(Note: This is the first in a series of 134 articles about the Atlantis resort I will be writing to fund my upcoming Visa bill.)
Family vacations are all about creating magical memories, and here's one we Winiks will treasure from our four-day visit to the Bahamas this month.
It was 11 a.m., Day Two. Hayes and Vince, my 24- and 22-year-old sons, were chillaxing on our 11th-floor balcony. Fragrant smoke wafted through the railing over a phantasmagoric vista: mangrove and hibiscus, vast freeform pools surrounded by flotillas of lounges, a DJ in a gazebo spinning Usher for the mid-morning mojito crowd; beyond all that, the turquoise sea. In the other direction, they could see right into what we had dubbed The Factory, a complex of loading docks and warehouses through which trucks and workers streamed continuously. Our Terrace View room, as the reservation agent described it, was just $500/night on summer special.
Inside, 12-year-old Jane had finished reviewing the map of the water park that is the centerpiece of the Atlantis resort (and you don't pay anything extra for it, which is a phrase I will be using only once in this article). "Let's go!" our energetic leader shouted at her slowpoke troop. Meanwhile, Vince's girlfriend Shannon was trying to determine which of her bikinis was most likely to survive The Leap of Faith.
Suddenly, on a whim, I slipped out to join the boys for a moment. They watched me curiously as the last time I'd taken a hit of pot, in the early 2000s, I spent the next nine hours locked in my bedroom considering institutionalization as my New Year's party rolled on without me.
FAQ: How do you buy drugs at Atlantis?
Easy, dude, it's right on the beach! Find one of the gypsy jet-ski rental guys the notice in your hotel room warns you not to have any dealings with. Vince recommends a Mr. Pointy Tooth, who is the kingpin of the operation.
So, yeah. Whoa. I was really, really wasted. Sternly I ordered myself to remain calm.
"Come on, Mommy! You said you would go on the slide today!" Jane said, and if I could say no to that sweet, beautiful youngest child of mine, we wouldn't have been at Atlantis in the first place. I have never been to a resort in my life, never wanted to go to one, have always been the Paris-on-$10-a-day type of traveler. But somehow we started hanging out with these rich friends who were all Atlantis this Atlantis that, and Jane was hooked, and I thought, what the hell, we'll do it once.
Once is right.
I trailed my group through acres of resort landscaping, which shamelessly combined real vegetation, birds and sea creatures (a manta ray the size of my Yaris) with faux caves and waterfalls, all of it nestled among turreted pink hotels and seahorse monuments. It was sort of Mesoamerican, sort of Egyptian, sort of Greek, sort of Gothic -- an Epcot Center of ancient civilization! Bizarrely, it also featured giant blow-ups of the trippy characters of Cartoon Network's Adventure Time, like Finn the Human, Jake the Dog, Lady Rainicorn, and the Lumpy Space Princess.
"Do you think they paid Adventure Time or Adventure Time paid them?" Jane wondered.
I think everybody pays them. The 2,900 hotel guests, at least one of whom, in the Royal Tower Bridge Suite, is in for $25,000/night, the day-trippers at the water attractions, the gamblers at the casino, the revelers at the night clubs, the yacht crowd at the marina, all of us.
At last we plopped our tubes into The Current, a mile-long river ride. As we bobbed dreamily beneath the palm fronds and buff Bahamian lifeguards, my head, initially propped on my hand in a jaunty pose, sank toward the pillowy tube. Mmmm. This lovely soporific effect was way better than marijuana psychosis.
"Wake up, Mom," I heard Jane say, and I opened my eyes. I was turned backwards facing Hayes, who was laughing evilly. Our tubes were inching up some sort of conveyor belt.
"Mom! We're about to go over the falls!" Jane said, trying to spin me around.
What? I clapped my hand over my sunglasses. Was this the vertical 200-foot drop off the peak of the Mayan pyramid into the shark tank?
Jane spent the next three days imitating my pitiful scream as I went over the edge -- less a woo-hoo! than the sort of plea for mercy once heard at the Spanish Inquisition.
"Mom! Wasn't that great?" said Jane, dragging me on to The Abyss, a body slide entered from a platform tucked beneath five-story-high yellow tulips. It somehow recalled The Hunger Games. But no time for literary musings. I had to stay with my family.
