A myth that has to be seen to be believed

Hannah Higgins
Atlantis The Palm is one of the most Instagrammed hotels in the world

Thousands of years after Plato first wrote about the lost city of Atlantis, it still captures the imagination. The fictional island has sparked books, movies, expeditions and - in one extravagant leap from reality - a luxury hotel.

Perched on the tip of the Palm Jumeirah, the largest man-made island in the world, and modelled after the mythological underwater city of Atlantis, is a bucket-list resort that has come to be seen as a symbol of Dubai itself - a city seemingly lost in the pursuit of extravagance.

In a time where social media reigns, Atlantis has the enviable moniker of being the fourth most Instagrammed hotel in the world. But when opulent hotels are a dime a dollar, what is it about this resort that beckons to people across the globe?

One of the seven emirates making up the United Arab Emirates, Dubai has marketed itself as an unmatchable international tourist destination. "Only here", it calls to jaded travellers, "can you ski at an indoor snowfield despite it being 45C outside" or "hey if you're going to take in a view - why not do so from Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building?"

It's working, too. A decade on from opening its doors, Atlantis, which boasts 1539 rooms, sits at around 96 per cent occupancy.

Those who want to stay can choose from a range of rooms including the hotel's famed underwater suite, one of the few places on earth you can go to bed with sharks and wake up unscathed. And for those truly dedicated to decadence, there's a Royal Bridge Suite, where for a cool $A17,000 you can holiday in the penthouse with your own butler, security guard and beauty spa - one person choosing to do so for 20 nights.

But the majority of people staying at Atlantis aren't billion dollar oil-sheikhs or reality TV stars, though there's no doubt they're among the crowd, but just regular people splurging on a few days in the promise of Nirvana.

The flamboyant Grand Lobby is teeming with a crowd of these regular people when I arrive. Women wearing colourful saris, men in billowing white thobes with chequered head scarves, and bedraggled westerners wearied from their long-haul flights are sprawled in various positions on plush red lounges, all busily awaiting their turn to be one of the 823 guests the front desk staff check in every day.

In the middle of it all, an underwater inspired, writhing sculpture reaches to the ceiling, promising to those waiting not only a dedicated commitment to underwater themed decor, but also that everything here aims to offer that little bit extra.

A porter materialises beside me and asks if he can take my bag. "It's ok," I tell him. "I've got it, it's not heavy."

"No it's not ok," he replies with a mournful shake of his head. This is my first taste of the attraction of Atlantis - it's a place where they demand you enjoy yourself, starting with letting someone else carry your baggage.

I meet with the same disapproval at dinner that night. Ayamna, one of the resort's 23 upscale restaurants, offers hearty Lebanese fare as a belly dancer weaves her way through tables. The haunting sounds of Middle Eastern music fill our ears.

"We're ok for dessert," my host tells the attentive waiter - after we've just spent hours gorging ourselves on a smorgasbord of dishes that covered our table until you could no longer see the surface.

His face is crestfallen and a week later I still feel like I've let him down.

It's just one of many moments in my days at Atlantis where I question reality. Taking a bath while gazing at the lit up Dubai city skyline, snacking on an elaborately crafted palm tree built out of dates, floating through the hotel's sprawling water park and swimming at a white sand beach in the Persian Gulf while gazing at a never-ending line of construction. Often I feel as though I'm on another planet.

But it is below ground where the hotel really suspends reality.

Towering ten-metre windows offer a glimpse into one of the world's largest aquariums, home to more than 65,000 fish, stingrays, sharks and other underwater life forms.

The wow-factor display is made possible only by a complex feeding and care schedule involving 472 kilograms of seafood and 100 workers a day, a behind-the-scenes tour reveals.

But the result is a massive drawcard for holiday-makers who loiter by the windows trying to capture that perfect shot - preferably with a stingray spread-eagled in the background.

It's here as I duck to avoid spoiling people's holiday snapshots that I realise one of the reasons Atlantis lends itself so well to the Instagram-obsessed.

It truly has to be seen to be believed, and while a picture is no substitute for the real thing, they are worth a thousand words - or so I hear.

Hours into my journey home, as I try to sleep upright as the stranger in the next seat uses me as a pillow, my time at Atlantis seems like the myth that inspired it. My leap from reality is over.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Dubai is a 14-hour flight from Sydney and Brisbane and about 13 hours from Melbourne.

Emirates flies from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne to Dubai. Go to emirates.com.

STAYING THERE: Atlantis The Palm is a five-star hotel with great access to the beach, luxurious pool facilities and an action packed water park. The resort is also home to world-class restaurants and bars. Prices start at approximately $A320 per night. For more, visit atlantisthepalm.com

PLAYING THERE: The hotel's Aquaventure waterpark features waterslides, river rapids and private cabanas and is a great day out for children and adults alike. Aquaventure is available to guests of the hotel free of charge.

The writer travelled as a guest of Atlantis The Palm, Dubai.