For years now those of us looking to escape for some winter sun have tended to join the masses flocking to the extravagant expatriate haven that is Dubai – but not anymore. For the tiny neighbouring kingdom of Bahrain is rapidly becoming the go-to alternative for a more chic, authentic and culturally rich Middle Eastern holiday. An archipelago of 33 islands, this rising star of the Persian Gulf has a more laid back and chilled pace to Dubai’s round-the-clock razzmatazz. In Bahrain’s capital, Manama, you’ll find bustling markets, stunning architecture and evidence of the country’s rich and fascinating history on every street corner.
Unlike other parts of the Middle East, the Bahranians are some of the most tolerant. The kingdom’s tiny population of just 1.5million is made up of 55% non-Bahranian, so as a result the place has a diverse and multi-cultural vibe to it with many religions, cultures and nationalities living side by side. The place has real soul.
WHEN TO GO
We visited in February and enjoyed a barmy 20 – 24 degrees every day - just perfect for lounging by the pool or taking a dip in the sea. The temperature did drop in the evening though, so if you are travelling in winter months, ensure you bring a light jacket and scarf to enjoy al fresco dining.
WHAT TO PACK
It is fine to sunbathe by the pool or on the beaches of the Western hotels and resorts. When out and about in the city, it is advisable for women to cover their shoulders. The same applies with eveningwear. Unlike Dubai, the night life is relaxed so think floaty dresses and flat sandals.
WHAT TO DO
We used the fantastic tour guide Bouchra Ettouri from Visit Bahrain (visitbahrain.bh). Her city day tour included a visit to the 5,000 year old UNESCO world heritage protected Fort of Bahrain – an awe-inspiring monument rich with history. The country’s minister of culture, Mai bint Mohamed Al Khalifa, Forbes 6th most powerful woman in the Middle East, is passionate about preserving and promoting the country’s history and her influence is seen at all tourist attractions including the must-see Bahrain National Museum. We also stopped by the Al Fateh mosque.
At the beginning of April, the country hosts Formula 1 Grand Prix, so expect legions of motor-racing fans flocking to see the famous Sahhir night circuit.
For over 2000 years Bahrain has been world famous for its pearl diving – the Cartier brothers famously sourced all their pearls from the country. These days you can organise tours through portal.btea.bh for both experienced PADI divers or snorkelers.
The vast Manama souk is the place to head for haggling, this maze of a market has everything from silks to jewellery to spices for sale. A friend picked up a beautiful Indian-style silk Kaftan, it was altered on site in under ten minutes all for 10 Bahranian Dinar (around £20). Another friend picked up a gorgeous local dress for her daughter for around 5 Bahranian Dinar (£10). Ornate lamps are also popular in every colour of the rainbow. But it is the jewellery that is the best, with Bahrain being famous for gold and, of course, pearls.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Unlike Dubai and many other parts of the Middle East you can buy alcohol everywhere and you don’t have to have a licence to consume it. As such, there are many cosmopolitan bars to enjoy an evening tipple in such as the Meat Co. rooftop bar in the bohemian Adilya district that is full of enticing nightspots.
For gourmet dining it is best to stick to the hotels (see below) but there are particularly good authentic local restaurants to be found in the souk such as Haji’s café in Manama.
WHERE TO STAY
Due to the kingdom’s increasing popularity as a tourist destination, there are currently 15 new hotels in development, but one of the most established, and best, is the Ritz-Carlton Bahrain. Not only does the hotel boast its own private island and beach (as well as numerous pools), it also has the most incredible variety of ten restaurants to choose from – with food so good you’ll never want to leave! La Med’s sumptuous breakfast buffet and the gorgeous cakes and pastries on offer for tea at The Ritz Gourmet Lounge were highlights. But my favourite was the glorious Cantina Kahlo, a Mexican restaurant in homage to Frida Kahlo, that not only had the best Mexican food I have ever tasted outside of Mexico, but also marvellous – and lethal - Margaritas. Interestingly the restaurant and neighbouring Burlington club was designed by the hotel’s owner Sheik Rhashid Al Khalifa who is rapidly becoming one of Bahrain’s leading artists and whose art is on display throughout the hotel. Whatever you do, don’t miss the spa and indulge in one of their signature massages – but by far my favourite aspect of the hotel was the flamboyance of six flamingos who hang out by the pool!
Room rates start from £338 at The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain. For more information or to book, visit ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/middle-east/bahrain
Gulf Air, the national carrier of the Kingdom of Bahrain, operates two daily flights direct from London to Bahrain starting from £455 return. For further information visitgulfair.com or call (+973) 1737 3737