WHY GO NOW?
WHY GO NOW?
Bahrain, the only Arab island state, is snapping at the heels of tourist hotspot Dubai after pipping the rest of the Middle East to the post to host the first Formula One motor racing in the region next month (2-4 April). The Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix will take place in the glitzy new International Stadium in Sakhir south of the capital, Manama. For tickets and information call 00 973 406 222 or visit www.bahraingp.com.
Bahrain strikes a good balance; it's more liberal than many of its neighbours (just check out all the weekenders from Saudi Arabia) yet offers a more traditional, less manufactured, Middle Eastern experience than Dubai. Think restaurants that wouldn't look out of place in Notting Hill, plush beach resorts, reams of history (forts, ancient burial mounds and temples) - and sunshine.
The only non-stop flights to Bahrain are on British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) and Gulf Air (0870 777 1717; www.gulfairco.com) from Heathrow. I flew with British Airways which currently has daily flights from £407. The lowest fares are likely to be through discount agents. Expedia has flights with Qatar Airways from Manchester via Doha from around £354. On arrival, visitors must obtain a tourist visa for US$15 (£9) and when leaving pay a BD3 (£4.50) departure tax. Bahrain International Airport is on the island of Muharraq around a 10-minute drive from Manama. A taxi into town costs around BD2 (£3). The number 1 bus from the airport to Manama bus station costs BD0.5 (70p). Getting around Manama itself is relatively easy on foot, but you will probably want to hire a car for sightseeing around the island. Hertz (00 973 321 287), in the airport offers car hire from BD10 (£14.50) per day.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The Kingdom of Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf is made up of 33 islands, although most are just tiny rocky outcrops. Bahrain island is the biggest at around 48km by 16km. Some islands, such as Sitra and Muharraq, have been linked to the main island by causeways. Manama is in the north east; the main street is Government Avenue which runs west to east, while to the north, King Faisal Highway skirts the coast. In between you'll find government buildings and hotels. To the south of Government Avenue is the main tourist office in the Bab al-Bahrain - "the Bahrain Gate" (00 973 1720 1215/ 1720 1230; www.bahrain.tourism.com, open daily 8am-1pm and 4pm-8.30pm) at the entrance to the souq and old city.
The best place to stay is the swanky Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Spa (00 973 580 000; www.ritzcarlton.com) a man-made resort just 7km from Manama. Set in lush gardens, the beach is well-groomed, the lobby dripping in gold. Doubles from BD120 (£175) including breakfast. Slightly cheaper but still with its own beach is the Novotel Al Dana Resort (00 973 298 008; www.novotel.com) just off the causeway to Muharraq. Doubles from BD49 (£71) including breakfast. The Youth Hostel No 1105 Road 4225 (00 973 727 170) in the suburb of Juffair, signposted from the Al-Fatih Highway, has doubles from BD12 (£17.50) excluding breakfast.
TAKE A VIEW
From the tower on the manmade island halfway along the King Fahad Causeway which links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia; the border is at this midway point. This incredible 25km stretch of road was completed in 1986. The toll for the causeway is BD2 (£3). It costs BD0.5 (75p) to take the lift to the viewing deck and the restaurant half way up. Inside it's a bit like an Eastern European service station but the views make up for it; far below grassy swathes, crashing green waves. In the distance, Saudi Arabia.
TAKE A RIDE
Take a sea taxi to Dar island for a spot of sunbathing. Sea taxis leave from the terminal on the island of Sitra, take about 20 minutes and cost around BD2.5 (£3.50).
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Downtown Manama is a jumble of Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's and Burger King joints. For a more leisurely lunch head to Veranda Gallery Café Shop 372 Block 327, Sheik Isa Ave (00 973 17 715 868) a sprawling old lean-to with sloping roof and locals smoking shisha pipes. The air is heavy with the sweet scent of fragrant tobacco. Fresh juices such as sweet melon and pomegranate cost BD1.2 (£1.75). Arabian mezze - bowls of hummus labneh, tabbouleh, falafel cost BD1.5 (£2.10) per portion. A Shisha pipe is BD1.5; flavours include mint, apple and cherry.
