At Paradise Island, casinos gamble with Bahama breezes
March 23, 2014 12:00 AM
Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune
Watching fish at the aquarium at Atlantis resort in Paradise Island, Bahamas.
Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune
The Leap of Faith ride at Atlantis “Mayan Temple” includes a brief enclosed ride through a shark pool.
By Josh Noel / Chicago Tribune
PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- There's a disarming glow along the walls of the Atlantis resort casino, and it might mystify even the most veteran gamblers as they weigh the merits of splitting those sixes against the dealer's five.
Yes, windows. Amid the dingdingding of success and moans of snake-eyed failure, the classic Vegas no-no lives at Atlantis: windows in a casino. Windows, of course, let you see the passage of time and let you know there's something other than gambling. Atlantis has no such concerns, for through those windows sit broad blue swimming pools, gently swaying palms and a bright sky thick with clouds. So why not have windows? Outside them sits the Caribbean.
Atlantis can lay claim to the largest casino in the Caribbean, but just as important it also lays claim to simply being in the Caribbean. And for devoted gamblers, Atlantis has that fact going for it as much as anything: It offers a more complete vacation experience than being dropped in the middle of the desert.
Atlantis charges more for rooms and food than your garden-variety Las Vegas getaway -- much, much more -- so it can afford to let the sun shine in. And should the sun and surf lure you to forsake the casino, well, that's OK.
If you go ...
Atlantis offers 3,400 rooms across five towers that vary greatly in terms of luxury. Rates vary based on the season but begin at about $280, although cheaper deals can be found on its website at atlantis.com.
Atlantis is home to about 40 restaurants and bars of varying price points, but be warned: Prices generally are very high. The buffet restaurant, Mosaic, for instance, boasts an impressive swath of food, but costs $68 per dinner plate and $36 for breakfast. Food veers more toward high end (or at least very expensive) than local and interesting. There are exceptions, such as the Bahamian roll ($22) at Nobu, which is made with conch. Although expensive, the food is largely well done. That said, it's wise to bring plenty of snacks and maybe even lunch food so you're not beholden to the property whenever hunger strikes. Also, buy water in bulk in town.
There is no shortage of things to do at the resort among the pools, water rides and beaches. And, of course, you can gamble. Nassau, with fascinating roots stretching back centuries, is a short ride by taxi and ferry. It's also possible to arrange excursions such as deep-sea fishing and diving.
The Bahamian dollar is pegged to the value of the U.S. dollar.
Although I had come to Atlantis primarily for a weekend of gambling, the moment I slid open the door to the balcony of my 17th-floor hotel room to find a curling beach brushed with white waves and a humid warmth made gentle by a near-constant breeze, I was thankful not to be in Vegas.
Plenty of people visit Atlantis without ever setting foot in one of its gaming areas. They're there for the beach, the pools, the water slides, the sun and what the resort claims is the largest open-air aquarium in the world.
Spread across 171 acres, Atlantis is a wonderland of stuff, and it is fun stuff: a mile-long "river" twisting through the property to be ridden on bright blue inner tubes; a water slide made to look like a "Mayan temple" that drops vertically into a clear tube running through a shark tank; 19 swimming pools of varying shape and size.
During the day, the grounds are a swarm of children, families, North Americans, South Americans (a growing population at Atlantis) and cruise ship passengers who opt for Atlantis during their day in Nassau, which sits about 2,000 feet across the bay. Things mellow considerably at night.
But it's also adult-friendly. It has about 40 restaurants and bars of varying prices and environments and a healthy dose of celebrity-chef names (Bobby Flay, Nobu Matsuhisa, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Todd English).
So in those ways it's like any other mega-resort (and with 3,400 rooms across five towers, it is a mega-resort), where people overrun the place in bathing suits and flip-flops by day before changing into some form of resort eveningwear at night.
The swimming pools empty at 5 sharp, but the grounds remain open, and that's the best time to peer into the aquariums and watch the sharks swim in broad circles.
But the wild card -- what makes Atlantis just a little different than many resorts -- are the casinos. There are three. One in a small, bright lounge in The Cove, which is one of the higher-priced rooms on the property. One is poolside at The Cove. And then there is the biggie -- 750 slot machines (ranging from 1 cent to $100) and 90 table games across 60,000 square feet.
The casino retains that Vegas feel of constant, dizzying motion, waitresses streaming past the table with calls of "Drinks? Drinks?" (they're free) and high-end shops just outside its halls: Cartier, Versace, Bulgari and the like. But it comes with a Caribbean casualness.
Dale Chihuly's massive (and lovely) glass art hangs above the usual array of tables -- the only unusual thing was seeing the roulette wheel hit 30 three times in a row.
On a Friday night I found a surprising array of $10 tables. I took a spot at one and hammered away with $10 bets, sitting between a couple from South Carolina and a woman from Venezuela who spoke little English but was a shark and kept telling me when to double down with a simple command: "Do-ble." I walked away up $125 (and lost $50 the next day.)
On my last day I checked out the daily 3 p.m. gambling lesson, which only makes sense in a resort where the primary attraction is being in the Caribbean.
The day I visited, a man in a festive jungle vest gave us tips on blackjack, baccarat, Caribbean stud poker and craps while, a few feet away, a man in a sports jacket and slicked-back hair played at a $500 minimum table marked "private game" as he sipped a short, reddish icy drink.
"We don't use the word 'lose,' " our tutor told us. "You're in the process of winning. You just haven't won yet."
Windows or not, a casino is still a casino, apparently.
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