Bahrain: Resplendent jewel of the Arabian Gulf
Sun-kissed beaches, resplendent mosques, pearl diving, body flight experience, multiculturalism and delectable cuisine are among the many reasons travellers are lured to the Kingdom of Bahrain. It’s a destination that will suit all tastes and every pocket. Traversing this enchanting country, TravelScapes got the opportunity to discover that there’s much more to it
A stroll into history and culture
A UNESCO World Heritage site Qal’at al-Bahrain or Bahrain Fort has a vivid history dating back to around 5000 years and it was indeed the perfect introduction to Bahrain for us, as to know a country, one has to know its history. The Bahrain Fort is the site of the former capital of Dilmun and one of the most significant archaeological sites in the Arabian Gulf. Bahrain was home to the waves of civilisation over many centuries, spanning Dilmun, Tylos, Portuguese and Ottoman and its traces can be witnessed in Qal’at al-Bahrain through the various types of stones in the fort among other elements. We were told that human and fish skeletons, pearls, date syrup traces were found during the excavations here. The site has a spring water beach in the vicinity wherein in the evening hours one can enjoy horse rides or gaze at the setting sun. The fort looks splendid during sunset. A record of the Dilmun civilisation has been preserved in the Bahrain National Museum which you can visit to dig deeper into the Dilmun history.
Another UNESCO World Heritage site, Renovated houses in Muharraq is among the renowned cultural offerings in Bahrain that aptly captures the essence of the old traditional architecture and interiors in its traditional Bahraini houses. We also spotted some interesting graffiti along the way and some cute drawings on the walls by kids. We were told that locals still live inside these houses. It is also known as the Bahrain Pearling Pathway as the alleys were used by pearl divers to reach the port. As you enter the area you can witness Bukhalaf Coffee Shop with aesthetic and authentic Bahraini decor. Some of the highlights of Renovated houses in Muharraq tour for us were House of Art, Sheikh Ebrahim lecture hall, Sheikh Ebrahim Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Centre for Culture & Research, Kurar House (house of weaving), Ibrahim Al Arrayed House of Poetry, Abdullah Al Zayed House for Bahraini Press Heritage, all of which were symbolic of Bahrain’s rich heritage. While you are here, indulge in a traditional Bahraini feast or try the famous Arabic coffee at Raazji .
We witnessed jaw-dropping opulence at Al Fateh Grand Mosque which was built to honour the founder of modern Bahrain, Sheikh Ahmed Bin Muhammad Bin Khalifa, who was known as ‘Al Fatih’ (the conqueror). We were awestruck by the surahs engraved in kufic calligraphy and splendid geometrical patterns. The guide, Magdi Osman revealed that the magnificent beige brick-and-stone mosque has marble flooring from Italy, carpet in the prayer halls is from Scotland, a three-and-a-half-tonne Swarovski crystal chandelier from Austria that enhances the splendour of the main hall, teak used in the doors were brought from India and the hand-blown glass lamps are from France. The dome is one of the largest fibreglass domes in the world.
Myriad adventures and leisure
Bahrain is an exciting destination for adventure enthusiasts and offers plethora of adrenaline filled escapades besides pearl snorkelling. We began our affair with a daredevil drive, the 4×4 Land Rover experience. We were caught up in the thrill and excitement during the whole off-roading experience wherein on a 3.5 km natural track, there were a series of trails filled with 27 obstacles such as slow rising, axle twister, steep climbs, daredevil descents, staircases and more which the Land Rover Discovery overcame like a pro.
We also got the opportunity to visit the SAKHIR tower (King’s friends and relatives watch the F1 action from here), control room and Media Centre.
After a short training, we took on the wheels on its state-of-the-art karting track to get a very first taste of the fast-paced motorsport. It proved to be an adrenaline filled extraordinary experience.
The next awaited adventure was indoor skydiving at Gravity to experience the phenomenal feeling of a freefall in one of the tallest wind tunnels in the world. The tunnel is 12 m high and is constructed with tempered glass. Relax, hold still and overcome your fears as there is a trainer holding you and flying with you towards the top of the wind tunnel in the second round of the skydiving experience. And we finally headed to the ultimate adventure pearl snorkelling, the famed Bahraini adventure. It began via a boat to Amwaj Marina but only swimmers can try their hands at pearl diving so the diver BaherEldahan plunged into the sea and was inside for almost an hour and came back with 27 oysters. We enjoyed the breeze, azure water and the exciting process of opening each oyster (taught by Eldahan) in search of the pearl but none of us was lucky enough to find one. It’s one of the only places in the world where you can dive and even take the pearl (if you are lucky enough to find one) as the most unique souvenirs.
