The Stationary Cruise 

Hostage at a theme-park hotel

Wednesday, Aug 25 1999

You'd have to assume that the middle-aged fellow thinks he's telling the world through his T-shirt that he really, really enjoys golf. Like "A BAD DAY OF GOLF IS BETTER THAN A GOOD DAY OF WORK," or the blunt "I'D RATHER BE GOLFING." There's no disputing those two maxims; each leaves no doubt in the mind of even the most casual bystander as to the T-shirt-wearer's feelings about his relationship to the sport. Both declare their fondness for golf as clearly as a yarmulke says "Hold the bacon."

But wait a sec. Doesn't "WILL GOLF FOR FOOD" imply that golfing is an endeavor akin to work? Does this guy love work as much as golf? Or does he consider golf a big nuisance that he's willing to endure to survive? If he does adore golf and will do anything for it, wouldn't it read better as "WILL SET MYSELF ON FIRE FOR GOLF"?

Whatever, I am now convinced that "WILL GOLF FOR FOOD" is a good saying for a T-shirt only if you pretty much hate golf. The next poolside hour must be spent coming up with my own T-shirt, something along the line of "I'M ONLY HERE BECAUSE IT WAS A FREE BUSINESS TRIP FOR MY HUSBAND."

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ATLANTIS IS ON PARADISE ISLAND, IN the Bahamas. It has 2,400 rooms; 38 restaurants, bars and lounges; and a 44-acre marine habitat. As if there were any doubt, the theme of this theme park is water. More than 40 million gallons are recycled every day. It's like a cross between Raging Waters and Sea World, with room service.

By the time you've swum in the 11 pools, taken a jumbo inner tube down the River Pool, braved the 60-foot Leap of Faith slide from the top of a "Mayan" "temple" (scary) and plummeted down the Serpent slide, which takes you through a Plexiglas tunnel that's surrounded by live sharks (extremely fun), you can swim in the actual ocean -- the color of water! -- where you might think the gentle swells are Atlantis' best special water-effect yet. In four days, I never even saw the archaeological "Dig" or the shopping mall or the golf course.

With so much to keep you busy toweling off, you could almost forget there's gambling here. Almost. The Vegas-worthy Atlantis casino offers all the usual ways to lose your cat's college-education fund, plus a game that sounds inviting, Caribbean Stud Poker. But with the cheapest tables at $10 per bet, gambling here makes for a pretty expensive free drink.

There's really no need to leave the resort, which Atlantis wisely acknowledges with a masterful pricing plan that is a tightwad's terror come true. The prices for incidentals are not any more exorbitant than other luxury hotels', but the sheer size of Atlantis makes going off-campus for a cheap anything a little off-putting. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that you'll never actually experience the real Bahamas sitting here basking in the lifestyle to which you've become accustomed by repeating your new mantra, "Charge it to my room." So ditching for lunch is tempting, if only to deny Atlantis the $12.95 for a tuna melt.

Then again, you won't experience the real Bahamas when you water-taxi into "town," either. At Nassau, on New Providence Island, you dock next to the cruise ships, an average one the size of about eight stacked Beverly Centers. You step off the boat and merge into the groups of tourists paroled from their gigantic floating jails. Suddenly, the image you have of yourself as an intrepid, devil-may-care traveler is swallowed by the fact that as far as anyone else is concerned, you are one of them -- a cruise-ship person.

You don't have to be Admiral Byrd or even global cycler Dervla Murphy to consider yourself a real adventurer compared to cruise-ship people. Cruise-ship people know where their next meal is. You don't. They will buy souvenirs from designated local peddlers, while you have the freedom to wander into an off-limits neighborhood and mingle with the common folk. You are free, unencumbered, footloose, a real traveler, and therefore a superior human being.

But here you are, shoulder-to-shoulder with them. The local women who ask "Braid your hair today?" do not care that you came in search of island culture. They know day-trippers have no chance to experience anything other than tourist-board-approved culture. So what do you do? You stroll the aisles of the Straw Market and look for a floppy doll that says folk art, not manufactured souvenir.

Nassau's street peddlers don't need to resort to guilt like the adorably dusty Chiclets-pushing tots of Tijuana's Revolución; they know you're going to buy a parrot walking stick or a Bahama-Mama T-shirt -- because there's no competition and nothing else to do. Walk the streets and the only locals you'll come into contact with work in the shops or the seaside shacks selling conch salad. Or as waiters in the few restaurants (cruise people are well-fed enough the other 22 hours a day).

The island no doubt holds plenty of worthy explorations on the rest of its 1.5 square miles, but Nassau is just another theme park. And with Atlantis looming at the horizon, and knowing that someone right now is blending a bright-red rum drink and there's an inner tube with my name on it, local color can wait.

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