Bahrain: A pearl in the ocean

Kalyani Prasher | Updated on January 09, 2018
Calm waters: A sunrise with the World Trade Center in the background.

Calm waters: A sunrise with the World Trade Center in the background.   -  Shutterstock

A silent prayer: The interiors of the Grand Mosque in Bahrain.

A silent prayer: The interiors of the Grand Mosque in Bahrain. Photo: Kalyani Prasher

The joys of staying in an island country that is cosy enough to give the tourist ample time to relax

For a country the size of a car park, Bahrain has a lot of firsts. In 1932, Bahrain became the first GCC (Gulf Cooperating Council) country to discover that all-important currency, oil. Being the third smallest country in Asia, if Bahrain shocks you with its currency rate of 170 for 1 Bahraini Dinar, it’s, in part, thanks to the first oil well.

Around that time, the first-ever school for girls opened in Bahrain, another first for the region, and today women work in every industry, including tourism. Unlike the big daddy neighbour, women drive in Bahrain but not on the most beautiful route, the King Fahd Causeway that goes over the Gulf of Bahrain, because it ends up in Saudi Arabia. In 1950, Bahrain was the first GCC country to get its own airline. Gulf Air remains the best way to reach Bahrain from India, and has the best network in the region, even today.

For Bahrain, 1950 is like yesterday, as its history goes back to the Bronze Age, to about third century BC and the Dilmun civilisation, one of the oldest civilisations in the Middle East. I learn this as I tour the Bahrain National Museum, a delightful place with life-sized displays of clay humans going about their ancient way of life. Today, Bahrain wears this history lightly though tradition hasn’t been wiped out. You still see men in dishdashas (long robe with long sleeves worn) and women in abayas, though you may find them doing so at bars, smoking the shisha. Shisha lounges are big all over Manama and Muharraq, its two main islands, with Adliya and Juffair the two main nightlife areas. With constant sea views, a glitzy skyline of futuristic towers and a swinging food-and-drink scene, this little country is full of surprises.

Temperatures can soar to 50 degrees during summer, so you don’t want to be walking around a lot. I had to skip the actual visit to the open-air World Heritage Site of Bahrain Fort, once the capital of the Dilmun Civilisation, and stuck to its air-conditioned museum where I encountered a strange cultural practice buried in antiquity: snake sacrifices. In the olden days, Bahrainis would bury their dead with live snakes, a queer ritual that has links with the legend of Gilgamesh, in which a snake steals the plant of immortality from the hero. In the museum, you can see pots and pans with remains of snakes, a phenomenon that has excited historians.

The Ritz-Carlton Bahrain, which I called home for three days during my stay there, is the only hotel with a private beach. It is a microcosm of the country. Bahrain’s thriving gourmet culture is represented by its 11 restaurants; the wealth noticeable in its plush interiors and impeccable service; history in the art and décor in several of its halls and public areas; and the sea in constant view. Three days were enough to see Bahrain’s attractions but they were not enough to eat at all the restaurants at the hotel.


Party in the Middle-East

The advantage of being in a small country is that you get a lot of time for leisure. In half a day, I see the Bahrain Fort, the Grand Mosque, with a stunning crystal chandelier in the main hall, and the old houses of Muharraq, where you can admire traditional Gulf-Islamic architecture marked by a central courtyard and carved wooden doors. If you are a shopper, you can visit the Manama souq but I chose the comforts of my suite with its Nespresso machine.

The only regret I had in Bahrain was that I chose to visit in the summer. After October, you can lounge at the beach, which is even better than lounging at the Club Lounge, and spend more time outdoors. I drowned this sorrow in tamarind margaritas at Cantina Kahlo, the Mexican fine dining at the hotel, and tried to console myself by diving into the soft-as-butter beef steak. Of the many joys at the Ritz-Carlton, food and design remain the top two, and exploring more of its culinary offerings is as good a reason to return to Bahrain as that walk to the Bahrain Fort site.

Kalyani Prasher is a Delhi-based journalist

Published on August 23, 2017

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