Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Taste of Paradise

It was my mother-in-law’s idea to go to the Bahamas. I wanted to go to California. She desired a tropical location – turquoise waters and golden beaches - for a multi-generation family vacation. I’d already mapped out a quintessential Golden State summer road trip for my husband, me, and our three sons, ages 13, 16, and 20. My mother-in-law said she was paying. I started picturing myself sipping a Bahama Mama at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island. But the image was a little fuzzy.

I’ve never considered myself the resort sort. As a certified scuba diver for more than a dozen years, my idea of the perfect Bahamain vacation would involve schlepping air tanks and taking giant strides off boats to swim among the cool sleek bodies of Caribbean reef, blacktip, and nurse sharks at one of Bahamas famous “shark rodeos.” For accommodations I'd choose a little pink cottage tucked into a secluded sandy cove, and I’d definitely be dining barefoot at the beach. Which is not exactly the stuff of a mega-resort like Atlantis with its 40 restaurants, lounges, and bars, a flashy casino, the country’s hottest nightclub, a swanky shopping mall, and a 140-acre waterscape. But this was my mother-in-law’s gift to my family of five, as well as to my husband’s brother with his wife and two children ages 11 and 15, so who was I to complain? Staying at the resort, I reasoned, would at least make it easier for me to get gluten free meals.

Our rooms were in Atlantis’ Coral Towers, which is situated next to Beach Tower and on the same end of the resort property as the conference center. Coral Towers and Beach Tower are the two most economically priced accommodations at Atlantis. Royal Towers, the colossal coral-colored anchor of the complex, houses glamorous upscale rooms. Two other hotels, The Cove Atlantis and The Reef Atlantis are even more exclusive. Across the marina is Harborside Resort, comprised of one, two, and three bedroom villas with kitchens.

Included in the price of all accommodations is access to Aquaventure, Atlantis’ own water park. Plunked down between the resort’s two beaches, Cove Beach and Atlantis Beach, Aquaventure is where the “kids” wanted to hang out all day, every day. While the thrill seekers among them sought out waterslides with names such as The Drop, The Falls, The Surge, and The Abyss, a favorite pastime for all of the cousins was playing “Monkey in the Middle” with a water ball in one of the numerous pools.

My boys were also excited to try Leap of Faith, a waterslide they’d seen on the TV show “The Amazing Race.” Although the slide featured in the show was actually the Bahamas’ twin, located at the Atlantis in Dubai, both involve a panic-inducing 60-foot near-vertical drop into a clear acrylic tunnel that passes through a shark-filled lagoon. Waiting in line for the ride, I watched several people nervously approach the top of the slide, stare anxiously at the sharks swimming below their feet, and ultimately decide the attraction wasn’t for them. For me, it was not quite the shark encounter I envisioned, but looking down the 60-foot drop did make my heart beat a little faster. As calmly as I could, then, I assumed the waterslide position – ankles crossed and arms crossed at the chest – closed my eyes and let go. The whole experience didn’t last more than five seconds, which is not nearly enough time to ogle a shark up-close. Especially if one’s eyes are closed tight.

Sharks are practically everywhere around the resort. Stingrays too. In fact, Atlantis is home to over 50,000 sea animals, representing over 200 species. Most guests stay safe and dry while observing lobsters, lionfish, jellyfish, grouper, barracuda, spotted eagle rays, and nurse and hammerhead sharks in various lagoons and the Lost Continent-themed aquarium called The Dig. Some, though, venture into the water to feed the stingrays, snorkel among the fish in Ruins Lagoon, or connect with dolphins at Dolphin Cay.

Dolphin Cay is positioned near the two most stylish hotels on the property, meaning it was on the opposite side of the resort from where we were staying. To get there required a healthy 15-minute walk from our hotel lobby, taking us past the fashionable high-end shops in the mall-like setting called Crystal Courts, along a meandering path through the bustling casino, into the sumptuous Royal Towers lobby, and then out to a covered breezeway reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie set. From there it was back indoors to Atlantis Kids Adventure, where parents can drop off their children ages 3-12 for supervised activities, and then outside again past the spa and fitness center before finally arriving at the 14-acre marine habitat and dolphin rescue-rehabilitation center.

