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  • Writer's pictureHilary McCormack

Bahrain, sweet and salty

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

Bahrain is a Kingdom nation that sits at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. It is an archipelago comprising 51 natural islands and 33 artificial man-made islands, tightly nestled between Saudi and Qatar in the Arabian Gulf.

The word Bahrain means "Two Seas," which describes islands containing two kinds of water: sweet springs and salty seawater.

Bahrain was 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 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.

It worked, and 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.

Drilling for Oil

Today, Bahrain is a sprawling metropolis with a skyline dotted with many recognizable international brand names.

Fast Forward to current times, Bahrain is also 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!

There are many delightful and familiar places to visit when visiting Bahrain. Qal'at al-Bahrain, also called 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, close to the sea and natural spring wells. Several scholars have suggested that Dilmun was initially 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 region 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 labor of love as they are a money-making venture. I met a Bahrani lady called Fatima many years ago. Fatima transformed her former family home into a magnificent restaurant, art gallery, and party venue called La Fontaine Restaurant.

The more than 150-year-old property was restored brick by brick to its original glory, and often when the owner could not find the right tradespeople, she completed the work herself.

Fatima, an artist herself, also promotes 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 unique charm, and Bahrain Souk is no different—a charming maze of meandering streets where time has stood still. The noise, the color, 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 a good deal on some gold trinkets, 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 2023, it is still growing strong. This fantastic specimen is protected now, and a full time 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 9.75-meter-high Prosopis cineraria or Graf tree seems to thrive. I am sure that the whole of Bahrain will go into mourning if anything should happen to this unique and renowned Tree of Life.

Tree of life

On the opposite of the island in Al Shugel, and this is where I went to check out some local pottery shops called A'ali Pottery Workshop - alshugel pottery. They make a range of handmade and very colorful items that are sold to interested tourists and locals at very affordable prices.

The next fun place to visit is Al Dar Islands, which is twelve kilometers off the coast of Manana. It is a relaxed, family-fun day out. Boats leave from Sitra Fisherman's Port, and it's only a ten-minute ride 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, such as snorkeling, swimming, jet and water skiing, sailing, and fishing. Compared to the upmarket hotel resorts, the islands are more affordable for bigger groups. You can also bring your food and drinks if you wish, but if you don't want to, there are several restaurants to grab a snack from on the island if this works better.

Bahrain Bay

Back in Manama, there are many 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.

For a truly unique evening out, and to watch a few of the local teams run around the pitch, I highly recommend the Bahrain Rugby Club, dinner at the popular Manos Restaurant is also a good idea.

Places to stay include old favorites like the Gulf Hotel or new luxury experiences such as the Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton.

Bahrain keeps evolving and is well worth a return visit.

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