It has 1,539 rooms, four celebrity chefs and its 11 million litre fish tank is home to a whale shark. Ben Ross goes behind the scenes at Dubai's new $2.5bn hotel
What credit crunch? For a glimpse of what $2.5bn (£1.4bn) of hotel looks like, first cross the 300m-long bridge that links mainland Dubai to the extraordinary exercise in land reclamation that is the Palm Jumeirah. To your right and left, the Shoreline Apartments rise in perfect symmetry; behind them the Palm's 17 “fronds” peel off: sandbanks stuffed with villas, awaiting Russian oligarchs or English Premier League footballers. And there, at the end of the Palm's Trunk, slap-bang in the centre of a colossal breakwater called the Crescent, stands Atlantis. You just can't miss it.
There are few, if any, places in the world where political determination, huge amounts of cash and a mania for construction combine to such impressive effect with year-round sun. Atlantis, The Palm (to give it its official title) is the latest expression of the emirate's desire to attract tourists. It's certainly not subtle, but subtlety isn't the name of the game around here.
To rise above the general din of Dubai's constant reinventions — the Palm Jumeirah itself is just one part of a trilogy including the larger Palms Jebel Ali and Deira, which are still under construction — you have to make a statement. So forget boutique retreats: Atlantis is thinking big. Really big.
The first hotel to be completed on the Palm is the brainchild of Sol Kerzner, a South African magnate whose Atlantis hotel in the Bahamas provided the blueprint for the resort. The Dubai version musters a mighty 1,539 rooms, including the Bridge Suite, which unites the two wings of the complex above a huge arch and costs £14,000 a night. Beyond, there's almost a mile of beach, two huge pools and a choice of thousands of deckchairs for your tanning pleasure. By early next year, Atlantis will have its own monorail stop, linking it to the Palm Jumeirah and downtown Dubai. It's easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of an operation that takes up land equivalent to 64 Wembley football pitches, but don't worry: there are 3,500 members of staff on site to calm you down, including 218 lifeguards and 550 chefs.
Hotel guests also have free access to the adjacent Aquaventure waterpark, all 18 million litres of it, with a waterslide called Leap of Faith that spits you out from the top of a faux-Mesopotamian temple called the Ziggurat.
Alternatively, you can sign up for an “interactive experience” with the cetaceans at Dolphin Bay, or book an “Amazon deep forest aqua cure” at one of 27 treatment rooms in the spa. Still, at noon on Tuesday, just 13 hours before the hotel's first guests were due to arrive, they were pulling up the marble floor-tiles in the main lobby.
This seemed, on the face of it, to be a retrograde step. But Amadeo Zarzosa, Atlantis's general manager, was taking it all surprisingly well, gesturing at me to mind my step as we negotiated a series of rifts in the floor. “This will all be fixed by tomorrow,” he said, ushering me past the writhing glass of the Dale Chihuly installation that formed the lobby's centrepiece. Scurrying construction workers took turns to lever up old tiles in his wake, buckets of grout were swiftly poured; a glance outside revealed a crane doing something complicated to the roof.
It turned out that the last-minute renovations were due to a fire that had damaged the lobby earlier in the month. Anywhere other than Dubai, the resulting damage would have meant the postponement of the resort's opening day, or at least a degree of panic. Here, though, there were still a thousand construction workers on site, which meant Zarzosa had a reassuring 13,000 man-hours available to him before the deadline. “I strive for perfection,” he said. Helped, of course, by a willing workforce: “They want to be here, so you're bound to get a lot more productivity. The attitude towards service here is so good that it's refreshing.”
Mark Patten is in charge of the attitude of all those 550 chefs at Atlantis. He rejoices in the title of Vice President, Culinary. On a tour of the ‘backstage’ area — huge breeze-block corridors uniting kitchen after kitchen; a vast loading bay; ovens, fridges and cleaning stations galore — he revealed the secret to meeting the logistical challenge of sourcing ingredients, cutting them up, cooking them and thereby serving 15,000 meals a day in 17 restaurants: “How do you eat an elephant? In small bites. You need to know what to focus on and what not to focus on.”
Patten's team had been practising for months — apparently the furthest room in the complex can now be reached by room service within 15 minutes. And even with so many meals at stake, Patten didn't seem inclined to compromise on quality, going so far as to use his own line of “Atlantis beef”, farmed in his native Australia. According to Patten, once the resort is fully open he expects to get through 6,000 litres of ice-cream a month and half a tonne of seafood a day.
Fish are big in Atlantis. Perhaps the single grandest structure within the resort is the Ambassador Lagoon, an enormous fish tank that lines one wall of the Poseidon Court in the East Tower. The sensation of watching a whale shark swim by as you head off for dinner is as eerie as it is impressive. The 11 million litres of water that fill the central tank (all stocked with local sea-life) are bolstered by the Lost Chambers, a vast Atlantis-themed aquarium on the ground floor, which is stuffed full of marine eye-candy, from enormous Goliath groupers to shoals of moon jellyfish and Indian mackerel. Two ‘Lost Chambers’ suites (called Poseidon and Neptune) are also available to rich ichthyologists for £4,300 a night: the bedrooms in each share a wall with the fish tank, so you can commune with the whale shark in private.