We’d made reservations weeks in advance for a shallow water dolphin encounter that entailed donning a wetsuit and standing waist-deep in chilly 72 degree seawater to meet our Atlantic bottlenose dolphin named Kelly. Her protective trainer, John, instructed us how to gently rub Kelly’s silky smooth back and belly when she swam past us, and told us how many of the dolphins at Atlantis were rescued after Hurricane Katrina released them into the wild from their previous home at the Marine Life Oceanarium in Greenport, Mississippi. Kelly seemed happy to let us hug, kiss and be photographed with her, though I’m betting it was because she knew that at the end of our 30-minute session we would each feed her a fishy treat. Deep water interactions in which you use a water scooter to snorkel alongside these beautiful creatures and experience a “foot push” are also available.

We visited Dolphin Cay on our third day at Atlantis, and so far it’d been the only activity for which we paid an additional fee. Golf, tennis, pottery painting, and the spa and fitness center also cost extra. We were even charged for a beach umbrella at Atlantis’ beaches - $30 a day – because they were supplied by individuals not affiliated with the resort. Other vendors on the beach hawked hair-braiding, jewelry, cocktails, and adventure activities such as parasailing, jet skiing, and jet boating. The finest feature of the beach, however, was the free one: warm, tranquil, tropical water. Whether swimming out to the safety rope that separated swimmers from motorized vehicles, snorkeling on the water’s surface, or lazily lounging at the water’s edge, I finally started to get the hang of a resort vacation.

Atlantis is a semi-inclusive resort. That means its meal plans are optional. At the time we visited in August 2010, the two meal plans were called Casual Dining Plan and Gourmet Dining Plan, and each included a full American or continental breakfast and dinner daily at selected restaurants with a choice of appetizer, soup or salad, one entrée, dessert, and non-alcoholic beverages. These plans are now called Value Dining Plan (which limits guests to two buffet restaurants - Seagrapes and Marketplace - and a new BBQ place) and Atlantis Dining Plan (which offers a great assortment of casual and fine dining). At first glance, it’d be easy to dismiss these plans as too expensive. But when you stare dumbfounded at the prices on a restaurant menu, the meal plans don't seem exorbitant after all.

Dinner reservations are not accepted at buffet restaurants, so it’s advisable to go early or late. For other places, having reservations is practically a requirement to get in, so make them as soon as possible (see FAQs on Atlantis website).

Regardless of the meal plan, Atlantis guests with special dietary needs are advised to fill out the “Guest Allergy/Dietary Needs Planner” prior to their stay. I did so about a month before our vacation, and, as instructed, also contacted the Culinary Executive at the resort to inform them of all my dinner reservations. Sadly, I saw no evidence that anything was done with this advance notice. The Chef’s Office also never answered my questions about what gluten free foods would be available for breakfast at the two buffet restaurants, Seagrapes and Marketplace.

So on our first day at Atlantis I stopped by Seagrapes to make arrangements for my breakfast the following morning and called Bimini Road (where we had reservations for dinner that night) to inform them of my need for a gluten free meal. This was a pattern I repeated nearly every day, except that by the second morning at Seagrapes I became affectionately known as the “Gluten Free Lady” and was asked each day if I wanted to speak with the chef about getting a specially prepared meal. Eggs, bacon, yogurt, and fruit for breakfast were the norm, along with the occasional gluten free muffin or pancakes. Gluten free cereal was not available anywhere at Atlantis, so I was thankful I’d brought some from home with me.

Bimini Road
specializes in local cuisine. The chef personally fried a snapper fillet in the back kitchen for me, away from the busy front kitchen where flour is heavily used, and suggested grilled shrimp with butter and lime sauce for an appetizer, and a baked potato and salad for the sides. The chef at Chop Stix, a Chinese restaurant, reviewed the menu with me and said to order almost anything on the menu because he could make it gluten free.

On the night we dined at Carmine’s, with its classic Italian cuisine, problems started right from the get-go when we didn’t get seated until 30 minutes past our reservation time. When I asked to speak to a chef, the manger appeared instead to explain that all dishes at Carmine’s were prepared family-style and meant to serve 3-4 people. As nearly everyone in our group of 10 had their stomachs set on fried, flour-dredged, or pasta rich dishes, I thought surely the restaurant would prepare a small separate meal for me. But that was not the case. A compromise was finally reached when the kitchen agreed to sauté one chicken cutlet sans flour and to serve the remaining chicken marsala separately; they refused to modify any of the sauces for me. They also permitted me to order a kid’s sized plate of gluten free pasta, but would only serve it with marinara sauce.

