This historic and culture-rich region was once the beating heart of the pearling trade. Like its world-famous oysters, Bahrain may just surprise you with some hidden gems, says Jessica Pook
Bahrain is an archipelago made up of 33 islands nestled in the Arabian Gulf just off the coast of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Its historic monuments and religious temples, some of which date back to 692AD, have survived the transition into the 21st century and now share the desert landscape with one of the most modern Formula One racetracks in the world.
This year will see Muhurraq Island, Bahrain’s second largest, crowned the Islamic Cultural Capital 2018. The city has been recognised for its conservation work, particularly on the UNESCO World Heritage Pearling Trail whic is due for completion later this year, along with its efforts to preserve Arabic and Islamic culture both locally and internationally.
Tourism is steadily growing, with UK arrival figures increasing by 10% in 2017, while its easy lifestyle and cultural diversity saw Bahrain crowned as the number one place for expats to relocate to.
Pearls of wisdom
Bahrain translates as 'Two Seas' in Arabic and was once the centre of the world’s pearl trade. Today visitors are invited to search for their own pearl (Bahrain pearls are considered the finest in the world), with the promise that if they find one it's theirs to keep.
There is a choice of four diving sites, each promising a wealth of oysters, and divers are able to collect as many as 60 from the seabed. All departures for pearl diving start at Ras Rayyah, the northern tip of Maharraq Island, with dives available for all levels. Official diving companies Delma Marine (pearldiving.bh) and Scuba Life Bahrain (scubalife.bh) run two-hour sessions from £74pp, with Scuba Life offering separate PADI courses for those looking to gain their qualification.
Life in the fast lane
Enjoy a coffee break Bahrani-style, elegantly poured from a highly-decorated tea pot into a small cup; take in the aroma of spices at the Bab Al Bahrain Souq; or walk through the historic Qalat al-Bahrain fort, a registered UNESCO World Heritage site.
For those that are after something a little more fast-paced, the Sakhir Desert will host the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix for the fifth successive year from April 6-8 this year and is home to five track layouts, more than anywhere else in the world.
Where to stay
With a portfolio of over 190 hotels and resorts and 15 new openings scheduled by 2020, there's plenty of rooms and some big names, such as the Ritz Carlton and The Four Seasons. The Jumeirah Royal Saray is due to open this year in a premium beachfront location, an ideal sanctuary from the heat of the summer months when days average around 37-40C.
From top left, clockwise: Financial Harbour overlooking the Bahrain World trade Centre; skyview of Marassi Al Bahrain’s two-kilometre beach; Bahrain is known for pearl fishing; Isa Bin Ali, a traditional house