The beguiling Kingdom of Bahrain: A travellers’ guide to this small Arab monarchy in the Arabian Gulf
Soaring above the clouds with Bahrain’s national carrier, my mother and I were cocooned in true comfort and style reclining in Gulf Air’s Falcon Gold seats. We placed our dining order with the on-board chef and were enchanted with our first experience of Arabian hospitality, and in just over six hours we touched down in the captivating Kingdom of Bahrain.
Known as the ‘pearl of the Gulf’, Bahrain was once the world’s leading supplier of natural pearls and is made up of a cluster of thirty-three islands located on the glittering waters of the Persian Gulf. Connected to the north east of Saudi Arabia by means of the 25 kilometre King Fahd Causeway, Bahrain offers visitors an intriguing glimpse into a colourful kaleidoscope of Arabian culture and history.
Bahrain, which translates to ‘two seas’, was once known as Dilmun, one of the oldest civilizations throughout the Middle East. Mentioned in the history of Mesopotamia dating back to early-middle Bronze Age, Dilmun became a strategic trading hub and controlled the Persian Gulf routes until piracy thrived and its power diminished. Subsequent to a period of Arab rule the Portuguese took control in 1521 until 1602 when they were expelled by the Persians who were later defeated by an alliance of Arab tribes, known as the Bani Utbah, and the lineage of the current monarchy traces back to this alliance. In 1892 Bahrain became a protectorate of the United Kingdom, the members of the Al Khalifa tribe were recognised as rulers and bilateral treaties were signed forging a lasting relationship. In 1931, the Bahrain Petroleum Company discovered oil at Jabal al-Dukhan, production began the following year and Bahrain prospered. Independence was declared in 1971 and in 2002 the country became a constitutional monarchy headed by HM King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa.
Today, the Bahraini Dinar is the second most valuable currency in the world and Bahrain continues to invest heavily in tourism and the country’s profile continues to grow due to the Bahrain International Formula 1 Circuit and also as a result of UNESCO World Heritage status awarded to the Qal’at Al Bahrain fort in 2005. The site, located on the northern shore, is recognised as the capital of the Dilmun, with evidence of an almost continuous human presence from around 2300 BC to the 16th century AD. To view the extensive collection of archaeological finds visit the adjacent Bahrain Fort Site Museum and be sure to examine the clay ‘bathtub’ sarcophagus used to bury the dead in the Dilmun era.
To experience a taste of Bahrain’s rich trading history we visited the bustling Manama Souq, which is marked by the Bab Al Bahrain, a striking gateway designed in 1945 by Sir Charles Belgrave; the British advisor to the Emir of Bahrain. Bab Al Bahrain, which houses government offices, was renovated in 1986 reflecting the Islamic architectural style and there are a number of photographs displayed on the walls of the arch interior, which illustrate local life in bygone days. For those who enjoy the art of haggling, this is the place to practice those skills. The meandering alleyways are crammed with a vibrant jumble of stalls and shops overflowing with sparkling jewels, glittering gold and silver, colourful carpets, exotic perfumes, Bahraini sweets and all manner of trinkets and treats. Even the most resistant shopper is sure to part with more than a few Bahraini Dinars. Take a breather and stop off in one of the many lively cafés, order a cup of sweet Arabic coffee and a few dates and take in the dynamic atmosphere amidst the fragrant aromas of incense hanging in the air.
Another popular attraction, where visitors can immerse themselves in local culture, is the Royal Camel Farm located at Janabiya, a thirty minute drive from Manama. Known as the ‘ships of the desert’, camels are simply fascinating animals able to drink 13 gallons of water in 13 minutes with ease. Divided into age groups, the farm houses a herd of hundreds and the spirited younger ones exude a charming inquisitive and gentle nature. We visited during the afternoon and took part in feeding time and of course, as expected, the camels anticipate this opportunity and all are lacking in any patience!
Be sure to visit Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa’s house, which is one of Bahrain’s finest historical buildings and where the longest reigning sovereign (1869 to 1932) once resided. The period architecture, intricate wall carvings and wooden ceilings made from palm tree trunks and fronds offer an insight into royal life during the 19th century. A leisurely stroll away from here is the home of Sheikh Isa, a wealthy and influential pearl merchant. The property was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the ‘Pearling, Testimony of an Island Economy’ award and was built in the 1920’s. There is much to admire, including the recessed stone fretwork, which covers most of the upper levels of the exterior walls, and elaborate ceilings highlight the opulent interior design.
For those keen to reside in similarly lavish surroundings, the Art Rotana hotel, located on Amwaj Islands, a man-made waterside development, is the place to be. We luxuriated in a premium suite, measuring 165sqm, and relaxed in the comfortable contemporary living area. Our spacious bathroom featured a revitalising stand-alone rain forest shower and the private terrace with Jacuzzi was the ideal spot for an afternoon tipple. Guests accommodated on floors 7 to 10 are invited to use the complimentary Club Rotana Lounge, which presents an elaborate international breakfast buffet, Barista-served coffees, cool refreshments and tempting afternoon canapés. It’s the perfect place to unwind and appreciate the view of the hotel’s gorgeous private beach and lagoon surrounded by swaying palm trees. For water babes there are three temperature-controlled swimming pools and a children’s water-park to keep the ‘little ones’ entertained. The Art Rotana features a wide array of dining options including Choices, with ‘live’ cooking stations offering Middle Eastern, Asian and Western dishes and the Flames Steak and Seafood restaurant, where I sampled the succulent Kiwami Ribeye, and accompanied by a glass of Villa Girardi Valpolicella it was absolutely scrumptious.
For those attracted to the idea of even more space and the freedom that apartment style living offers, the Majestic Arjaan by Rotana property is located in Muharraq; only two kilometres away from Bahrain airport. Accommodations include studios and 1, 2 and 3 bedroom duplexes with contemporary and comfortable furnishings and open plan living/dining/kitchen areas with separate bedrooms. Apartment amenities include a washer/dryer, dishwasher, oven and hob and every appliance expected for a home-from-home living experience. Ginger, the hotel’s contemporary informal restaurant, presents a buffet-style breakfast extravaganza and serves a wide range of dishes throughout the day and evening and the service is excellent. Hotel facilities include a temperature-controlled outside swimming pool with ultra-comfy sun loungers providing the ultimate spot for an afternoon snooze in the sunshine.
To experience the warmest Arabian hospitality, visit the ‘Pearl of the Gulf’; the beguiling Kingdom of Bahrain.
Gulf Air, the national carrier for the Kingdom of Bahrain offers reliable and punctual daily direct flights from London Heathrow to Bahrain and provides an efficient check-in service, a generous baggage allowance, and the highest levels of comfort and on-board service. Relax in style in the Falcon Gold Lounge prior to departure from London and Bahrain. For more information visit gulfair.com.
‘Top Tip – UK’
Travel Tip: Avoid airport queues and traffic and book your Heathrow airport transfers on line with Blacklane for a reliable, punctual, first class service. Visit blacklane.com for more information.
Visit Rotana.com for more information on Art Rotana and the Majestic Arjaan by Rotana.
Images, excluding hotels, courtesy of the Bahrain Tourism & Exhibitions Authority