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Sun, sea and Arabian Delights

Allister Heath
THERE are many parts of the world about which I am pessimistic but Dubai, despite its recent economic woes, is not one of them. Nobody else in the Middle East has pulled off what Dubai has achieved: a peaceful, capitalist, multi-ethnic state based on commerce, property, finance, entertainment and tourism. While it has been engulfed by an especially nasty property bust, it is fair to say that Dubai, a brand new city of skyscrapers, offices and luxury malls, is past the worst. And as the global economy starts to expand again and the credit markets on which it depends unfreeze, Dubai too will return to growth; its zero per cent income, corporation and capital gains tax will become an increasing draw in the years ahead.

It has been open for little over a year but the Atlantis, a high quality beach resort and the flagship hotel on the Palm Jumeirah, a gigantic man-made island connected to the mainland by bridges and tunnels, has already come to symbolise the new Dubai. With its water parks, several miles of spotless sandy beaches on the Arabian sea, and visitors drawn from all five continents, it is a unique experience. The deluxe rooms are of the standard one would expect of a modern, five star beach hotel; but it is the location, designs and attractions of this resort that make it different from anything else most visitors will ever have encountered.

At the heart of the hotel, next to the main lobby, is a giant aquarium, home to over 65,000 marine animals, including some of the largest and most bizarre fish known to man. Hidden within the complex are two exclusive suites whose bedrooms and bathrooms look out onto thousands of fish, shark and exotic marine life; guests say it feels as if they are sleeping in the world’s most luxurious underwater room.

The fish theme continues outside. Acquaventure, Atlantis’s water-park, includes 17 beachfront hectares of water-themed rides. The centrepiece – at 27.5m tall and 61m long – is the Leap of Faith: you sit on special inflatables as you race down a near-vertical slide that drops into a shark-filled lagoon (fortunately, a glass barrier prevents you from being gobbled up). For the less adventurous, a river ride system with artificial waves that propel and push you along a labyrinth of waterfalls provides a more relaxing alternative. You can sit in single inflatables or – with your child or significant other – in a double version. There is a special water playground full of exciting thrills for small children; adults also have the choice of numerous pools and lagoons within the Acquaventure complex.

Dolphin Bay is a must-see delight for any visitor to Atlantis, children as well as adults: this is a memorable experience worth the additional expense (which also includes having to pay for pictures). Visitors begin with an introduction by some of the fully qualified marine biologists who look after the dolphins. You are then divided into groups, led by a marine biologist who will take you into the 4.5 hectare man-made lagoon, complete with sandy beaches and water cooled to the dolphins’ preference, to meet the creatures, which turn out to be as gentle and delightful as you could have hoped. Each group has its own dolphin; visitors take it in turn to stroke it, dance with it and even kiss it. The complex also serves as a rescue and rehabilitation centre for animals found stranded or injured in the Arabian Gulf.

The spa and fitness centre is second to none, as is the fully equipped gym; personal trainers can be easily arranged. The nightclub is great for teenagers, while the hotel also boasts a 5,600 square metre conference centre with a massive ballroom that is ideal for big luxury weddings. Several restaurants stand out, especially Ronda Locatelli’s excellent Italian; Nobu; and for a unique experience, top chef Santi Santamaria’s Ossiana, which feels like you are dining in the middle of the sea with live sharks and fish for company. Nobu Atlantis showcases many of the classics that are familiar from his London restaurant; however, it also adds Arabic influences such as sesame seeds and watermelon to some of the dishes, to great effect.

The resort is huge with 1,539 rooms, including several breathtaking palatial suites designed for those in need of privacy and the budgets of big time investment bankers. There are also thousands of day visitors for the aquarium, dolphins and the Lost Chambers, an indoor exhibit styled as a journey through the ancient and mythical lost world of the Atlantis. Staying at the resort is therefore a full-on experience; when we visited at the height of the summer, the occupancy rate was 100 per cent. So if you want to escape the crowd, this is perhaps not the place for you to stay, but rather somewhere to come for the day. However, for most readers, staying at Atlantis would make a great family holiday: adults will enjoy the world-class food and the chance to stay in a spectacular building on a remarkable man-made island, safe in the knowledge that their children and teenagers are enjoying themselves in a safe and controlled environment. And the weather is great at this time of the year: it’s 33 degrees at the moment, falling gradually as we near Christmas. Virgin Holidays (www.virginholidays.co.uk/0844 557 3859) is offering four nights at Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai from £919 per person. This includes b&b in a deluxe room, complimentary access to Aquaventure, transfers and scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow to Dubai. Prices are per person based on 2 adults travelling and for departures between 10-15 Nov 2009. See www.atlantisthepalm.com
Allister Heath