Most cities appear beautiful by night, twinkling with promise, especially when viewed from the window of an approaching aeroplane. Not all of them manage to look beautiful by day as well, but Manama, capital of the tiny Gulf island-nation of Bahrain, is one of them. What appeared as a dreamlike expanse by night as I was whisked off to my hotel in the dead of night, revealed itself in the first light of day to be an aesthetically pleasing city set firmly in the future. In some ways, it’s Dubai—but with none of the frenzy. Indeed, the comparison with Dubai cropped up with clockwork precision over the next few days in conversations with Bahrainis and misty-eyed expats alike. The glitziest emirate is a constant point of reference in Bahrain, which, of course, is cheaper, offers better incentives, ease of doing business, and a better quality of life.
And, while Dubai may be scrambling to reclaim vestiges of the past, Bahrain is a truly ancient land, and was once home to the Dilmun civilisation. As recently as the Middle Ages, the entire region of Eastern Arabia, stretching from Basra in Iraq to the Strait of Hormuz in Oman, and including Iraq, Kuwait, Al-Hasa and Qatif, was referred to as Bahrain, and not just this tiny archipelago in the Persian Gulf, which happens to the third-smallest country in Asia after the Maldives and Singapore. Remnants of the little-known Dilmun civilisation, which flourished thousands of years ago and has given us some exquisite artefacts, can still be seen in the nondescript burial mounds, only a few of which remain. Most of them are concentrated near A’ali, a Bahraini town also noted for its fine pottery tradition. Today, it’s difficult to imagine the island of Bahrain was one of the largest cemeteries of the ancient world. Although Bahrain, owing to its strategic location, has been at the crossroads of civilisations and has deep historic ties with India, I was only vaguely aware of its existence, and, am ashamed to confess, didn’t know it consisted of islands or that it was served by several direct flights from India.
There’s only one way I know how to rectify these glaring errors in my education, so I travelled to Bahrain. The nation is finally making its big tourism push, although it became a post-oil economy a while ago, and appears to be on the cusp of great things. Infrastructure is being ramped up, particularly in the hospitality sector (meaning there are lots of cool, new hotels in the pipeline), new attractions are being added and old ones spruced up, and new experiences are being conjured up. One of these was a cultural walk in Manama’s Little India quarter (psst, ‘little’ is a misnomer). It’s not every day you go on a guided walk to see your own culture showcased, so I was more than intrigued.
Like many Gulf countries, Bahrain has a large expatriate community, and by far the biggest ethnicity is Indians. If I had any doubts as to where I was, they promptly disappeared when I saw the gold shops. Yup, definitely Little India. Bahrainis love Indian food and the snack stalls were doing brisk business that evening. We tucked into some sort of chaat too: same, same, but different. At the Shri Krishna Temple in Little India, said to be over 200 years old, the devout waited eagerly for the day when Narendra Modi would pay them a visit. We traipsed in, heavy with marigold garlands, and returned with a VIP dabba each of prasad. We visited a perfumer and a shop selling jalebis and sticky halwa. We inspected hookahs and slim walking sticks. We watched a Bahraini gentleman assist a Russian tourist with his newly acquired keffiyeh.
Next day, we ventured beyond Manama, the houses thinning out quickly and the desert taking over. Here there are royal camel farms whose residents live out a leisurely life and are extremely friendly. There are oil wells too. If you swing that way, you can go see Bahrain’s very first oil well, which started spurting the black gold in 1931. It’s just below Jebel Dukhan (‘Mountain of Smoke’), Bahrain’s highest point. Not too far away is the 400-yearold Tree of Life or Shajarat-al-Hayat, a Prosopis cineraria tree that seems to be thriving mysteriously in a water-scarce environment, and is one of Bahrain’s most unusual attractions. For more of an adrenaline rush, there’s the Bahrain Grand Prix, which has been held at the Bahrain International Circuit since 2004. There are races and events at the venue through the year, so you might want to check the calendar before you visit.
I spent a lot of my time chatting up people. Everyone I spoke to expressed the deepest affection for it. Kyriako Zarkadas, a Greek entrepreneur who exchanged life in Greece (read: Paradise; “I could see Mount Olympus from my window,” he told me) for this island far, far away from home, couldn’t stop beaming through our entire conversation. Here he found love and a lucrative business proposition in Visit Bahrain, a destination management company that is introducing the tourist attractions of Bahrain to the world.
More and more Indians travelling to Bahrain are tourists as well as guests at big fat Indian weddings, when in the past the majority would have simply been seeking their fortune. Some expat success stories are certainly fable like. Like the Dadabais, who came from a small village in Rajasthan a few generations ago and now run a business empire or two here. Apart from real estate, they have interests in hotels as well. They also run the Bahrain Institute of Hospitality and Retail, in association with a Swiss hospitality school, and are skilling youth in the hospitality sector at almost no charge (90 per cent of the students receive financial aid). It stands to reason that, when you have hotels, you need talented people to run them.
A vibrant festival calendar keeps Bahrain buzzing like a bee throughout the year. The biggest of them all is the Spring of Culture, an annual event showcasing art, culture, music and theatre from Bahrain as well as from across the world. I myself visited on the sidelines of the spectacular Bahrain Air Show, occurring once every two years, which, besides attracting some serious buyers both government and private, is also a nice day out for families. Kids absolutely love it to pieces.
I was beginning to get why Bahrain was such a well-loved country and a wonderful tourist destination.Bahrainis are a friendly and open people. They regard migrant communities with the greatest respect. Bahrain is also, hold your breath, the party capital of the Middle East. A causeway connecting Bahrain to Saudi Arabia brings hordes of parched partygoers every weekend.
On my last evening in Manama, I headed off to a horse-riding facility where I mounted, with no little difficulty, my first Arabian horse. Then I and a stubborn Sultan trotted off into the setting sun for the most picturesque approach to Manama Fort, a stout little pile that sits next to the sea. But without a doubt Bahrain’s most interesting experience has to be the recreational diving for pearls, a homage to its pearling past. You’ll be allowed to shuck scores of oysters. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a pearl. And they’ll let you keep it.
Gulf Air flies several times a day from numerous Indian cities to Manama. New destinations are also in the pipeline. Manama will also be getting a brand-new terminal soon, and it will be four times the size of the existing facility.
WHERE TO STAY
I was lucky to stay at the Four Seasons Bahrain Bay, which must be one of the finest hotels in the region. Set on a private island surrounded by an artificial bay and boasting its own beach, it’s the height of luxury. It also lays claim to hosting Bahrain’s highest bar and restaurant on the 50th floor (from BHD 140). Other options include the Ritz-Carlton Bahrain (from BHD 140), known for its fabulous spa and lagoon-style swimming pool; and the Al Areen Palace & Spa (from BHD 168), Bahrain’s first villa-style hotel which sits next to the Al Areen Wildlife Park.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
>On the heritage side, you’ll want to check out the Riffa and Manama Forts, as well as the burial mounds of the Dilmun civilisation.
>For something a bit more immersive, go on a guided walk to one of Manama’s old neighbourhoods, Little India, for instance. Or sign up for a pottery class (it’s therapeutic).
>If you’re interested in architecture, you’ll love Manama’s futuristic cube-shaped mosques and the Bahrain World Trade Center with its wind turbines.
>You can go snorkelling or pearl diving in the Persian Gulf, if weather permits.
>As a cosmopolitan city, Manama offers a plethora of cuisines. But just in case you’re craving a curry, Lanterns came highly recommended by the locals, who simply dote on Indian food. At the fancier end of the spectrum, is Rasoi by Vineet at the venerable Gulf Hotel, Bahrain’s first five-star.