Of course, I eventually took the wrong fork and ended up in a watery cavern alone. Just as I caught sight of Jane in the distance, scouting around for me, I accidentally slid down a chute into a pool. I sat dumbfounded until my hero came bounding around a curve.
"Mom," said Jane, "I think you might be taking too much of your medication."
Cheapness and generosity run side by side in me, and Atlantis kicked these warring impulses into full-on battle. After just a couple days of 12-dollar cocktails and 40-dollar entrees and seven-dollar bottles of water (all charged with cartoon-character plastic room keys), I began to lose my grip. It seemed like a bargain when dinner at the Bobby Flay restaurant was only $323, compared to the $453 I'd dropped at Nobu or $466 at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's little hut on the beach. Though I never had much sympathy for people who run up credit card bills in the tens of thousands, suddenly I understood how it happens. When you're so out of your league, it's all Monopoly money. And you have to eat.
Once the fam had whipped through the mountain of trail mix, beef jerky and energy bars I'd imported from Trader Joe's, what could we do but hit the $25 breakfast buffet? Twenty-five dollars -- you forget what that can buy in the real world. Anyway, I think it was only $20 for Jane. I ordered myself a cup of coffee and sneaked bites off Shannon's plate (even though the waiter promptly removed my silverware to prevent just this.)
That night I got a little cranky on the 10-mile walk back to the room through the medieval passages, underwater ruins, and Bulgari-store jetways. The big kids were racing ahead to get ready for their night out and Jane was peering curiously into the video game arcade. She asked me if she could buy something, I believe; anyway, there was some request that involved money. I was feeling overspent and underappreciated. In fact, I was feeling like my mother -- a game old gal, but a lousy tipper. Basically, it had just been a long day of intoxication and constipation. So I yelled at Jane and she got huffy and stomped off too.
And there I was, crossing the torch-lit Hunger Games lagoon by myself. Should I make a left at Chichen Itza or head straight to the barracudas?
Then I saw Jane, lurking up ahead in a stand of palms. Mad as she was, she wasn't going to let me get lost. She continued this tiptoe surveillance procedure all the way back to the hotel, where we quickly made up. After all, we had our dolphin swim ($264 for two) the very next morning!
Jane and I cuddled in bed and watched the Food Network, while the others ran off to get wasted and throw their money away. I had given the boys my mother's blackjack system, a creased and yellowed photocopy with ragged edges and penciled notations. After a half-century of avid gambling, my mother died in the black for her career. Yet even with the secret paper, her young descendants lost over $700 in a couple of nights.
Hayes, I heard, dropped $300 worth of chips in the sand during a party with some girls who had flown in on private jet. Unbelievably, he later found them -- then lost the stack on a single bet. Vince, on the other hand, found an unspent twenty on the dresser one morning and ran back to the casino before coffee. He seemed to think that because he had been up $60 before he crashed, he had won. This incident literally bankrupted his newly-founded music production company. One more night and I think they probably could have gotten comped for the room.
The last day, as the losses were toted up, Jane surveyed her brothers coldly: unshaven, hungover specimens of fiscal irresponsibility. She shrugged. "I've lost all respect for you," she said.
For me, she suggested a day at the spa and swimming laps, as well as a break from my "self-absorbed" fixation on reading the comments people post on my columns.
Meanwhile, our time was up and there was so much Atlantis we had not seen. We'd missed at least three expensive restaurants, and I had just learned you could snorkel in the aquarium. I never got over to the yacht marina to check out the so-called "millionaire Starbucks." At least we got to spend some quality time with Jackie, a 38-year-old dolphin mother of three. Jackie had an amazing story: she'd been cooped up in some off-brand fish park in Mississippi when it was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. After months swimming around the wreckage-filled Gulf, her whole posse had been rescued and relocated to Atlantis. Honeymoon heaven! Three of them got pregnant the first year.
For me it was back home to Baltimore, where we arrived to find our hot, empty house overrun by mice and fleas. Within seconds of our arrival, we were vacuuming, scrubbing and spraying.
"We're in The Factory," said Shannon sadly.
And so we will be until next year, when I plan to take our vacation at an eco-resort in the jungle with 12-step meetings.