A fabled world surfaces in the Bahamas
I’m snorkelling over sunken ruins, feeling like a guest on an interactive quiz show. The $10,000 question: what are the origins of the lost world I’m exploring?
Scattered in the depths below are broken marble columns (the remains, perhaps, of temples from classical Greece?), fragments adorned with hieroglyphics (Egypt of the Pharaohs?), an enormous sundial (Mayan, anybody?). Tropical fish and manta rays elegantly glide past the monolithic statue of a bull (a Babylon relic, perhaps?) followed by a very lazy reef shark. Then I spot the “ancient submarine”. “This submarine was made 11,000 years ago from whale bones and mother of pearl,” the guide intones. “It was powered by giant crystals! Atlantis was a highly civilised place with technology that often exceeded our own.” I look over at my son Sam, aged 11, who is weighing up this exotic snippet. “Well, maybe they’re getting a little carried away with the ancient submarine,” I suggest. “It’s still cool,” he shrugs. Sam knows as well as I do that our destination demands a little flexibility on historic detail.
Our dive site is not in the Mediterranean, lost on some Homeric shore, but in the modern water park of Atlantis in the Bahamas, dating from the mid-1980s. We’re in a huge pool, aptly called The Dig, which is filled with evocative faux-antiquities. And unlikely though it sounds, we’ve come to Atlantis on a fact-finding mission.
Sam has been obsessed with ancient Greece for years, from Jason and the Argonauts and Hercules movies to Percy Jackson books. When he first heard of a water park called Atlantis, named after the legendary continent that sank beneath the waves, he begged me to take him there. I used to love Greek mythology as a kid too, and as an adult I’ve written a couple of books on classical history.
Curiosity prevailed. Why not? Maybe a visit to Atlantis can actually be, well, educational. It will be our own version of a Homeric quest, to see what Sam can learn from a 21st-century theme park.
The moment we arrive, we are swept up in Atlantis’s sense of theatre. We eagerly spot the Greek touches of Corinthian columns in the lobby, colourful mosaics of mythical scenes on the ceilings and neoclassical murals in an outdoor restaurant. And as one might expect of legendary Atlantis, the resort dazzles visitors with its scale and ambition. Sprawling across 57ha, it’s a self-contained world of connected pools, exotic restaurants, casinos and cinemas.
We get lost immediately, inspiring me to wax lyrical about the Greek myth of the Minotaur in its labyrinth, and how the hero Theseus finds his way out of the maze by using a ball of twine to retrace his steps.
It is also quickly obvious that the resort casts its cultural net wide, as we dash in excitement between water slides modelled on a six-storey Mayan temple and a vaguely Egyptian “Power Tower”. This inspires my first lesson to Sam, when we retire at dusk to a bar-cafe called Plato’s. It was the Greek philosopher Plato who first described Atlantis in the 4th century BC (for the record, in two dialogues called Timaeus and Critias).
The story of the “lost continent” has captured the imagination of generations since, and inspired hundreds of treasure hunters and theories, including that Atlantis stretched from Europe to the Americas, and influenced cultures from Africa to Mexico.
“Of course the Bahamas were part of Atlantis,” one of the wait staff helpfully explains, adding that aerial photos seem to reveal a submerged highway nearby.
Clearly, I can be creative in finding connections to the past. The longer we stay, the more pagan the resort begins to feel. The water slides we treat like Olympic challenges, a bit like the labours of Hercules, with each more terrifying than the next. We crash down artificial rapids, fall through darkness in a whiplash-inducing slide called the Serpent and are shot in transparent tubes through shark-infested lakes, screaming at the top of our lungs.
The ultimate challenge is the Leap of Faith, a 10m high, near-vertical plunge that might have turned Hercules’s hair white. But the Greeks also worshipped nature. They loved sea creatures, and Atlantis also has the air of a magical aquarium. We swim with dolphins, companions of the Greek sea god Poseidon, and cavort with sea lions.
Exploring ‘ancient ruins’ at Atlantis, top; Mayan temple waterslide, above; the resort and water park, above right