Bahrain: the pearl in the Arabian Gulf
The island nation offers ancient history, beautiful sights and delicious food - plus great motor sports
There aren’t many island countries that can lay claim to a rich culture, stunning cities and a cutting-edge facility for one of the world’s largest spectator sports.
But Bahrain has all of those treasures, and a fair amount more.
From the outside, the Middle Eastern country may appear to be little more than bustling hub of wealthy residents and opulent shopping centres. It was one of the first states in the Gulf to strike oil, with the discovery of a large new field last month providing a further economic boost.
But behind the glamour is a country steeped in history, with buildings and structures dating back thousands of years and a newly reformed pearling industry that was once considered the greatest in the world.
Another big draw in recent years is the Formula 1 circus, which has been racing at the country’s Bahrain International Circuit since 2004. Over the past four years, the race has been held at night, making it an even more special experience for both attendees and fans at home.
Spending a few days in the Gulf state over the F1 weekend, The Week Portfolio gained a true appreciation of the many diverse experiences on offer in the 33 small desert-covered islands of Bahrain - and of how a global event can turn the country into a never-ending party.
If you’re considering a trip Bahrain, either for a getaway or for next year’s GP, here’s how to make the most of your visit.
What to do
Although Bahrain is best known for its oil, it was also the global hub for pearl divers before the practice was outlawed towards the end of the 1930s. But the ban was lifted last year, and there are now four scuba centres licensed to take tourists into Bahrain’s waters to hunt for pearls.
You’ll need to be a capable swimmer and any experience with diving will come in handy. Most instructors have years of pearl-diving experience, however, for tourists who need more assistance.
The diving centres licensed to offer pearl diving tours are Scuba Life, Delma Marine, Environmental Arabia and Scuba Master. Prices on application
The glamours images we often see of Bahrain often paint the Gulf as a country lined with sky scrapers and modern shopping malls. But there are also a number of historic sites that offer a glimpse into the country’s past, such as Qal’at al-Bahrain.
More commonly referred to as Bahrain Fort, Qal’at al-Bahrain is one of the Gulf’s oldest structures and is registered as a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
Built over a span of 4,000 years, the fort today consists of five exhibition halls showcasing more than 500 artefacts from the residents who lived there, along with historic military and commercial relics.
Qal'at al-Bahrain is open from Tuesday to Sunday, with free entry and guided tours
A go-to spot for an authentic taste of Bahraini cuisine, Haji’s Cafe is tucked down one of the many side streets of the Manama Souq in capital Manama. There’s no menu, with the waiters simply serving customers a variety of different dishes to try, all of which offer distinct flavours and combinations.
Be sure to peer into the kitchen and watch the chefs prepare khubz, a type of flatbread. The chefs throw the bread into a traditional open oven and toss it over a bare flame. It may look rather precarious, but the result is delicious.
Where to stay
Located in the centre of Manama, The Ritz-Carlton Bahrain resort appears to offer everything any visitor could want. Couples looking for a more romantic gateway can take a visit to the resort’s sea-inspired spa or take a stroll through the private gardens, complete with flamingos. Families, meanwhile, can take part in activities ranging from water sports to cooking classes for children.
There’s a private beach and island, too, as well as 11 on-site restaurants that each have a distinct theme, ranging from Mediterranean cuisine to a steakhouse. We’d recommend Cantina Kahlo, which serves authentic Mexican food inspired by street cuisine. The restaurant’s tapas is a particular highlight, as are the selection of cocktails.
Main courses at The Ritz-Carlton’s Cantina Kahlo restaurant start at 7 BHD (£14) per person
Jumeirah Royal Saray
Set beside The Ritz-Carlton on the Bahraini coastline is the newly opened Jumeriah Royal Saray. The 174-room hotel is stunning both inside and out, with Italian marble floors that ooze luxury. It’s proven popular with Bahraini royalty, who visit on a weekly basis for coffee prepared by baristas flown in from Colombia.
Much like its neighbour, the Jumeriah Royal Saray boasts its own private beach, as well as an area for visitors to moor their private yachts. There’s also a sizeable pool that leads onto a beach lined with private cabanas. Here, you can bask in the sunshine, or retreat into the summer house to relax in private.
Jumeirah Royal Saray currently has an offer of £255 per person per night
Those looking for a more central base may want to consider the Downtown Rotana, located a little closer to Manama city centre. The hotel’s Alto lounge, on the 25th floor, offers breathtaking views, as does the poolside Sundeck Pool Bar a few floors down.
Another particular highlight is the Teatro restaurant, serving a fusion of cuisines from Thailand and Japan. We throughly recommend staying for the dessert, called The Grand Finale, featuring a range of sweet treats that you’ll have a hard time finding outside of Asia.
From £110 per person per night
The Grand Prix
As the sun begins to set, F1 fans swarm towards the Bahrain International Circuit for an adrenaline-fuelled evening of bellowing engines, burning rubber and daring overtaking manoeuvres.
The inaugural Bahrain Grand Prix was held in 2004 and marked the first F1 race to take place in the Middle East. That event was won by Michael Schumacher for Ferrari, and Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso are among the other drivers who have claimed victory at the circuit.
In 2014, the race organisers decided to shift the start time from the middle of the day to early evening, to make it an even more magical experience.
The circuit itself is located in a relatively remote area in the centre of the island. Accessing the circuit is simple, though, even if you’re staying at one of the many hotels in Manama. As the track and facilities are so modern, finding a parking space or catching a lift on public transport is far easier than it would be for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
Much like any race on the F1 calendar, the Bahrain Grand Prix consists of five sessions split over three days. These comprise two practice sessions on the Friday, a practice session and qualifying on Saturday, followed by the race itself on Sunday.
Unlike most European races, a ticket to the Bahrain Grand Prix gives you access to all three days. Most of the spectator areas are found on the start/finish straight, first corner or final turn. We’d recommend opting for tickets to the Turn One Grandstand, as this is the ideal spot to witness the drivers overtake their rivals - or crash into them.
Spectators who want a slightly more luxurious experience can opt for Paddock Club tickets, which grant you access to the bar and viewing area above the pit garages.
Dates for next year’s Bahrain Grand Prix have yet to be announced, but it is expected to take place in the spring.
A five-night trip at the Ramada City Centre hotel in Manama, including three-day Grandstand tickets to the Grand Prix and direct flights with Gulf Air, is priced at £1,299 per person
How to get there
Gulf Air, Bahrain’s national carrier, offers high-quality service at a good price. The carrier’s fleet currently consists of older Airbus A330s, but the company recently took delivery of one of Beoing’s new 787-9 Dreamliner crafts, and many more are on order.