Donning my desert boots and Tiley hat I’m off again to the historic jewel that is Bahrain. This trip includes being taken for a ride by a stunt driver (time to hold onto that Tiley) retracing the footsteps of invaders and the forts they built and enjoying one of the best Italian meals I’ve had for ages.
The Falcon Lounge at Heathrow’s terminal 4 is a needy refuge from the hustle and bustle from the world’s busiest airport. There’s everything you’d want on tap, good food, wine and hot and cold soft drinks and plenty of space with giant windows to see all the action from.
Gulf Air’s business class offer plenty of space too. The full-length bed is a pleasant distraction from all the hospitality, award winning wines, after meal brandies and a 15-inch screen to while away the time. You know the story. The six and a half hours to Manama, the kingdom’s capital literally flew by.
The Gulf hotel is the grandfather of the five-star hotels in Bahrain. It’s vast and entirely made of marble or so it seemed. There’s certainly a lot of it about. 325 rooms and a few apartments, nine restaurants and a spa, gym and outdoor pool are the amenities on offer. My room had a view of the largest mosque in Bahrain, the Al Fateh, more of that incredible building later.
On my first day I headed off to Muharraq the old capital on the second largest of the 33 islands that constitute the kingdom accessed by bridge. You can see a selection of historic buildings including a palace preserved with a very clever ventilation system that provides drafts of cooler air and the switch of a wooden vent at the bottom of a large tower.
Pearls put Bahrain on the map, from Alexander the Great to Jacques Cartier people flocked to the islands in search of the lustre of these natural stones. Cartier travelled there to find his own and made his reputation as one of Europe’s finest jewellers on the back of them.
A wander around the souq and old shops is a must here. Showaiter is the oldest and biggest sweet and biscuit makers in Bahrain. You can try their excellent confectionary before buying. I warn you though they are very tempting and you might end up eating more than you planned. Spice shops abound with piles of weird and wonderful mixtures. The smells were amazing.
I had lunch in the modern souk Manama at Saffron by Jena. A good respite from the heat this air-conditioned wonderland sells everything. The food was lovely with a traditional lentil soup followed by chicken biryani an Indian dish so popular here that Bahrain has elevated it to its national dish. All washed down with a delicious mint and lemon drink.
Gold is very popular here and there are plenty of places to buy it. It is part of the custom when marrying that a man will buy a gift of gold that represents his love of his wife. This could clearly cause problems but it remains a strong practice.
Dilmun as Bahrain was known in 2100 BC was an important trading centre for Mesopotamia. It is thought the epic of Gilgamesh originated here. Gilgamesh’s quest for eternal life was to eat the pearl from an oyster. After diving with weights to retrieve it from the sea it is was stolen by a serpent.
The Bahrain National Museum preserves the Kingdom’s heritage and history with great flare. The building is spacious with nine different halls covering 4000 years of significant events and exhibits. Many stages are depicted through dioramas and models. The Al Fateh mosque is certainly worth visiting. It is vast, able to hold 5000 inside and a further 2000 in an outdoor section. Everything about the structure is on a giant scale even the central light weighs 3.5 tonnes, the enormous carpet was woven in Northern Ireland and the marble came from Italy. Tours and guides are available.
Eating out in Bahrain is fun. An area known as Block 338 is full of restaurants and pedestrian areas not unlike Covent Garden. There are local foods as well as some bigger names. I chose Meat Co. for an excellent steak. The wonderfully named Gracious B. Sikhosana (think life and soul of the party) is the manager and he did a splendid job of making sure I was happy with my gluten free food.
The islands are full of history. On the north coast west of the capital is the Qal’at al-Bahrain or the Bahrain Fort where traces of human life go back 2500 years. Excavations started in the 1950’s and over the decades have revealed a complex series buildings and artefacts. About a 25% of the typical ‘tell’ a mound of successive layers of human occupation has excavated. The most recent occupants were 16th Century Portuguese who changed the fort structure and added many embellishments. This was a fascinating place on my visit there diggings not unlike an Indiana Jones film. A guide is invaluable here as there is so much to see and piece together.
From the ancient to the modern I called into what must be one of the swankiest hotels on the island, The Ritz-Carlton. With liveried staff everywhere and a ‘nothing is too much trouble’ attitude I enjoyed a superb Italian lunch that was not only cooked by an Italian chef Alfonso Ferraioli (absolutely charming) but the front of house staff are Italian too. It was an authentic, tasty, relaxing meal with the spaghetti cacao e pepe (spaghetti with Pecorino) being outstanding. They had some super wines as well.
In a land where petrol is cheaper than bottled water, you can buy 10 litres of petrol for around 50p (it would cost 30 times that in the UK) and with a population of 1.3 million and 650,000 cars you’re bound to get traffic issues. My advice, go off road! I took a trip out to the famous 45,000-seater Grand Prix racing track that every April becomes a petrol heads delight. Land Rover had an obstacle course here that if you’re mad enough you can be driven around. Of course I had to give it a try. My driver was Abraham, a stunt driver by trade that should have warned me.
During the drive along the 32 obstacles course I thought we would topple over at least four times. Such was the skill of Abraham and the glue-like traction of the independent four-wheel drive that we didn’t. The V6 Super Charged 360 bhp vehicle was amazing. It could sense when the breaks were needed on a 45% incline, lower itself to pass under a beam, raise itself to wade through a stream, basically a magic car and great fun. Don’t try it after too big a lunch though … I nearly had a moment!
A trip to this part of the world wouldn’t be complete without camels. The king has a farm that’s open to the public where you can be at one with these friendly beasts of burden. The shop will even sell you camel’s milk said to cure numerous illnesses. It’s an acquired taste and I’d probably try a doctor first.
There are plenty of cool places to hang in and around the capital. I checked out Wu Asian Restaurant and Lounge at the Rotana Hotel. This is a hip joint with resident cookie DJ on the decks and plenty of outdoor space for the young crowd to eat and drink. Bahrain is a very liberal country so unlike some of the neighbouring countries drinking is allowed, as are cinemas and dress codes relaxed, though you should still observe respect when visiting religious sites.
Bahrain is an interesting place full of warmth and hospitality. Good food and a great climate and plenty of history make this an interesting destination for all sorts of travellers. Families are particularly welcome and most of the hotels have pools and child care provisions. I will return I’m sure if nothing else to see what they have uncovered at The Bahrain Fort and visit the ‘tree of life’ that sits alone in the southern desert and is said to be over 400 years old, quite young by Bahrain standards.
Bahrain Tourism & Exhibitions Authority (BTEA) – For more information on the Kingdom of Bahrain, events and attractions please visit: www.btea.bh
Gulf Air – The national carrier of the Kingdom of Bahrain, is a major international carrier serving 42 cities in 25 countries spanning three continents. Gulf Air has been the Title Sponsor of the FORMULA 1 GULF AIR BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX ever since it made history as the first Formula 1 Grand Prix to be held in the Middle East in 2004. Gulf Air flies twice a day direct from London to Bahrain. For further information, fares and reservations contact: (+973) 17373737 or visit: www.gulfair.com
Gulf Hotel – Rooms start from £115 per night per room (excluding taxes, services and meals), dependent on season and availability. To book visit www.gulfhotelbahrain.com or call: +973 17713000.
For more information on Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) and the Land Rover Experience please click here.
And finally, please click here for more information on Primavera Restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton Bahrain.
Neil Hennessy-Vass is a widely-published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer and one of our regular writers.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass