Follow LLm author Janice Horton’s adventures as she ‘snap gaps’ around the world in this unique and informative travel feature based on Janice’s own personal travel experiences.
I’m excited to tell you that I ‘snap-gapped’ to the Kingdom of Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf recently. I travelled with my husband to catch up with a couple of dear ex-pat friends who live and work in Bahrain, so we were in fact, tourists by default. If Bahrain isn’t quite on your travel radar yet, maybe it will be once I’ve piqued your interest in visiting this fascinating, cosmopolitan and multicultural country that is as rich in heritage as it is in many other ways.
Our lovely hosts took us out and about in Bahrain for the ten days we were there and what a privilege that was for us – as the country is vibrant and exciting, not to mention booming. Some days we ventured far into the hot white sands of the desert. On other days, we immersed ourselves in the Bahraini café culture and drank Arabian coffee and ate succulent dates (never in equal numbers – you can have one or three, for example, but never two or four). We (mostly) window shopped in many of the air conditioned shopping malls which have lots of familiar western outlets like Marks and Spencer. In the Souks, we browsed in and out of exotic perfume shops amongst rich fragrances with prices that made our eyes water. In the evenings, we either socialised with the ex-pat set at the Bahrain Football and Rugby Club or watched incredible sunsets while sipping cocktails on balmy terraces that overlooked the sea. It was fabulous. It felt exotic. It felt incredibly cosmopolitan.
How Did We Get There? We flew with Emirate Airlines from Glasgow UK to Dubai, a journey of seven and a half hours and then we took a one-hour connecting flight to Manama, Bahrain.
On Arrival: Being UK passport holders, we were allowed to apply for our visa upon arrival. Unfortunately, this took a while, which wasn’t a big issue except that we knew that our dear friend and host would be waiting anxiously for us in the arrivals hall. After being granted our entry visas, we were reunited with our friend and whisked away from the airport by car. Travelling at night (early hours of the morning actually) meant the normally crazy busy roads were clear and I was particularly excited to see the twinkling lights of the Manama cityscape laid out before us on the dark horizon.
Travel Tip: Make sure you check the latest entry requirements for your nationality with the Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain before you travel. It is also advisable to check for any government travel advice immediately before travelling to any other country. In the UK this is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Bahrainis drive on the right side of the road – but lots of drivers here can be erratic and unpredictable – so forewarned is forearmed. Fuel is unbelievably inexpensive. We filled an SUV for around 5BD (about £8 in Sterling!)
Where To Stay: We were fortunate to stay as guests at the home of our friends in Bahrain, but we did visit quite a few very nice hotels during our stay. Most of the nightspots and bars are in or attached to hotels as, by law, alcohol is only available through private licenses. So many of our sun-downer cocktails were sipped from some of the finest vantage points of the Sofitel Zallaq or the Ritz Carlton hotel terraces overlooking the sea. The Ritz Carlton, for example, is home to Trader Vic’s; a great bar, lounge and restaurant with stylish Polynesian themed décor, where we attended a mid-week ‘ladies night’ with free cocktails and sushi canapés. The Sofitel offers, amongst many of its fabulous social venues, a terrace overlooking the sea, where we sipped our cocktails in the balmy evening air, catching fruity whiffs of smoke from shisha pipes while we watched a magnificent sunset. There is something extraordinarily beautiful about sunsets in Bahrain.
Travel Tip: I recommend you check out the many hotel websites like Booking.com that offer information regarding accommodation in Bahrain.
Best Time To Go: The months of June through August can be very hot (up to 50 ºC) and humid. I asked our hosts this very question and they particularly recommend the month of May and also November to visit Bahrain, when temperatures are still in the low 30’s ºC in the daytime and cooler and less humid in the evenings.
What to Pack: Bahrain is a fairly relaxed host compared to other Arab nations regarding dress but it is important for visitors to demonstrate respect and courtesy in reference to their particular cultural practices and religion. Smart casual is advisable. Men should wear long trousers and women shouldn’t wear very short or a see-through dresses. A shawl, a scarf, light jacket or cardigan are handy items for a woman to carry around. However, in beach clubs and hotels, swimsuits, bikinis and shorts are okay to wear. As a side note: Bahrainis are extremely proud of their appearance. They will always want to appear to look their best and will take time to achieve this. The Western habit of dressing down is surprising to them. Women, even those who wear the traditional ‘abbaya’, show their individualism with their choice of cloth, jewellery, accessories, makeup, and in particular, perfume. It is a common practice for women to waft the smoke of (often expensive) incense under their robes before leaving the house in order to leave a continual and exotic waft of fragrance in their wake. Men often wear traditional ‘thobes’ and are always spotless; their individuality expressed by their choice of watch or cufflinks. So my advice is to dress up rather than to dress down: pack some cocktail dresses and think smart casual at the very least.
Money: The currency in Bahrain is the Bahraini dinar (BD), which is divided into 1000 fils. One dinar is worth nearly three US dollars and as the exchange rate is fixed, this makes it one of the world’s strongest currencies. If coming in from Saudi, there’s no reason to change your money, but do try to get rid of any excess dinars before you leave the country, as they’re hard to exchange elsewhere.
Top Things To Do In Bahrain
The Tree of Life. In the shimmering white sand of the Bahraini desert stands an isolated and very old mesquite tree. Its girth is broad and its branches are wide and dipped with the effort of holding up its green foliage. Some of the branches are now artificially supported to prevent them snapping. Local lore dates the tree in millenniums but a study was conducted in 1986 in conjunction with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum of Washington DC, USA, and it was then concluded that the tree had been planted ca. 1583 AD during the Late Islamic Stage. But the really interesting thing about this tree is that to this day its source of water remains a mystery. Some believe the tree gets water from an underground spring but that doesn’t explain the complete lack of any other trees or green vegetation in the vicinity. This tree is a must see as far as I’m concerned. I loved the journey out into the desert, passing working oil rigs and desert settlements and I loved the sight of this lonely old tree on its unique hillside desert setting.
Amwaj – the floating city. The Amwaj Islands project is an artificial island development in Muharraq, Bahrain. The Floating City is still partly under construction but has a shopping mall, restaurants, hotels, waterfront villas and chalets and apartments – all intertwined with a series of canals, enabling residents to park their boats by their own back garden. There is also a white sand beach where you can paddle while also admiring the skyline of Manama in the distance. The island project is both ambitious and incredible. Well worth a visit. Another must see in my opinion.
Bridging the International Gap. The King Fahad Causeway links Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and is one of the world’s longest bridges between two countries. Most visitors need a visa to enter Saudi Arabia but don’t let that stop you from driving to the midpoint on the causeway, and enjoying the glorious view across both countries.
Rediscover the Past: Bahrain has history dating back 5000 years, from the ancient Dilmun period through the Islamic era, and so offers an opportunity to visit ancient burial mounds, forts, craft markets and potteries, plus the three forts which have been meticulously restored and opened to the public.
Sailing and Scuba Diving: The warm waters of the Arabian Gulf make water sports extremely popular with tourists and locals.
Golf: Bahrain boasts an international 18-hole grass golf course, just 15 minutes outside the capital, Manama. The par 72 championship course features five lakes and is landscaped with hundreds of date palms and desert plains.
Bahrain Grand Prix: Tens of thousands of visitors descend on Bahrain each year at race time. The biggest yearly event is the F1 race held each April at the Bahrain International Circuit. Plan well in advance, as flights sell out and hotel prices triple.
Visit The Royal Camel Farm: Enjoy a visit to the camel farm. Get your camera ready. I’m told they are usually very friendly!
Sakhir Race Course: Arabian horses are among the world’s most prized breeds and a day at the Sakhir race course explains why they’re so highly rated. Horses gallop off every Friday from October to March.
Shopping: Visit the many shopping malls and haggle for goods at the local souk markets. The certain freedom that exists here in Bahrain attracts many shoppers from neighbouring Gulf states. All the main shopping malls are air-conditioned and, as they remain open all day and evening, you can conveniently eat lunch and dinner at their splendid food courts and cafés.
Useful Facts of Bahrain:
Area: 710.9 sq km (274.5 sq miles).
Capital: Manama. Head of state: King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa.
Head of government: Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa.
Electricity: 220-240 volts AC, 50Hz (Awali, 110 volts AC, 60Hz). British-style three-pin plugs are used.
The Essence of Bahrain: Feel the warmth of the Arabian sun on your face. Smell the heady aroma of perfume on the evening air or a fruity waft from a shisha pipe. Hear the melodious ‘Call to Prayer’ several times a day from a nearby mosque. See the increbible Bahraini sunsets.
My Conclusion? I would compare the Kingdom of Bahrain to a lustrous pearl rather than to a sparkly gem. It is multi-layered rather than multi-faceted and it is a rare commodity rather than a popular conception. The people of Bahrain are friendly and at no time did I ever feel unsafe or unwelcome. I really enjoyed everything about my visit and I would recommend to you a ‘Snap Gap’ of seven to ten days in order to fully appreciate this unique travel destination.