THREE LITTLE SECONDS of your life. That’s all it takes. One second, two seconds, three seconds – and it’s over. So how come it’s such a big deal? Maybe it’s the death-defying near-vertical drop and the stomach-churning feeling of having your heart in your mouth. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re whizzing through a see-through tube with sharks swimming in your midst. Or maybe we’re just chicken.
We are standing at the foot of the Ziggurat, the showcase centrepiece at Aquaventure, the new water park at Atlantis The Palm, in Dubai, pondering whether or not to make the ‘leap of faith’. My 12-year-old daughter, Grace, has a resolute “No way”, whilst I am more of the “I will if you will” persuasion. My fearless toddler, Joe, three, is the only braveheart in our family who is mad keen to try it, but thankfully he doesn’t get anywhere near the height requirement, so instead we satisfy our curiosity by standing on the viewing platform and watching as guest after guest whizz by, with arms criss-crossed on their chest and blind terror written all over their faces before we head off to enjoy the other (slightly more) tame but no less wet pursuits on offer.
The Ziggurat is a prime example of Dubai’s eagerness to impress: to be the biggest and the best; to incite that ‘wow’ factor. And you sense this the moment you arrive.
“Wow! That is so cool!” gasped Grace, snatching a glimpse of the dramatic skyline through the mesh blinds that cover the windows of the air-conditioned limousine that escorts us to our hotel. Grace is thrown into a snap-happy frenzy, taking endless photographs of this building and that, in excited awe of the grand spanking shininess of it all. She’s right. The architecture is pretty amazing – and it’s not just one or two buildings, it’s darn near every one you see. A veritable Manhattan of striking design, it’s an architect’s dream, with art deco styles reminiscent of the Chrysler Building (only get them, not content with one Chrysler, they have to have two!). There are super-shiny blue glass affairs with slanting rooves and – till now the king of Dubai’s skyline – the Burj al Arab, the super-luxurious seven-star hotel that twinkles like the full-blown sail of a huge yacht (or a plumptious pregnant belly) in the sunlight.
The newest kid on the Dubai block is Atlantis The Palm, a huge pink palace of gargantuan proportions that cradles the crescent of The Palm Jumeirah, the 2-km long manmade island in the shape of a palm tree. Our route to the hotel is lined with “jungle trees”, notes Joe, while Grace is already eying up the shopping potential at one of the world’s largest malls. Once at Atlantis, we are struck firstly by its magnitude – there are 1,539 guest rooms – and its somewhat gaudy splendour. The expansive foyer is dominated by an amazing 10-metre high glass sculpture by celebrated American artist, Dale Chihuly, that erupts out of a fountain with over 3,000 swirling fronds in tranquil blues at the foot, working up to a crescendo of fiery hues at the top, looking like Medusa’s gnarled tentacles. Huge windows at the front of the foyer afford a fantastic view of the hotel’s Royal Beach, while the expanse of super-shiny marble floors was an instant invitation for Joe to hop out of his buggy and start tearing around like a whirling dervish.
Considering the opulence all around, we were slightly disappointed by our room. Ordinarily, a sea-view would be considered a boon, but a view of the blue expanse of the Arabian Gulf seemed a little uninspiring. A quick call to reception and we were elevated to the 17th floor, with a view overlooking the swimming pool, with a glimpse of the impressive monorail that links the Palm to the mainland and Dubai’s Manhattan skyline as a backdrop.
As the name suggests, Atlantis The Palm takes inspiration from the Greek legend of the lost city of Atlantis and is an homage to all things oceanic. One of its most impressive features is The Ambassador Lagoon, with its huge expanse of viewing windows, which is home to 65,000 fish and marine species – sufficient enticement for most toddlers to press their little noses up against the glass, trying to spot the scary sharks or the giant rays with leopard-print backs and smiley faces as their little mouths pout. There’s more marine life on show at the Atlantis-themed Lost Chambers, where oversized lobsters with lethal-looking claws scuttled above. There are distinctive orange-and-white clown fish to discover (easily recognized by fans of Finding Nemo), hypnotic fluorescent purple jelly fish to admire, and plenty of amazing fish with scary-looking poisonous spikes and giant crabs.
Our marine life experience was completed with a visit to Dolphin Bay for a little hands-on interaction with the residents Flippers. After a short pep talk from our guide, who enlightened us with handy rules of no poking your finger in the dolphins breathing hole (because you wouldn’t stick your finger up someone’s nose, she told us) or poke them in the eye – common sense for the adults but useful warnings to be heeded by three-year-old Joe. Once in the water, Joe was impeccably behaved, managing to give a little hug and kiss to our dolphin, and holding hands – or rather, fins – to do a little dance.