The National Museum Al-Fatih Highway (00 973 292 977) is open 8am-8pm and costs BD 0.5 (£0.70). It is a must for a fascinating overview of the island's history from ancient civilisations to the discovery of oil (Bahrain was the first country in the Middle East to strike black gold in 1932). Don't miss the Hall of Graves for a reconstructed burial mound and the Hall of Trades and Crafts to learn about the pearl diving industry. Check opening times for attractions you want to visit; many are only open 8am-2pm.
The Manama souq is a warren of little lanes selling aromatic spices and tourist tat (shisha pipes, mosque alarm clocks BD1 (£1.50) singing camels or a bundle of Iraqi bank notes - haggle and you can get three for BD1). Gold and pearls are Bahraini specialities and just down the street from the main souq is the gold souq where you can pick up some bargains.
Head to the bar on the top floor of the Diplomat hotel King Faisal Highway (00 973 531 666) for views of Manama floodlit. If you're dining in the district of Adliya - home to a cluster of stylish and very popular restaurants - have a pre-dinner cocktail (very good Margaritas) at Zoe, (00 973 177 16400) contemporary New York loft in design.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Mezzaluna (00 973 177 42999) in Adliya (a little warren of streets with no names but the restaurants are well signposted) has been converted from an old Bahraini house. With its traditional carved doors opening on to a covered courtyard, the decor is an eclectic mix of rustic wooden tables and modern zebra print chairs. The menu is European; a delicious filet mignon costs BD7 (£10). Nearby Monsoon (00 973 177 49222) offers Far Eastern cuisine - a mix of Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese, in a soaring restaurant built to resemble a Balinese palace.
SUNDAY MORNING, GO TO THE MOSQUE
Join a free tour of the Al-Fatih Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque, built between 1984-88 on the Al Fatih Highway. This magnificent building (carpets from Scotland and lighting from France, interestingly enough) is the largest in Bahrain and capable of holding 7,000 worshippers. Women have to check in to the reception where they're dressed in black full-length gowns and head scarves. The tour isn't a hard sell on Islam, but is very informative. Open 9am-3pm daily except Friday which is the day of prayer. Then head to the Bait Al Qur'an just down the road off Government Avenue (00 973 290 101) which has an impressive collection of Islamic artifacts, calligraphy and manuscripts including a large number of Qurans dating back to the 7th-century.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Café Lili (00 973 714 440) is a bijou little turn of the century Parisian-style brasserie; all opulent dark wood floors, red velvet seating and red and gold striped walls. Brunch is served from 8-11.30am; specials include Les Oeufs Parisienne - poached egg and beef bacon on toasted muffin with hollandaise sauce - for BD2 (£3).
A RIDE IN THE PARK
The Al Areen Wildlife Park (00 973 836 116) was established as a conservation area in 1975 near the village of Zallaq. It is open every day from 8-11am and 3-5pm. Admission is BD1 (£1.50) and it is eight kilometres square and home to 500 species of animals and birds such as the Arabian Oryx, zebra and camels. After a short film a minibus takes you on a ride through the park.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
Contrary to what most locals seem to think, it's not the Tree of Life, a gnarled old Acacia in the middle of the scrubby desert. Supposedly a popular picnic spot it's miles from anywhere, the trunk is daubed in graffiti and the benches vandalised. Or the acres of windswept burial mounds. The forts, scattered around the island are, however, diamonds in the rough. Arad Fort on Muharraq is floodlit at night and dates back to the 17th-century. The Bahrain Fort on the north-west coast at Karbabad is also known as the Portuguese Fort; a huge structure with moat still undergoing excavation work. But the pièce de résistance (go at sunset for spectacular views over the surrounding desert) is the Shaikh Salman bin Ahmed Al-Fatih Fort at Riffa built in 1812 (open Sun-Tues 8am-2pm, Wed & Thurs 9am-6pm, Fri 3-6pm, Sat closed).
Additional Research by Humphrey Gullett