towels and lockers. My three fellow travellers all opted for the dolphin encounter but the idea of dolphins in captivity distresses me, so I elected to take a wander around the Aquaventure water park instead. The park is truly enormous (42 acres), very impressive and very clean – also absolutely sweltering in the 40C+ heat of the day! At Aquaventure (unlimited free access for Atlantis guests – just pick up your wristband at the ticket office) you can enjoy waterslides , river rides, a children’s play area, and 700m of private beach access with loungers and sunshades. The focal point of the park is the vaguely Mayan-temple-esque Ziggurat, a stepped pyramid structure which serves as the starting point for a number of thrillseeker rides including the Leap of faith (a slide that starts with a 27.5m near-vertical drop and catapults riders into a transparent tunnel through a shark-filled lagoon. I was intrigued – but not brave enough to try! For the less brave, there is also a tube ride that takes riders on a more leisurely trip through the same lagoon, via an adjacent transparent tunnel. It’s a fantastic day our for the whole family, from the most timid to the most adventurous, and is well supplied with lifeguards. Towels, showers and changing facilities are provided free of charge, although use of the lockers incurs a charge.
Having worked an appetite (and a sweat!) it was good to know that lunch was nearby at The Burger Joint (TBJ), in the Avenues shopping mall close to the Aquaventure entrance. TBJ was launched earlier this year primarily as a take-away joint aiming to serve affordable wagyu beef burgers – and if that does not entice you in, nothing will! The interior is simple and funky, decorated in the style of a New York burger joint with white butcher shop tiles and bold red and black accents. There is very little seating and the idea is obviously that most people will buy burgers to take away. We were lucky enough to be joined by mark Patten, the Australian-born “Vice President, Culinary” in ultimately in charge of the 550 chefs and 17 restaurants at Atlantis. Mark was able to explain the provenance of the beef used in the burgers: because it is such a huge operation (over 1,500 rooms and 3,500 staff) Atlantis The Palm is able to breed its own herd of European and Japanese cattle in Queensland, Australia. For almost a year before slaughter, they are carefully fed on a special mixed grain diet to ensure perfect fat distribution (i.e. marbling) throughout the meat. The animals are then slaughtered and shipped whole in large batches to Atlantis, where as much of the animal as possible is used. Mark joked that on any given day, there is always some Atlantis beef in transit somewhere between Australia and Dubai. What do they make with the beef? The TBJ menu keeps it simple: Old School (no cheese), The Works (with cheese, mushroom and beef bacon), Rooster Booster (a chicken breast fillet burger) or a Mighty Veggie (vegetarian). On the side there are spectacularly thick mikshakes and double-fried crispy fries – and you can even order a bottle of Heineken with your burger (only after 8pm during Ramadan). I loved my The Works – the meat was coarsely ground (the way I like it) and not greasy or too salty; and the toppings were tasty. The burgers are HUGE and messy to eat – but then that’s the mark of a good burger! The french fries had me swooning – truly fresh and crisp, and made from proper potatoes. At between 40 and 60 AED per burger they are not the cheapest – but given the quality, I feel they do represent good value for money.
After lunch, Mark took us on a backstage tour of the kitchens, catering operations and a couple of the restaurants that we had not visited. We heard the secrets of a perfectly grilled steak in the kitchens of steak restaurant Seafire; we marvelled at the glamorous setting of seafood restaurant Ossiano with its view into the aquarium and sparkly modern chandeliers; and we sampled some excellent dim sum at pan-Asian restaurant Saffron. The kitchens and catering operations are a huge and brightly lit breezeblock maze hidden in the bowels of the hotel, bustling like the corridors of a large fictional space station (think the Starship Enterprise, but with food). Among other things, we got to visit the bakery (all baked goods sold at the hotel are produced on-site from imported flour) and the pastry and chocolate kitchen where we saw the macaron trees for that night’s Iftar feast being assembled!
After our tour, while my companions tried out Aquaventure, I ventured out of the hotel to go and explore the souks in Deira, the old bit of Dubai on The Creek with which I had fallen in love on my last visit in 2005. I took a cab, but you can also take the Hotel’s private monorail which connects with the Dubai metro (all air-conditioned, thank goodness!). For anybody who thinks Dubai is all big and brash and articifial, a land of shopping malls and indor ski slopes in the desert, I can’t recommend a visit to the souks highly enough – it’s what I think of as “real Dubai”. The gold souk is the one everybody has heard of and it is impressive, but my favourite is the spice souk where traders invite you in to sniff their saffron and are happy to explain to you what cassia bark is or how to use dried rosebuds. There are also a number of textile shops where you can buy traditional emirati clothing, a jaw-dropping selection of pashminas, and beautiful beaded tops from India. Make sure you take a ferry across the Creek with the locals – we did so just before sunset and it was magical. Our final evening was spent enjoying a truly spectacular tasting menu at Nobu, an outpost of the now-famous London and New York restaurant before an early morning flight back to London.
Since my trip, I have had people asking me “so did you like Atlantis The Palm? Really?”, but in a tone of voice that clearly implies that they do not see how I could possibly have. And yes, it is easy to be snarky about a hotel behemoth like this, sitting on a completely unnatural palm-shaped island and sporting lush tropical vegetation in the middle of a desert. But the bottom line is that if you are willing to suspend your disbelief a little and just take stock of the astonishing amount of effort that has gone into creating (and continues to go into maintaining) this resort, even the biggest cynic has to be a tiny bit impressed. Personally, I had a uniformly positive experience at Atlantis (other than the wifi being a little erratic – but even that was quickly attended to by staff) – I loved my room, I wanted to kidnap my bathroom, and I thought the food we had was sufficiently varied and generally of a hig standard. If it’s a quietly romantic weekend a deux, an authentic cultural experience, or a sense of understated elegance that you are after, you may want to try elsewhere. But if you are after a bit of sense of daft drama in your accommodation; impeccable and smiley service from every single member of staff; extensive child care and entertainment facilities; a range of activities and amenities on-site that mean you have no need to leave the resort; and a selection of 17 restaurants on-site, plus the added bonus of year-round sunshine, then Atlantis, The Palm is the resort for you. And if I ever do win the Lotto, look out for me in one of those Lost Chambers Suites!
DISCLOSURE: I travelled to Dubai, stayed in Atlantis The Palm, and enjoyed complimentary meals as a guest of the Atlantis The Palm resort. You may also want to read my read previous posts in the Dubai series about my meal at Ronda Locatelli at Atlantis, my Iftar feast at Asateer, or my tasting menu at Nobu.
Atlantis, The Palm
Tel. +971 (0) 4 426 0000