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You'll want to get lost in modern 'Atlantis'

I can't remember anything but my scream. So I climb the steps of the Mayan temple a second time to prove it wasn't an illusion, to prove I had actually taken the "Leap of Faith."

I reach the top of the waterslide and start to reconsider that nagging need for proof. Then I see the little girl in front of me. There's no backing out. I get to the front of the line, cross my arms and legs as they tell you, and pray (something they fail to tell you).

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It happens again. I can't remember the events of the last five seconds, the time it takes to drop 60 near-vertical feet and roar through a tunnel that whips me past shark-infested waters. Not that I'd be able to spot a hippopotamus at that speed.

As I emerge from the shallow pool, I wonder if I'm good for another go. I decide I am, and trot up the stairs again.

I'm into my second day at Atlantis, which bills itself as a watery voyage of the imagination - with more than a touch of luxury - and I'm starting to get the hang of it. It took me a while, I must admit. I'm not the luxury-seeking, upscale-traveler type.

Maybe my aversion stems from those camping trips my family took each summer. Luxury in the wilds of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or Glacier National Park meant air mattresses. Then, it was all about the beauty of nature seen through the windows of our VW van.

So it was with some hesitation I packed my bags for the Bahamas' swankiest new resort, where much of the beauty is man-made. I discover, though, that humans can do a pretty good job imitating natural beauty with a budget of $800 million.

The first thing you notice is the water. It's everywhere. I'm not talking about the ocean, the resort's backdrop. I'm talking about 8 million gallons of rushing rivers, fountains, waterfall-fed lagoons, pools, and aquariums.

What you don't notice immediately is what's under all that water: the sea life - some 13,000 creatures in all, collected right off the island's shores.

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"Basically, we took the ocean and built it around the resort," says Peter Sharp, vice president of operations.

That's exactly the no-holds-barred approach of Atlantis. There's not a square swimming pool or vertical building in sight. Instead, everything is designed for travelers who want to be wowed.

"Wow!" was just the reaction of young Robbie Battista from Havertown, Pa., who spent the day testing his courage on the five Mayan waterslides, swimming under cascading waterfalls, and pedaling around Paradise Lagoon on a floating bicycle.

His father, Jim, says Walt Disney World used to be what the kids clamored for. "But there is so much more to do here. Plus, there are no lines! It's much better than Disney World, and more relaxed."

Atlantis is acutely conscious of being compared to high-energy theme parks like Disney. Atlantis definitely is stimulating, but if you can pull your kids away from the water attractions long enough, you'll find an undersea world worthy of contemplation.

"Disney's an attraction, ours is more of an exploration," Mr. Sharp says. "We want our guests to discover for themselves what's special about Atlantis."

And there's plenty to discover, what with the dozens of swimming areas and amply-stocked aquariums, the scores of restaurants, the upscale duty-free shops, the 18-hole golf course, and of course, the miles of white sandy beaches - which sadly are almost forgotten.

But the most awe-inspiring feature is "The Dig," a re-creation of an archaeological excavation into the lost city of Atlantis.

As legend has it, around 1,500 BC, a mighty civilization led by Poseidon, god of the oceans, was ravaged by an earthquake and sank into the Atlantic.

The Dig is a labyrinth of chambers filled with Atlantean artifacts, inventions, and hieroglyphics - all encased in 2.7 million gallons of water and guarded by red-bellied piranhas, fluorescent anemones, moon jellyfish, and bamboo sharks.

While Atlantis can be as much as you want it to be, for some the sheer size of the place quashes imagination.

"It's lovely, but it's almost too big. I'm constantly getting lost," says Alice Chipain of Elmhurst, Ill., dining at the Marketplace, one of Atlantis's 38 restaurants.

Atlantis first opened in 1994 with two hotel towers, Coral and Beach, both more moderately priced. The Royal Towers opened in December to the tune of $480 a night in high season.

That kind of sticker shock can accompany you throughout this colossal resort. I was constantly amazed at how many families are able to afford these prices. A cheeseburger at the Shark Bite will cost you $7.50; a grilled steak sandwich, $18. A small Caesar salad at the Lagoon Bar & Restaurant is $9.25. These are lunch prices, by the way. Dinner can easily set you back $50 per person.

If it's gifts you're looking for, there's plenty to choose from - but again, buyer beware. Scarves with watery, tropical prints start at $200, logoed cotton robes cost $300, and beach towels, $55. Your best bet is an Atlantis mug for $10. (I splurged and bought my co-workers a box of $16 cookies.)

There are ways to make the trip more affordable, however. A three-day, two-night Royal Towers package, including airfare from New York's Kennedy airport, starts at $609. Or you can stay at one of the less expensive towers, or take advantage of the many dining plans.

Most guests gave the resort high marks, but a few who wandered in for a glimpse were disappointed they couldn't take a trip down the waterslide. Visitors can gamble, eat in the restaurants, and tour the grounds (for a fee), but you can't swim or rent equipment.

New Yorker Janet Cookson, visiting from a Disney Magic cruise ship docked nearby, was more successful than most. She convinced a sympathetic employee to let her 3-year-old son Spencer take a quick dip in the pool.

"It's beautiful. We'd come back in a minute," Ms. Cookson says as her son splashes under a gigantic seahorse fountain. Young Spence hasn't stopped smiling all afternoon.

I guess a little luxury isn't bad after all.

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