For some leisure time, tourists can consider visiting Al Dar Island via a sea taxi and can witness several dhows before taking the sea taxi. You know that you are here when you hear groovy music, people going for a swim or trying water sports, families enjoying a hot barbeque or simply relaxing in the beach huts. It also has villas where people can stay for the night after partying. Marassi Beach is one of the cleanest, most-pleasant beaches in Bahrain so one can relax in the lounge chairs with umbrellas, indulge in some water sports, grab a bite at any of the restaurants with a scenic view. Both Al Dar island and Marassi Beach have kids zone or a playground area. Getting up-close with the camels makes for an interesting Bahraini experience, click selfies or feed them at the Camel Farm which has around 450 camels. The farm is owned by Mohammed bin Salman Al Khalifa. To unwind drive through the King Fahd Causeway or Bahrain Saudi Bridge which connects Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and enjoy the serene views from the Bahrain side.
Food is one of the most heartfelt and authentic expressions of tradition, history and culture and Bahrain will spoil you with a wide range of options. Thus, it will not be incorrect to say that it’s a heaven for non-vegetarians but it does not disappoint the vegetarians as well. A homegrown family eatery Al Abaraaj is famous for its grills and Middle Eastern cuisines which the tourists visiting Bahrain should definitely try but if you want to go for a hip district with cool street art and a party vibe, then look no further than Block 338 having a row of restaurants and some art galleries, where you can find a mix of locals, tourists and expats. Every three to six months a new restaurant opens in this area. We indulged in the fine-dining restaurant operated by a Michelin starred chef Vineet Bhatia. Rasoi by Vineet takes you on a delectable journey of contemporary Indian cuisine. Start your day with a Bahraini breakfast at Haji’s Cafe 1950 in the Manama Souq, especially the non-vegetarians can relish a breakfast or you can also consider gorging on Saffron Royal Breakfast Saffron by Jenna in Muharraq for the authentic dishes such as Balaleet, Egg Tomato, Kabab roll, Saffron drink or Karak Chai (masala chai). As you step into Villa Mamas, it welcomes you with a warm ambience and aesthetic décor, the fragrance of fresh ingredients, herbs and spices soothes the senses and perfectly complements the dishes, be it meat, fish, chicken or vegetarian. Here you can also purchase soaps, chocolates, molasses, olive oil and other organic produce. The impressive menu comprising Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine also boasts of a range of vegan and gluten-free options. Buffet at Art Rotana Amwaj Islands and Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay are among the best choices and will surpass your expectations if fine dining is what you are seeking. Some of the must try traditional Bahraini delicacies are Qoozi, Bahraini Kebab, Gahwa and Halwa.
From souqs to stores
Wandering through the bustling streets of Bahrain, we indulged in retail therapy in gleaming supermalls and souqs. Their souqs still evoke the ambience of the ancient souqs and we spotted both locals and tourists there. Manama Souq is the old bazaar of Bahrain’s capital, Manama and is a warren of narrow streets and alleyways. Here you can shop everything from Bahraini halwa, antiques, electronic goods, rich fabrics, home décor items, t-shirts, lanterns, handicrafts, types of radios, dates, spices, seeds, shisha pipes and their famous saffron, black lime and perfumes. It also has heritage cafes, art galleries and some age-old shops. Little India is a corner in the Manama Souq, where you can find some shop owners from Kerala. Grab a quick bite in the vegetarian restaurant Swagat and be a part of the evening aarti inside the 200-year-old Shrinathji (Krishna) Temple which was really a special experience in Bahrain and fine example of religious tolerance. The highlight of this souq for us was the shop called Hurafuna Bahraini Crafts that had an interesting display of dolls, puppets, fabric notebooks, bookmarks with calligraphy, coffee paintings, leather wallets and handbags, ceramic and porcelain pottery, wooden home décor items such as boats, sculptures, ships and traditional chests and palm tree basketry.
A’ali Town is Bahrain’s biggest pottery and handicraft centre, located amidst 4,000-year-old burial mounds and to find out further about their art, we visited Jaffar Mohammed Al Shughul Pottery Factory and Delmon Pottery. You can take back home some vibrant and unique souvenirs from here. Besides Bahraini potters, here you can also witness potters from Lahore and Rajasthan in action using the old-fashioned foot operated wheel and baking the finished pots in kilns built into the nearby burial mounds. These pots are usually painted with watercolour spray paint and come in various shapes and sizes. The pots and handicrafts are unique as these ranges from naturally finished to vibrant, with designs including Arabic calligraphy, forts, mosques and much more.
City Centre Bahrain is a mega-mall located in the heart of Manama and has something for everyone. It has a host of international brands including Bershka, Accessorize, Zara, Karl Lagerfeld, Balmain and Saks Fifth Avenue. There are shops of fine Arabian fragrances and boutiques of local designers, Carrefour supermarket, food court and restaurants such as Rendezvous and a cinema complex. Bahrain Dragon City Mall offers quality Chinese products ranging from clothes to shoes, electronics, lightings, toys and more. There are both wholesale and retail shopping outlets and a big food court. Chinese architectural and commercial influence can be seen in this mall’s design. Seef Mall has a mix of high-end international labels such as Dunhill, Givenchy and Armani Exchange and high street brands: Massimo Dutti, Oasis and American Eagle Outfitters, to name a few.
*The FAM trip was organised by Bahrain Tourism & Exhibitions Authority.*