Marketplace, a buffet restaurant, was a place I wouldn’t normally have felt comfortable eating because of cross-contamination with gluten foods. The chef actually advised against eating from the buffet lines! Instead, she escorted me around the food stations, pointing out choices available at the restaurant, and then instructed me to tell her exactly what I wanted to eat because she could prepare a fresh gluten free version of most selections, including gluten free pasta. Understandably, though, some dishes just couldn’t be prepared gluten-free, so most of my meals at Atlantis tended to be simple. Think grilled items and sautéed vegetables.

The biggest surprise at Marketplace was its table of delectable desserts for people with food allergies. Sadly, the flourless chocolate cake, lemon cheesecake, and assorted pastries were so luscious that everyone who passed by felt compelled to take a morsel, contaminating the specialty items with gluten, thereby making the food inedible for those of us who required it. When I pointed this out to the hostess she promptly fetched a fresh gluten free chocolate cake for me, which I enjoyed immensely. The bigger concern of cross-contamination at the dessert table was left unresolved, however, and was at odds with the gluten awareness expressed by chefs I talked with at the various restaurants.

For many people, staying at a resort means never leaving the resort. By the third day, though, following the morning at Dolphin Cay, I needed to get away from the ritual of pools, beach, and food, and so set off for downtown Nassau. Not that I was escaping commercialism by sightseeing in the Bahamas capital, where cruise ships dock continuously at one of the three piers on Prince George’s Wharf , but at least I was exercising my body and mind by walking the 3-miles roundtrip to take in the heritage of Nassau. Taxis and ferries also regularly ply the routes from Atlantis on Paradise Island to Nassau on New Providence Island.

It’s believed that Christopher Columbus was the first tourist in the Bahamas when he was looking for a route to the East Indies. He was followed by the Spaniards, who played a large part in wiping out the native Indians. Then the English arrived, claiming the land for themselves, and soon pirates and buccaneers based themselves here to better raid Spanish galleons. Later, British loyalists fled to the Bahamas after the American Revolutionary war, bringing slaves to set up new plantations, though the soil was not amenable and plantation owners eventually moved to other islands. Slaves were freed in 1834 and blacks eventually became the majority on the island. In 1956, a London-educated black barrister named Lynden O. Pindling was elected to Parliament, which eventually led to Bahamas gaining independence from Britain in 1973.

Guided one-hour walking tours are available almost daily, or get a map and saunter around the downtown area. On three separate jaunts into town and its environs, we visited historical buildings, somberly viewed the slave exhibits at Pompey Museum, haggled for handmade Bahamian goods and souvenirs at the Straw Market, sipped tropical drinks at a bar in Arawak Cay, and amusedly watched marching flamingoes at Ardastra Gardens, Zoo, and Conservation Center. All gave me a taste of the rich Bahamian flavor, but a critical spice was still missing.

Near the end of my week-long stay at Atlantis Resort, after a morning catamaran snorkeling tour to a nearby reef, my husband, brother-in-law, mother-in-law, and I were famished. So we headed to Potters Cay, which is a chain of wooden shacks lining the road beneath the Paradise Island Bridge that connects Paradise and New Providence Islands. This is where fresh fish and conch are hauled in daily from the sea, and locals go to purchase seafood and produce. This is where the conch, a species of large sea snails, is pulled from its shell, cut into tiny bits, mixed with chopped onions and green peppers, doused with freshly squeezed lime juice and orange juice, and served up as Conch Salad. It’s gluten free!

As tasty as raw sea snails are, I was in the mood for snapper. Explaining to the cook at the randomly selected food shack that I needed my fish fried in fresh oil and without flour, it was clear he’d never heard of such a thing. But he was willing to do it. While he was off getting the oil and purchasing the fish, we chatted with a few local women, watched children play, and casually tuned in to the ebb and flow of passing cars, muted voices, and the sound of Nassau Harbor. When I was presented with a whole snapper and a side salad, served on a paper plate with plastic utensils, and the cook told me the head was the best part to eat, I knew I’d found the Bahamian flavor I craved.

For more information about Atlantis Resort: