- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

The warm, tranquil waters of the Gulf Stream lap against the Bahamas’ white sand banks, then mingle into the Atlantic Ocean. Beneath a cloudless sky, the clear aqua-blue sea encircles the 700 islands that are the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.

Within hours of arriving, travelers discover that the islands are filled with many surprises. The first may be that they are an ideal destination for families looking for a vacation filled with excitement, relaxation, plenty of outdoor activities and a bit of history.

The Bahamas enjoy an idyllic tropical climate, with temperatures that rarely dip below 60 degrees and seldom rise beyond 90. Rain comes in brief and refreshing afternoon showers. The swimming pools are always warm, and the seas at their midwinter chilliest are 74 degrees. The only questionable-weather time to visit is the fall hurricane season.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, water receded from undersea mountaintops to unveil a chain of islands that Christopher Columbus dubbed the “Baja Mar,” meaning “shallow sea.”

Today, the ancient coral that grows on the sides of those undersea mountains has evolved into spectacular reef and natural marine habitats, making the islands a leading destination for divers.

Those limestone coral reefs are also responsible for one of the Bahamas’ most recognized trademarks — its spectacular, brilliant blue-green waters.

The sea has also given the islands much of their culture and livelihood. As the Spanish conquered the lands in the 17th century, the indigenous people died out, leaving the land to be settled by English Puritans in search of religious freedom; Bermudan slaves and free blacks; British Loyalists; Seminoles from Florida; and Chinese, Syrian and Greek immigrants.

All those people have merged to create a culture imbued with the many colors and lifestyles that keep the Bahamas exhilarating and bright.

The Bahamas’ pirates — one of the islands’ most colorful legacies — lorded over the islands during the late 1600s, a period now known as the golden age of piracy. This subject can be explored at the Pirates of Nassau Museum.

However, Nassau’s history includes more than pirates and displaced settlers. As the Bahamian capital, this sometimes quaint and sometimes seedy city — visitors should keep their visit to daytime only — has plenty of historic spots to visit.

Walking along her narrow streets with cars being driven fast on the left side of the road can be nerve-wracking. However, the beautiful Victorian mansions and ancient cathedrals that dot the city are worth the occasional scare.

Three 18th-century forts still stand. Fort Charlotte, built by Lord Dunsmore in honor of Queen Charlotte, wife of England’s George III, never faced a shot in battle, which may be why it stands intact, complete with a moat (now dry), open battlement and dungeons.

Next door to Nassau is Paradise Island, a smaller island connected to New Providence by a sweeping bridge.

At the tip of Paradise Island, naturalists can admire the Coral Island Marine Gardens, said to be the largest man-made coral reefs in existence. The gardens have a marine museum; underwater observatory; and stingray, shark and turtle pools, along with hands-on touch pools for children.

Cabbage Beach, one of the Bahamas’ most famous white beaches, also calls Paradise Island home. Spanning the ocean side of the island, Cabbage Beach provides a front lawn to Atlantis, a luxury resort and marine habitat that is a fantasy interpretation of the legend of Atlantis.

The mythology of Atlantis is the property’s main attraction. The story of the civilization is told through art, architecture and the marine habitats that provide a home to more than 50,000 denizens of the underwater world.

Sharks and jellyfish, conchs and manta rays, sea turtles and sea horses live within 11 exhibit lagoons and tanks of the Dig, providing spectacular, close-up and sometimes very personal interaction with predatory and tropical fish.

The resort encompasses an older property, the Coral and Beach Towers, with the new luxury Royal Towers. The new Royal Towers of Atlantis include one of the country’s few casinos, a variety of restaurants from fine dining to deli, and plenty of indoor and outdoor entertainment options for day and night.

The building’s architecture offers a variety of interesting flourishes, including the swordfish that grace its exterior. From the Lagoon Bar and Grill, diners can look out onto the property’s seawater lagoon, where guests will find plenty of safe-haven snorkeling and water sports.

Although nature has created some beautiful artistry above and below water, the Atlantis also has some amazing works of human art, including four breathtaking blown-glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly.

The Temple of the Moon and Temple of the Sun glow within the casino, where they rest atop Mayan temple replicas that serve as bars. The Moon emits a cool light through cobalt blue and opalescent glass, while the Sun blazes through more than 2,300 orange, red and yellow elements.

The Atlantis Seaform Chandelier, an assemblage of gold and silver glass blown into the shapes of jellyfish, anemones, squid and seaweed, hangs in the magnificent Great Hall of Waters, with its 70-foot domed ceilings decorated with golden seashells and its polished black-marble floors.

From the upper lobby floor, guests look down at the Atlantis Cafe, where the tables are angled to give diners views of the panoramic, floor-to-ceiling aquariums. From the cafe, large stone arches lead to the underwater streets of the mythical lost continent of Atlantis. In the Dig, a stylized version of the lost city is shown through a variety of underwater exhibits.

As guests walk through the cool, darkened halls of the labyrinth, they pass by the 2.3-million-gallon Ruins Lagoon. Amazing sculptures rest on the bottom, between which large manta rays glide effortlessly and then up the glass wall to provide stunned visitors a belly-side view.

At a touch tank, children and adults caress a sea cucumber and take on an eye-to-eye challenge with a live conch as it hangs from its protective shell.

