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  • Hilary McCormack

Bahrain, sweet and salty

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

Bahrain is a Kingdom nation that sits at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. It is an archipelago consisting of 51 islands and 33 artificial islands, tightly nestled between Saudi and Qatar in the Arabian Gulf. The word Bahrain means "Two Seas," which describes islands that contain two kinds of water, sweet springs and salty seawater.

Bahrain is also home to Gulf Air (GF), the national carrier for the Kingdom, and my ex-employer some twenty years ago; thus, I always have a deep sense of connection when I visit the islands. To provide some context, Gulf Air commenced operations in 1950 and was one of the first commercial airlines established in the Middle East. Charged with connecting Bahrain to the rest of the world, I guess you could say that it was a test case for all the other GCC countries to see if this modern approach might work with the local community and the International business world.

Not only did it work, but Manama boomed and became 'THE' Finance hub of the region. It also became a bit of a playground for British and American forces stationed in the Gulf. A resting spot when not sailing the Gulf or doing flight missions across the region checking out the unruly neighbors.

I arrived in the middle east in 1994, a young keen adventure seeker, but I did not arrive alone. There were about six of us on that London flight, all Irish. When we got to Bahrain, we were joined by five more. A young lady from South Africa, Turkey, the Netherlands, Britain, and Portugal. We were the new batch of recruits for Gulf Air.

It really was the first trip away from home for some of the girls, so this was quite a bold step in choosing to move to a previously unheard-of dusty desert archipelago. Our only reference point was the girls who interviewed us in London and assured us it was safe and, most notably, that we would love it. All of which turned out to be true. It was only a few short years from the end of the Gulf War, and I was reminded of this fact when I moved into my apartment on Exhibition Road and found an army issue gas mask waiting for me. I proudly carted that thing around for years, and it was a much-talked-about souvenir at my dinner parties.

Drilling for Oil

Living in KSA, I get to visit Bahrain at least twice a year. It is like slipping on a comfy old sweater, as the saying goes, an oldie but a goodie! These days Bahrain is a sprawling metropolis with a skyline dotted with many recognizable international brand names.

One of my more interesting achievements in Bahrain was that I learned to drive going around and around the Pearl Roundabout, which is not there anymore. But it must be said, and it was a rather mad busy roundabout in those days, and dare I add, I frightened the life out of my passenger that first time I took it on and then could not get off it.

Fast Forward to 2021, Bahrain is now home to the F1: "We made history today by performing our iconic flypast using Sustainable Aviation Fuel for the first time! Once our historical flypast was complete, the world was introduced to our new slogan, "A class of our own" – representing our legacy and individually by adding a unique touch to everything we do! We celebrate these milestones with Lewis Hamilton for winning first place at the 2021 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix!

Wow-what a privilege it must have been to be in that cockpit. While both Bahrain and I have grown up over these past 25 years, there are still many delightful and familiar places to visit when I holiday in Bahrain.

Qal'at al-Bahrain, also referred to as Bahrain Fort or the Portuguese Fort, is an archaeological site that marks the capital of the Dilmun civilization, an ancient Semitic-speaking polity in Arabia mentioned from the 3rd millennium BC onwards. This ancient language was the language of trade, politics, and to a large degree, academia. Jesus himself is understood to have spoken Aramaic.

The capital of the Dilmun civilization

Dilmun formed part of a trade route between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Civilisation, situated close to the sea and natural spring wells. Several scholars have suggested that Dilmun originally designated the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, notably linked with the significant Dilmunite settlements of Umm an-Nussi and Umm ar-Ramadh in the interior and Tarout on the coast. In days gone by, Dilmun encompassed Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the eastern portion regions of Saudi Arabia. At 780 square kilometers (300 sq mi) in size, Bahrain is the third-smallest nation in Asia after the Maldives and Singapore and has a local population of 700 K, and that number again in ex-pats. When I travel I love nothing more than discovering endeavors that are as much a labour of love rather than just purely a money-making venture. I met a Bahrani lady called Fatima many years ago when I wanted to find a truly unique venue for a corporate event. Fatima transformed her one-time family home into a magnificent restaurant, art gallery, and party venue called La Fontaine Restaurant. The 150-year-old property was restored brick by brick to its original glory, and often when the owner could not find the right tradesmen, she completed the work herself. Fatima, an artist herself, also likes to promote young, up-and-coming local artists and holds events to display their work. With twinkling lights set around the fountain each evening, and chill-out mood music, the venue is transformed into one of the most romantic venues in Bahrain for dinner or a nightcap.

Every souq in the middle east has its own unique charm, and Bahrain Souk is no different. A charming maze of meandering streets where time has stood still. The noise, the colour, and the smells all take me back to those first few days when I arrived in Bahrain. The stalls typically do not open till about mid-day and are open late into the night. If you want to get a good deal, I recommend visiting early as the shopkeepers often feel it brings good luck to be generous with the discount they offer to their first shoppers each day.

The Tree of Life is a 400-year-old natural phenomenon, and I am glad to report that in April 2021, it is still growing strong. This amazing specimen is protected now, and a caretaker carefully watches over it. Sitting out in the middle of nowhere, at the highest point in Bahrain and with no apparent signs of water, this amazing natural specimen seems to thrive. I am sure that the whole of Bahrain will go into mourning if anything should happen to this amazing Tree of Life.

Tree of life

On the opposite of the island in al Shugel, I went to check out some local pottery shops called A'ali Pottery Workshop-alshugel pottery. They make a whole range of handmade and colorful items sold to interested tourists and locals alike for very affordable prices.

A trip to Al Dar Islands, which is twelve kilometers off the coast of Manana, is a relaxed, family fun day out. Boats leave from Sitra Fisherman's Port, and it's only a ten-minute ride over to the island. On Al Dar island, you can rent a chalet or a family beach hut, enjoy a Barbie on the beach, take a boat out as the sun drops into the horizon, or stay overnight with family or friends. There are also plenty of fun activities for all ages to enjoy, such as snorkeling, swimming, jet and water skiing, sailing, and fishing. Compared to the upmarket hotel resorts, it is more affordable for bigger groups. You can also bring your food and drinks if you wish, but if you don't want to do that, there are several restaurants to grab a snack from on the island if this works better for you.

Bahrain Bay

Back in Manama, there are a growing number of shopping destinations to explore, but my new favorite is The Avenues. It is designed like a long indoor boulevard and is perfect for your holiday shopping and dining experience. It is situated overlooking Bahrain Bay with many outdoor dining options and stunning views of the setting sun that reflect off the surrounding architecturally unique high-rise buildings.

Today Gulf Air operates Boeing 787 and A320's, and A321neo aircraft and will add Singapore and Tel Aviv to its schedule in 2021. Gulf Air also offers excellent connections to the UK from Saudi. The past nineteen months have been difficult for all airlines worldwide. Still, Gulf Air managed to work right through Covid by offering cargo flights, doing humanitarian flights, medivacs, and repatriation flights. Here's hoping we will see all the golden falcons back in the skies above our heads soon.

The Tree of Life: Testament to the resilience of life in the desert

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