From ancient Arabic dwellings to a Grand Prix racetrack, James Litston joins a fam trip to Bahrain and finds it brimming with authenticity and attractions.
I feel as if I’m at the crossroads of two very different worlds. Behind me, the setting sun casts a rosy glow over age-old market gardens and a dusty fort whose history spans five millennia. Ahead lies a high-rise cityscape with futuristic towers lit up in garish, multicoloured neon. Compounding the old-meets-new clash is the wailing of numerous muezzin as they compete with each other in calling the faithful to prayer.
It’s a truly magical moment: or at least it would be if the horses we’re riding would cooperate. But instead of gamely plodding on, they’ve unanimously decided to stop right here. We dig our heels into their flanks, urging them to proceed; but the unresponsive steeds ignore our efforts.
“You’ve got to kick,” the guide advises one of my travelling companions. “Pretend it’s your exboyfriend!” The extra encouragement spurs the reluctant horses to continue on our way down the trail into the gathering dusk.
A horseback excursion is the perfect introduction to Bahrain, a desert kingdom where tradition and modernity collide. Occupying an archipelago cast adrift in the Arabian Gulf, it’s one of the world’s smallest nations (just twice the size of the Isle of Wight) and was one of the Middle East’s first oil-based economies. Before that, it was home to waves of civilisation over many centuries, spanning Dilmun, Portuguese and Ottoman rule. This colourful history combines with modern attractions to make Bahrain an intriguing shortbreak destination.
I’m here with a mixed group of agents and product managers on a fam trip showcasing Bahrain’s highlights. Following our horseback excursion, we learn that the kingdom’s 30-plus islands are connected by bridges (including one to Saudi Arabia), which makes for easy and enjoyable island hopping.
First on our agenda is Muharraq, where we spend an atmospheric few hours exploring the ancient, sun-baked streets of what was once the Bahraini capital. The discovery of oil in the 1930s saw the inhabitants abandon the old town in favour of new opportunities nearer the oilfields. The Ministry of Culture has since renovated many decaying buildings to breathe new life into this characterful quarter. Several, including merchants’ houses, shops and a mosque have been incorporated into the Bahrain Pearl Trail, a self-guided route that constitutes a pleasant stroll into history.
We pop into Sheikh Isa bin Ali House – a 19th-century fortified home and one of Muharraq’s oldest buildings – to discover traditional architecture executed in mud brick, coral stone and palm. Its wind tower and thick walls were designed for comfortable living in a harsh desert climate long before the advent of air-conditioning. We also visit a modern-day souq to discover halwa (a traditional sweet treat) and exotic agar-wood, whose fragrant oil is a highly prized perfume.
Heading over a causeway, we move on to Bahrain’s contemporary capital, Manama. Its high-rise financial district stands tall on land reclaimed from the sea; but we find authentic charm nearby at Haji’s Cafe, tucked away on a shaded side-street. Here among the bustle, we find a table and mimic the locals by ordering a typical Bahraini brunch. Our table soon heaves with dishes of dahl, omelette, curries and salads, all of which we eagerly mop up with fresh-from-the-oven Arabic bread. It’s tasty, filling and absurdly good value at just £4pp.
Equally charismatic is Block 338 in Manama’s Adliya district, where we venture out for dinner later that night. Like everywhere else in the city, this friendly and upbeat area is essentially crime-free and feels very safe to walk around after dark. Its streets are decorated with colourful graffiti and fairy lights, and its open air bars and restaurants attract a diverse crowd of visitors, expats and locals in traditional robes. Lured by its huge rooftop terrace, we opt for Attic and indulge in an epic feast of Greek meze enhanced by skyline views and a pleasant breeze.
The next day, we head out of town for the half-hour drive to Bahrain’s most famous attraction. Opened in 2004, the Bahrain International Circuit hosts two major international events (Formula 1 and Six Hours of Bahrain) as well as numerous regional-profile bike and motorcar races. There’s no racing today, so entertainment takes the shape of a 4x4 desert drive. The experience follows a purpose-built course filled with obstacles, steep climbs and daredevil descents, making it a very different proposition from the dune-bashing familiar in other Gulf states.
Even the non-petrolheads among us are impressed with our behind-the-scenes circuit tour. It’s certainly one of Bahrain’s more unique attractions; but with boat trips to deserted islands, a new pearl-diving experience, impressive museums, a water park and even excellent bird watching, there’s scope to build a Bahrain break into all sorts of clients’ travel plans.
Book it: Three nights’ B&B at Sofitel Bahrain starts from £770pp including Gulf Air flights and transfers, based on two sharing.
Lisa Butcher, Grandstand Motorsports
With Bahrain’s circuit being relatively new, we don’t get as many enquiries as we do for Abu Dhabi; but from my experience of this welcoming, safe and surprisingly liberal society, I can see Bahrain’s potential for our clients. I’d pair a Grand Prix stay with a beach hotel and a city or boat tour, so clients can relax after the race.
Rajiv Sehgal, Travelpack
We sell a large number of Dubai and Doha holidays, and I’ll happily add Bahrain to the programme. Gulf Air (the national carrier) has very competitive fares, so I’d suggest a few days’ stopover to clients en route to the Far East, India, Sri Lanka or Nepal.
Of the hotels we’ve seen on this trip, I’d recommend the Novotel to mid-market clients, and the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton for a more discerning market. For longer staying guests, my first choice would be the Sofitel. Its character and facilities are ideal for leisure travellers, and clients will appreciate the Middle Eastern decor and natural beach.
I’d also recommend at least one or two sightseeing excursions; our ground handler, Visit Bahrain, has product options suitable for all kinds of clients.