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In a weekend in mid-October -- theoretically off-season -- all 2,300 rooms at the sprawling Atlantis resort were booked. Even the $700-a-night (U.S.) rooms at the fashionable Ocean Club.

For three days, the huge spa had no openings for massages. And a long line formed early at the Mayan pyramid, where screaming guests slide down an almost-vertical 60-foot slope, through a clear acrylic tunnel submerged in a shark-filled lagoon.

Under a tent nearby, Salma Hayek, Woody Harrelson and Pierce Brosnan were giving TV interviews to E! Entertainment and Insider about their movie After the Sunset, filmed almost entirely at Atlantis.

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Atlantis draws celebrities to the Bahamas like barnacles to a fishing boat. Oprah, a frequent visitor, has filmed The Oprah Winfrey Show here, and Regis and Kelly sat under Atlantis's palms trees for several shows. Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey turned up for an episode of Newlyweds; Christina Aguilera and Gloria Estefan chose Atlantis for concerts; and Michael Jordan hosts his celebrity golf tournament here, to name but a few.

Crowds at this mega-resort, even at mega-prices -- the least expensive room is presently $215 (U.S.) -- are not unusual. Atlantis is a success story of truly mythic proportions.

Back in the summer of 1994, much of what is now Atlantis -- 80 per cent of Paradise Island -- was a sand pit crawling with bulldozers and cranes. Sol Kerzner walked among them under a merciless Bahamas sun, directing masons and squinting at blueprints.

The South African mega-millionaire, who at the time commanded a $1-billion hotel-and-casino empire called Sun International, was building a $250-million (U.S.) resort that he would name Atlantis.

In the plans: massive refurbishment of two high-rise hotels, including the Britannia (now the Coral Towers), where the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes once lived and where the shah of Iran found refuge. Other projects included the rebuilding of the elite Ocean Club inn, and the construction of a chain of lagoons that would be the world's largest outdoor aquarium.

He was spending $1-million (U.S.) a day, he said, in a race against time to get the resort running and the fish in the lagoon swimming by the Dec. 22 gala later that year.

Kerzner made the deadline, and Atlantis was an immediate success, something that had eluded previous property owners, including Merv Griffin, Donald Trump and A & P heir Huntington Hartford.

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Fast-forward to Dec. 16, 1998, and a $7-million (U.S.) party for the new Royal Towers hotel, which drew Oprah, Michael Jackson, Julia Roberts, Natalie Cole and Quincy Jones.

The biggest-name celebrities couldn't resist the scenery: The 20-metre, domed, gilded rotunda, with massive columns and marble floors worthy of a cathedral. The huge picture windows offering underwater views of Kerzner's half-hectare Waterscape. The labyrinth of aquariums giving a peek into The Lost Continent of Atlantis -- sharks and stingrays swimming past ancient-looking fallen columns and stones carved with Mayan art.

"Sol is a visionary," raved Ivana Trump at the party. "He has brought the ocean into the resort. It's incredible." Her former husband, the Donald, was also there.

The new hotel brought the total number of rooms at Atlantis to 2,355. That wasn't all: There were now 38 restaurants and bars; 11 swimming pools; a luxury spa; a 10-acre marina holding yachts up to 60 metres; and a 2,800-square-metre casino with 826 slot machines paying out $33,000 (U.S.) per hour, as well as baccarat, blackjack, roulette and craps -- larger than any casino in the Bahamas or Caribbean.

It is now 10 years and $1.1-billion (U.S.) in construction costs later.

Kerzner International is planning to spend more -- an $800-million (U.S.) expansion that includes a new tower with 1,500 guest rooms, bringing the number of rooms to 3,800. Atlantis is the second-largest employer in the Bahamas (behind the government), and the new buildings will bring the number of employees to 9,000.

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By 2006, Kerzner will have spent $1.9 billion (U.S.) on Atlantis -- his playground that rose from the Atlantic Ocean and the white sands of Paradise Island.

For more information, call the resort at 1-888-528-7155 or visit the website at http://www.atlantis.com.

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