But if you ask Joe or Grace about the most memorable thing about their holiday, it would be Aquaventure. Despite dipping out of the main attraction, the Ziggurat, we still managed to get a good soaking; in fact, Grace was in fits of giggles when I tried to use the shower to wash the sand off my feet, and accidently activated the overhead shower instead (I was fully clothed at the time!). There was a brilliant playground area for younger children called Splashers with a host of climbing frames, mini water slides, water jets and a giant tipping bucket that poured a torrent of 1,200 litres of water at various intervals – great fun for fearless Joe, though I was getting a little tired of looking like a drowned rat as another bucket a water toppled on my head. And we must have floated round in the giant rubber rings for hours, traveling through rapids, torrents and dodging waterfalls – they even had a moving water ramp that carried our rubber rings uphill before launching us off on another swirling water adventure. We were having so much fun that I didn’t notice the time and nearly missed my visit to the spa – a little mummy time while Grace and Joe went off to the children’s club. Maybe it was the gentle touch of the therapist as she gently massaged my limbs, or the soporific aromas of the oils, or maybe all that exertion at the water park, but I was awoken with a gentle tap on my shoulder at the end of the session.
Atlantis The Palm has much to offer the whole family, but a major highlight for the grown-ups has to be the dining options: there’s no less than 17 restaurants. We dined en famille at Ronda Locatelli, where we indulged in Giorgio’s delicious home-cooked Italian cuisine. I also ventured to Nobu and tried some of the melt-in-the-mouth signature dishes of Yellow Tuna and Blackened Cod, washed down with a couple of Lychee margaritas, while Grace and Joe watched movies at the children’s club. Grace and I also had the most delicious fillet steaks and chips at Seafire, a sumptuous steakhouse, while a rather-less-adventurous Joe dined on meatballs and spaghetti.
There was also pretty impressive window-shopping available in The Avenues, the arcade of glitzy shops that gives an instant retail fix for happy – and wealthy – shoppers. There were diamonds as big as the Ritz at Graff, and dazzling gem-encrusted watches at Harry Winston – just in case the Beckhams dropped by, I guess, and Victoria needed a little extra sparkle in her life.
Just as we thought there was nothing we could afford, Grace discovered her favourite ice-cream parlour, Cold Store Creamery. To the uninitiated, the seemingly chaotic non-queuing system might be a deterrant. In fact, getting a little weary of the free-for-all queuing system, I was about to ask Grace if she really wanted an ice-cream, when the staff all lined up and suddenly burst into song. As they bashed away on the counter with their ice-cream scoops, flashing big beaming smiles, I could see this was something a little bit special. And when it finally arrived, Grace said her custom-made mix of mashed-up Oreo cookies, fudge and chocolate chips in vanilla ice-cream, all tucked into a chocolate waffle cone, was worth the wait. Dipping into her personalized concoction – she allowed me just one spoonful – I had to concede it was indeed worthy of its mantle of ‘the ultimate ice-cream experience.’
Even though there was more than enough diversion to keep us entertained at Atlantis, we thought we should also get a taster of what else is on offer in Dubai, so we took a cab to the Mall of the Emirates. We’d heard it had an impressive array of 450 shops, but we weren’t expecting to also find an indoor skiing resort (the first of its kind in the Middle East), which was quite bizarre considering it was a sweltering 40 degrees outside. It was also rather strange to see so many logos we recognized – Costa, Starbucks and McDonalds, with the names squiggled in Arabic. Grace was particularly impressed with Harvey Nicols, where she tried on her first Gucci coat – a snip at xxxxx – while Joe, not surprisingly, showed more excitement in the toy shop with its cute rows of kissing camels.
On our last evening, we took a post-dinner stroll around the pool and gardens, stopping off at some hammocks for a little swing under the stars. As we walked past the beach, Joe started to cry that in our hectic schudule he hadn’t got the chance to use his new bucket and spade. It was 9pm and the beach was deserted, but I suddenly thought, why not? Grace raced up to our room to fetch his bucket and spade, and we all kicked off our shoes and walked barefoot onto the beach. And there we sat, on the sandy shore with the waves gently lapping in the moonlight, and helped him build his sandcastles… Our trip certainly offered a heady mix of glamour and thrills, luxury and excitement, but nothing quite beat the magic of the simplest of childhood activities, under a starry Arabian sky.
Tropical Locations (www.tropical-locations.com; tel: 0845 277 3310) offer a four-night stay at Atlantis, The Palm in a Deluxe Room on bed-and-breakfast basis from £1,261 per adult and from £326 per child sharing an adult’s room. The price includes flights on Emirates from Gatwick, Heathrow, Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and transfers in destination. For information about the resort, visit www.atlantisthepalm.com