Underneath me lie the ruins of the mythical kingdom of Atlantis. Broken columns, Daliesque bowls, splintered door frames… it’s like diving at an underwater excavation site, with a marine ecosystem straight out of Finding Nemo. Reef sharks, stingrays (minus their stings) and schools of candy-toned fishes shimmy around me. Suddenly, a photographer glides over and takes photos of my awkward self. Is this how celebrities feel when their private moments are invaded? I am no celebrity, but diving in the Ambassador Lagoon—one of the world’s largest aquariums with an 11-million-litre marine habitat—at Dubai’s uber-luxe Atlantis, The Palm—I do feel privileged. I immediately pine for privacy. I decide to focus on Carlos’s instructions. He is endlessly patient while teaching me the right way to release pressure from my ears. If only I could have learnt how, I would have been able to reach the aquarium’s bed and claim Poseidon’s throne. I fake a smile at a smug kid who does manage that feat and returns to rub it in my face.
Gloomy afternoon skies welcomed me to Dubai the previous day, mist curling around the city’s skyscrapers. I drive through Palm Island, the world’s largest man-made island, at whose tip Atlantis stands guard. The first look at the salmon-and-teal building, seemingly airlifted from the pages of The Arabian Nights, leaves me gobsmacked. Unwarranted, I start humming “A whole new world,” from Aladdin. Because, well, it is.
I enter the Grand Lobby—aptly called—through lofty sea-green wooden double doors carved with intricate seahorses and marine motifs. Inside, the opulence of the Grand Lobby only gets better. For starters it has American glass sculptor Dale Chihuly’s masterpiece, almost arrogant in its beauty. The 33-foot high, sea-inspired sculpture was assembled with 3,000 pieces of hand-blown glass in soothing gradations of orange, red and blue. That it took more than two years is hardly astonishing. Circling it are feta-white stately pillars. Fashioned after seashells, they blend into a golden dome like melted butter on warm toast. Elsewhere in the lobby there are little fountains in the shape of oysters, each guarding a glistening pearl.
As I walk to my room in the East Tower, I notice the multi-hued carpets too follow the lobby’s theme—everything here reminds me of the sea. I am checked into an Imperial Club room, which is like any plush five-star hotel room, except it gives me access to high tea after lunch and drinks and canapés before dinner in the exclusive Imperial Club. More food! I settle in (read, dump my bags) and go foraging.
It’s on my way to the Imperial Club that I first glimpse into the Ambassador Lagoon… cheeky mantas kissing the viewing panel, sharks gliding freely, a faint outline of a man doing just that. Is that Aquaman? I go closer. It’s just a hotel guest diving in the lagoon. That’s going to be me tomorrow, being witnessed by one and all. The Ambassador Lagoon can be seen from the Underwater Suites, the seafood restaurant Ossiano, and parts of the East Tower. No one knows me here, I mutter, and pile my plate high with melt-in-the-mouth turkey sandwiches, quiches, scones and baklavas.
Nothing prepares me for my visit to Aquaventure though. It boggles my mind to be in a water park that uses 18 million litres of water in the middle of a desert. Guests come here to take a Leap of Faith, with its near-vertical drop of 90 feet, or experience Poseidon’s Revenge, gliding down a tube at a heart-pounding speed of 60 kmph. The food I have just eaten lurches up at the sight, and I try neither. Instead, I just walk around, watching people of different nationalities sunbathe in pretty bikinis and burkinis, keeping an eye on their little ones splashing gleefully in nearby pools.
Soon after, my wandering leads me to the hotel’s basement, home to The Lost Chambers. Its doorman is indeed droolworthy. Jason Momoa as Aquaman—I mean his statue—greets me. I quickly take a photo for my Instagram: “Found him!”
The sprawling precinct is a maze of many aquariums and exhibits, all interconnected via dimly lit cavernous passages, shining a spotlight on the ways of the Atlantians. In one room lies a contraption with which precious blocks of gold were believed to be guarded; another room reconstructs the kingdom’s famed fighting arenas. But I find the marine life far more attractive than machoism. The jellyfish exhibits in glass tanks look other-worldly, and oh those piranhas. I spend a lot of time watching the honeycomb morays, or snake fishes as I like to call them. They look like snakes, and slither like snakes—their exhibit has many holes and gaps to display their prowess. I hog the information screens flashing trivia on many species before I sink into the rugs and pillows lying around for some therapeutic fish-watching. There are early morning yoga sessions inside the aquarium too, and I can understand why. I sign up.
Head brimming with psychedelic colours, I walk out into the corridor and look up at a beautiful, colourful hand-painted ceiling. The fish I just saw grin from their place of honour. I want to shake every person walking beside me and ask them why aren’t they staring at the ceiling. Over the next two days, I find one that reminds me of an embellished jewel box, another a cluster of iridescent seashells. Atlantis does bring the sea to you without painting it all predictably cyan.
I have gone bowling and eaten a perfectly cooked steak at Wavehouse, the newest restaurant-cum-arcade with a grungy vibe. I have also relished every bite of my luxurious osso buco ravioli (veal-filled ravioli in a spicy Italian red sauce) and decadent burrata in Giorgio Locatelli’s phenomenal restaurant, Ronda Locatelli. I have sampled the breakfast buffets in both Saffron and Kaleidoscope (spoiler: they have candy bars and chocolate fondue fountains), and heartily savoured the high tea and canapés. But, Atlantis has saved the best for the last.
It is with bated breath that I enter Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen and Bar. Years of watching the Masterchef series have made me salivate over and dream about Ramsay’s Beef Wellington. The server places two pieces of succulent prime steak wrapped in puff pastry, with a side of truffle mashed potatoes, honeyed carrots and bone marrow sauce. It’s with trembling hands that I pour the sauce and cut into the meat; this is as close to a religious experience as it can get for me. I take a bite, and it’s perfect. Make-your-dreams-come-true perfect. Where is that photographer? For now, I truly do feel like a celebrity.
Atlantis, The Palm has 1,539 rooms (atlantisthepalm.com; doubles from AED1,500/Rs28,400 for a deluxe room, and AED2,012/Rs38,000 for an Imperial Club room, includes entry to Lost Chambers and Aquaventure). The added benefit includes access to the Imperial Club, airport transfers by limo, priority service and a personal concierge. Besides diving and snorkelling, you can book interactions with sea lions and dolphins, and eat at restaurants run by Michelin-starred chefs Gordon Ramsay, Giorgio Locatelli and Nobu Matsuhisa.
If you want to know how the multitude of marine life is taken care of at Atlantis, book the Fish Tales Tour (AED45/Rs855). A team of over 100 people are in charge here, including veterinarians, chefs and water quality experts. Visit the Fish Hospital and Nursery to meet baby sharks and rays being acclimatised to their new home, and jellyfish and seahorses being bred. Go to the kitchens where 400 kg of fish food is prepared every day.
Lubna Amir travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.