ATLANTIS PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas — The Bahamas advertises that it's only 50 miles away, but the trip from South Florida still requires an airport shuttle, a plane and a bus.
And a 13-year-old boy can wait only so long, especially one who has awakened at 6 a.m. for a 3 p.m. flight. By the time we check into our room at Atlantis Paradise Island, the water slides we see from our window aren't merely calling him. They're screaming at him.
So only five minutes after our bags hit the hotel room, my son and I ditch his mom, grandparents and sister to get to his raison d'etre: the water park.
We walk to the top of a water slide, wiggle our fannies into an inner tube built for two, and let it rip.
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This trip, we're going to play every day in the water and head back to the hotel with shriveled fingers and toes. And I'm prepared: We brought our water shoes, so we don't have to walk barefoot on concrete or ditch flip-flops at the top of a water slide.
Fourteen years ago, my parents, my pregnant wife and I took an excursion to Atlantis as part of our Bahamas cruise. Mom saw the Atlantis aquarium, the beach and the resort, and has talked about revisiting ever since.
Obviously, we don't move quickly on such things.
A lot has changed since our two-hour visit in 1996. Atlantis has exploded. It now markets itself as a full-scale resort, with celebrity chefs, concerts, children's activities, and, of course, a casino and beach activities.
Mom knows we have a beach minutes from our home in South Florida, but she wants to splurge — and Atlantis is a splurge. She and Dad offer to pick up the check, and, being the good son, I let them.
"I want to go someplace and make memories," Mom says. "This is kind of like our Hawaii."
So even though she's 81 years old, she pulls on her swimsuit and rides the one-mile concrete lazy river loop with us, trying to keep up with 13-year-old Aaron.
A day later, she pulls on a wetsuit, joining the family in Atlantis' dolphin interaction.
If you're going to Atlantis, you better like the water. In addition to the pools, lagoon and the ocean there are saltwater aquariums, with baby sharks and stingrays. The newest one, called The Dig, is below our lobby at the Royal Towers. It's an underground maze highlighted with tools and inventions that might have been used by the mythical Atlanteans.
But there's dry land action, too:
Concerts. This year has included Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Jerry Seinfeld at a theater that seats up to 4,000. Other recent acts: Carrie Underwood, Fergie, Janet Jackson and the Jonas Brothers.
Three celebrity chef restaurants: Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill, Nobu Matsuhisa's Nobu and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Cafe Martinique.
The Cove, a 600-room resort at the north end of the property restricted to those staying there. Blackjack tables are set up on the pool deck and a live DJ works the music. The pool has a deep royal blue hue with lounge chairs floating in the center. Nearby cabanas, which open to both the pool and the ocean, have flat screen TVs, bathrooms, couches and a bar. Daily rental is just $650, and includes a personal butler.
Atlantis' big bang came in 1994, when Sol Kerzner bought Resorts International from entertainer Merv Griffin. Kerzner came up with the name Atlantis, the mythical land Plato said disappeared under water in a single day. Kerzner spent four years and $800 million on improvements, the most noticeable of which was adding the iconic 1,200-room Royal Towers to the original buildings, which he renamed Coral Towers and Beach Towers.
He also added six pools, expanded the water park and put in a $15 million marina to entice boaters. Finally, he nailed down the island-lost-in-water angle, adding lagoons, waterfalls and fountains with flying fish.
In 2007 came an even more upscale expansion that included The Cove, a condo hotel, a dolphin education center, South Beach-like nightclubs, a spa and a conference center.
But our family is happy just to be able to pull on our water shoes, walk out of our hotel room and see water, water everywhere. We alternate between two banks of slides — the 60-foot Mayan Temple, with a ride that tunnels through an aquarium, and the 120-Power Tower, which dumps you into a lazy river and even pulls you back into line on a conveyor for the next ride, so you don't even have to get out of your tube.
By the end of our first full day, we all agree the only way to keep up with Aaron is in shifts. My wife will accompany him when the water park opens at 10 a.m. and ride the tamer slides and the 1-mile lazy river. My mom and dad will come down a little before lunch, eat with him by the pool and maybe do the easiest of tube rides.
I'll be the closer, flying down an array of rides in the late afternoon — when the crowd has cleared out — until the pool closes at 7 (they don't have lights). By then, there are no lines so we're going all-out.
Then we'll pull off our water shoes, dry off and go eat.
Our first night was at Myron's Deli, and even though the No. 1 complaint on Atlantis' Facebook page is high prices, if you tread lightly, you can eat well enough. Dad had a half chicken for $18; I had a BLT and fries for $10.
Our big meal of the trip was at Carmine's, a family-style Italian restaurant similar to Bucca di Beppo. The six of us shared a salad, stuffed mushroom appetizer, chicken parm, spaghetti and meatballs, drinks, dessert and tip for $240. We also had fun, because the table next to us was on the meal plan; they ordered too much and kept passing food to us.
The meal plan costs $76 a day. You get a full breakfast and a full dinner; fine diners can pay $117 for nicer fare. It's a fair deal if you compare ala carte menu prices.
We're not big eaters and I always travel with snacks, so we skipped the meal plan. The six of us averaged $60 per person daily for four days of meals.
We usually ate lunch by the pool, where we got a chicken sandwich or a burger with fries and a drink for $8. But a Ben and Jerry's ice cream bar goes for $7 and a bottle of beer is $6.50 anywhere on the complex. A grab-and-go breakfast of a banana, muffin or croissant and coffee runs $10.
But food to us is merely fuel to keep moving. One day, we snorkel, another day it's wave runners. The third day is our "dolphin experience," and while my mom's back couldn't handle anything strenuous, she enthusiastically pulls on her wet suit and heads to the lagoon with my wife and kids to pet a dolphin.
After four days, we've pretty much knocked out everything. We've walked almost everyplace imaginable and our legs are weary. My water shoes have holes in the sides, and the heel has worn through.
Mom's water shoes, which we bought new for the trip, are worn out, too. More importantly, she also has photos of us — with backgrounds of exotic pools and Atlantis foliage — that she can take back home and show to the neighbors. Because what grandma doesn't like to brag?
"Memories," she says. "We sure made a lot of them, didn't we?"
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Atlantis Paradise Island, a complex with 2,317 rooms in the Beach, Coral and Royal Towers. There's also the 600-room upscale resort, The Cove, and a 497-room condo hotel, The Reef. 13 swimming pools, a 141-acre water park called Aquaventure, two aquariums, a casino and sports book, and more than 40 restaurants and bars.
GETTING THERE: Bahamas Air, Jet Blue, Spirit and Continental fly into Lynden Pindling International in Nassau, Bahamas. The airport is about a 45-minute shuttle bus ride to the hotel.
COST: In low season, rooms start at $270 per night at the Beach Tower. Rooms at The Cove start at $505 per night.
DINING: More than 40 restaurants and bars. A meal plan of breakfast and dinner is $76 for adults, $36 for children ages 7-11; gourmet dining is $117 per day, $51 for children.
GAMBLING: The casino has slots, video poker, table games such as blackjack and roulette and a sports book that takes future wagers, as well as day-of-game bets. There is no poker room.
CHILDREN'S ACTIVITIES: The Atlantis Kids Adventures, a staffed 8,000-square-foot play area with culinary lessons, theater and outdoor play. There' also an arcade, teen club, pottery studio and climbing wall. INFO: Atlantis.com or 800-ATLANTIS (800-285-2684)