Wandering guests find a 100-foot-long clear acrylic tunnel that burrows beneath the sharks and rays inhabiting the predator pool.

Whether viewing the lagoons from beneath or from the paths above, guests are given an up-close view of underwater inhabitants, including exotic green moray eels in ancient-looking pottery jars, graceful sea horses, jellyfish, comical spiny lobsters and sharp-toothed piranhas.

The brave of heart can shoot the Mayan Temple’s Leap of Faith, one of Atlantis’ five water slides — this one takes bathers on an almost-60-foot vertical plunge that ends with the rider sliding through a clear acrylic tube through the center of the shark pool at the bottom.

At Seagrapes, one of Atlantis’ 40-plus restaurants, diners are treated to scenic waterscapes as subdued lighting helps dramatize the schools of tropical fish, sharks, rays and other sea denizens that glide quietly by the windows.

The casino’s Atlas Bar and Grill features American foods such as burgers and ribs in oversized portions as diners watch television monitors broadcasting sporting events or track the yachts as they pass to and from the Atlantis wharf.

Guests whose goal is not to eat but to feed marine life should check the feeding schedules in the daily hotel newspaper, Fish & Chips, available in their rooms or from the concierge.

A few lucky guests are given the opportunity to feed the sharks and rays in the marine habitat near the Royal Towers; over on the Beach Towers side of the property, children and adults can feed chunks of fish to the manta rays or handfuls of lettuce to the giant sea turtles. The knowledgeable marine staff is ready to answer a variety of questions from guests of all ages.

With the enormousness of the Atlantis Dig, casino and fantasy-inspired pools, it is easy to miss the Coral and Beach Towers environments and all that they offer, including a more moderately priced experience when contrasted against the glitz and glass of the expensive Royal Towers. Here visitors will find spacious rooms, some with balconies or first-floor patios, and a subdued atmosphere that includes a more relaxed, experienced and helpful staff.

This side of the property has 40 waterfalls, five freshwater swimming areas, two underground viewing grottoes, the quarter-mile Lazy River Ride and the Predator Lagoon. Guests at the Coral and Beach Towers have easy access to the beach and to poolside lounge chairs, both of which are difficult to reach from the Royal Towers area.

For children feeling lonely away from home and friends, the hotel’s library offers guests free 15-minute periods of computer time in which to check e-mail or access the Internet, along with interesting reading material and board games.

The Cave Bar restaurant, also in the Beach Towers area, is a great place to go for burgers, fries and ice cream while looking out over Cabbage Beach toward the sea.

While the Atlantis sits on the ocean side of the island, the Holiday Inn Sunspree Paradise Island looks over the harbor that separates Paradise and New Providence islands.

This property offers affordable family-oriented getaway packages that include complete buffet meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as burger-and-fries-type meals at the poolside Wahoo Bar and Grille.

The Sunspree’s all-inclusive packages include room; taxes; gratuities; meals and snacks; beverages; use of tennis courts, volleyball court and fitness room; scuba lessons; and unlimited access to the Island Stop Kids Camp.

At the Sunspree, the pool is comfortable, the guests are friendly, and the staff is accommodating. It is a good choice for visitors whose goal is to journey beyond the resort enclave and take advantage of the Bahamas’ many attractions.

One of the most memorable marine experiences can be found at Blue Lagoon Dolphin Encounters. Blue Lagoon has 16 dolphins, eight of them born in captivity, which have been trained to assist educators in helping visitors understand these oceangoing mammals.

Visitors can choose the Dolphin Encounter or Dolphin Swim, both of which occur in a natural ocean lagoon. As guests swim, they can look down and see bright yellow and blue tropical fish swimming by their feet, followed by a playful and friendly dolphin.

The encounter provides children of almost all ages the chance to get close to one of these magnificent mammals in a way that is safe for both the legged and finned mammals. Environmentalists are concerned about the practice of humans attempting to swim with dolphins in the wild, which can be dangerous to both species.

The Dolphin Swim quickly becomes a favorite memory for youngsters and those young at heart as dolphins leap over their heads, dance and sing with them before the finale arrives: the 60-foot-long Dolphin Push, in which two of the mammals put their noses behind the swimmers’ toes and propel them across the lagoon. The push ends with guests being tossed in a graceful flip back into the sea.

After a morning with the dolphins, guests can walk across Blue Lagoon Island for beaches of white sand and for snorkeling at Sting Ray City, a 3-acre marine park that provides a home for a variety of sea creatures, including the stingray. These stingrays are extremely gentle and friendly animals that seem to enjoy interactions with humans, particularly when those humans have treats in hand.

Both of these excursions are family-friendly and have elements that will meet the educational and entertainment needs of visitors of all ages.

A variety of nature-inspired excursions can be taken from Paradise Island, including a boat trip to a private island for snorkeling from the side of a pontoon boat or the chance to journey to an outer island, such as Eleuthera.

Located about 60 miles east of Nassau, Eleuthera is about 100 miles long but just a few miles wide and is noted for its beautiful beaches, surfing and excellent diving.

From casinos to dolphin encounters, perfect sunny days to clear moonlit nights, travelers to the Bahamas learn that the islands, and the people, hold many delightful and unexpected surprises.

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