Bahrain, the forgotten destination of the Middle East?

September 8, 2009

Despite Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Oman being all the rage in the Middle East, we recently decamped for the second year in succession to Bahrain for our summer holiday. This tiny island is about half the size of Surrey and a lot hotter but without the choking traffic of other similar destinations but why choose Bahrain in the first place?

As a family we love the Middle East; great weather, luxurious hotels, supreme customer service, friendly locals, interesting culture and a general feeling of relaxation make this our default choice before we have to take the Mickey Mouse route when our daughter grows up in a few years. We’ve enjoyed the pleasures of Oman and Dubai in the past but the thought of navigating around through the traffic jam that is the Sheikh Zayed Road and dicing with the local lunatic drivers of Dubai is always a turn off,  so Abu Dhabi was next on the list. Unfortunately we were warned off Abu Dhabi by a leading journalist who sent me the most amusing email I’ve read in quite a while. On a recent trip there he was proudly introduced by his official local driver some of their leading attractions; a shop of wonders called IKEA and he was even more proud that the emirate has not just one, but three Hilton hotels. Hmmm, now we are far from culture vultures and not averse to shopping but this wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Kuwait is just a bit too close to Basra for comfort and Saudi Arabia has never been seen as open-armed to tourists (although this is changing – two clients now have trips there) so Bahrain is was. I had visited once before, bizarrely playing in a Gaelic Football competition against the cream of the Gulf so I knew what to expect.

The leading hotel in Bahrain for anyone on holiday is the Ritz-Carlton (formerly Le Meridien); it has 23 incredible villas that are bigger than most houses with a private pool and 24 hour butler Last year we stayed in these by getting an astounding deal through our local AITO Specialist Travel Agent. This year the same deal was nowhere to be found so we resigned ourselves to slumming it in the hotel with no butler to annoy, my wife however had other ideas and her persistence over the phone paid off as we scored an impressive upgrade to a room bigger than I’ve ever seen and typically well outside our meagre budget. Even our flights threw up a surprise; we flew on with Gulf Air which seems to be leasing a Jet Airways B777 that had more than adequate leg room and the best economy entertainment system I’ve seen yet.

Even with a small child I was surprised how easily she coped with the heat in Bahrain. Daily temperatures were around 40°C but the children’s pool was covered with a canopy and a gentle breeze from the sea was enough to make it more than bearable. The only time you really feel the heat is at night time, getting out of an air conditioned car and walking into a restaurant can really be a killer but rather than be churlish – it’s a welcome respite to the drab UK summer.

The highlight for both us and our daughter was the time she spent mixing with lots of children of other nationalities – Libyans, Saudis, Egyptians, all of whom put us to shame by speaking three languages each by the age of 8. You only realise how small the world really is when you see a bunch of Arab children being led by an English two year old (of Irish-Indian parents) in singing Do-Re-Mi from The Sound of Music while sitting in a Bahrain swimming pool!

The sad thing about Bahrain is that it’s pretty much forgotten by European tourists. Drawn in by what other Gulf States have to offer, it’s an attractive oasis in the middle of desert of glitz and we’ll definitely being going back. Ian Bradley