Another wall of the Lagoon is shared by a fish restaurant. But, this being Atlantis, it isn't just any fish restaurant. Ossiano is run by the three-starred Michelin chef Santi Santamaria. The food on offer is exquisite: onion jam with cuttlefish and squid ink sauce. There's always a nagging feeling, however, that the fish on the other side of the glass are watching while you tuck into their erstwhile chums. But again, this being Atlantis, it's not enough to have just one celebrity chef. You need four. So Nobu Matsuhisa has set up here as well: the interior of this latest venture into the splendours of Japanese cuisine is hung about with wooden beams like the interior of a boat. The two-starred Michelin chef Michel Rostang has
also been lured to the Middle East: his brasserie space offers up Parisian fare, such as fish soup, hot duck sandwiches and snails served in tiny burger buns. Even Georgio Locatelli has been tempted, opening his first new restaurant after the two-starred Locanda in London.
“I needed to be convinced that I could deliver the quality I wanted,” Locatelli told me. He obviously was convinced; his intention now is to offer a broader range of Italian cuisine than that available in Locanda in order to satisfy the greater number of customers he expects. There's even pizza available, served from a central oven in the restaurant, though apparently the region's wide fluctuations in humidity present a big problem (“For the past couple of weeks we've been testing the crust”). Just like everyone else in Atlantis, Locatelli is thinking big: in London, his restaurant seats 85; Ronda can handle 250 in a sitting.
There's a sense, as you explore the interior of Atlantis, that it's trying to be all things for all people: wildly differing restaurants, a tasty selection of celebrity chefs, a waterpark for the children (and three kids' clubs, divided according to age), spa treatments for the adults, shops for everyone.
The decor, too, never really settles down to one style, though aquatic motifs are rife. So there's a bit of Art Deco here, some Tiffany there, a huge amphora in the corner, some bulbous pillars and some naive art. The spa looks Moroccan from the outside; but by the time you've settled down in your treatment room, you've moved from the Near East to the Far East. Even the stonework in The Avenues retail area has ersatz marine fossil shapes embedded in the masonry.
On the other hand, it never gets too bellicose; none of it is as “bling” as you might expect. Indeed, as night falls and the cutting-edge skyscrapers of the Dubai skyline flicker into life, it all seems strangely appropriate to Dubai's cultural mishmash — after all, only one in six of the population here are UAE citizens, the rest of them ‘guest workers’ trying to earn a crust for the folks back home. And it all calms down completely in the guest rooms, which are strictly international in their styling — though my towel kept being folded into the shape of a swan.
Wednesday was opening day for Atlantis. I took it upon myself to test the Aquaventure flumes. After an introduction by Peter Doyle, Senior Vice President of the Marine and Water Park (vice presidents are common around these parts), I was let loose on the rapids, a 2.7km circuit that looped and sloshed round the park. “It's always exciting on day one,” said Doyle. “But I've never opened a waterpark anywhere this hot before.” The heat, of course, is one of the fundamentals of a visit to Dubai, but bobbing around on a giant inflatable ring (the preferred mode of transport in the Rapids) certainly helped keep things bearable.
Conveyor belts then whisked me and my inflatable to the top of the Ziggurat, from where I was able to choose to be dropped through a tunnel of marine wildlife, including a few bored-looking sharks, or discard my inflatable and take the Leap of Faith, which involved hurtling downwards at terrific speed before being photographed, gurning and bedraggled, at the bottom.
There's a science fiction-like quality to the whole of Dubai. Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, created a character called Slartibartfast, who was a planetary designer specialising in coastlines (“I like to do all the little fiddly bit round fjords,” he says, claiming that he won an award for Norway). Slartibartfast would have appreciated the Palm, just as he would have enjoyed the vast exercise in terraforming that has resulted in Atlantis and its waterpark. But this is a hostile environment, too. Just as Locatelli's pizza crust has had to be adapted to cope with the humidity, so the scorching heat here requires constant air-conditioning (and sunscreen) in order for it to be enjoyed in comfort. And, of course, mighty resources are required to sustain it all.
Dubai doesn't let details like that get in the way of building an enormous hotel. On November 20, a star-studded guest list will hear Kylie Minogue perform at the official opening ceremony for Atlantis. But after that, there will be new hotels to open, new Palms to construct.
In the end, the lobby wasn't quite ready on time, but that was of no concern to Kevin and Lisa Farr, newly arrived from Ipswich. “It's fantastic; we knew it was going to be good, but it's out of this world,” said Lisa, as she gazed at the whale shark floating round its tank. For Kevin, Dubai offered the ideal escape. “They don't know about the credit crunch here,” he said.
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