Bahrain is defined by its relationship with water. Take the country’s name: ‘Two Seas’ in Arabic, the focus is not the island’s minimal landmass, but the water that laps its shores. So shallow is the water lapping Bahrain’s coastline that the inhabitants regularly ‘reclaim’ pieces of land, filling in the gaps between sand bars, as if winning back lost territory. The new Bahrain Financial Harbour of Manama is currently rising like Neptune from such reclaimed land, and its proud buildings, such as the Dual Towers, appear to be holding back the sea. Of course land reclamation in the Gulf has become the fashion. Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Doha and Muscat all have ambitious projects involving a tamed sea in a human landscape. Only Bahrain, however, can claim a truly integral connection between the two: the sweet-water springs that bubble off-shore helped bring about 4000 years of settlement, the layers of which are exposed in rich archaeological sites around the island. The springs also encouraged the most lustrous of pearls – the trade in which helped build the island’s early fortunes.
Like an oyster, Bahrain’s rough exterior takes some prising open, but it is worth the effort. From the excellent National Museum in Manama and the traditional houses of Muharraq to the extraordinary burial mounds at Sar, there are many fine sites to visit. For more modern pearls, there’s the spectacular Bahrain World Trade Centre, King Fahd Causeway and the new islands project at the southern tip. Presumably the engineers have factored in the projected effects of global warming or the sea may yet have the last laugh.
Climate & when to go
Naturally enough, tourist brochures warn visitors away from the intensely hot summer months (early June to mid-September), when the sea is flat and vaporous, the cold tap runs hot and even the grass is too peppery to walk on. Yet, in many ways, this is the most character-full time of the year – when you realise the importance of a wind tower or a well in the desert, shade from the Tree of Life or a headscarf to keep out the hot, dry winds of a dust storm. Even the humble cardigan in the over-air- conditioned malls takes on a new meaning when it is heading up to 50°C in the car park outside.
If braving the most extreme that heat and humidity can muster doesn’t appeal, the best time to visit is November to March, avoiding Ramadan and Eid holidays, when an influx of Saudi tourists can make it hard to find a room.
Getting there & away
The Valfajr 8 Shipping Company operates a fortnightly ferry service between Manama and the Iranian port of Bushehr. A one-way fare, including two meals, costs BD35. The ship departs from the Mina Sulman port in Manama and the agent in Bahrain is International Agencies Company (17 727 114; www.intercol.com); for helpful additional information on this service, call the shipping agent (39 450 911).
The only ‘land’ border is with Saudi Arabia, across the King Fahd Causeway.
Tourists are not permitted to drive between Saudi and Bahrain in a hired car. Residents of Saudi who have their own cars may use this crossing providing they have car insurance for both countries. For those coming from Saudi this can be purchased at the border. A transit visa must be obtained from the Saudi authorities for those driving by car between UAE and Bahrain.
The Saudi Bahraini Transport Co (Sabtco; 17 266 999; www.sabtco.biz) runs a bus service between Manama and Dammam in Saudi Arabia. Buses leave six times a day between 8am and 8.30pm, and cost BD5 one way. From Dammam there are regular connections on to Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) and Doha (Qatar).
From Manama, Saudi Arabian Public Transport Co (Saptco; 17 266 999; www.saptco.com) also has daily buses as far as Amman (Jordan) and Damascus (Syria) for BD17.500; Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah (UAE), all for around BD11; and Kuwait BD10. All departures are from the international bus terminal in Manama, where the Sabtco office is located. It acts as the agent for Saptco. You must have a valid transit visa for Saudi Arabia in advance and an onward ticket and visa for your next destination beyond Saudi’s borders.
To get on the causeway to Saudi Arabia, all drivers (and passengers in taxis) must pay a toll of BD2, regardless of whether they’re travelling to Saudi or just as far as the border. The toll booth is on the western side of the intersection between the appropriately named Causeway Approach Rd and Janabiya Hwy.
Anyone crossing the border from Bahrain to Saudi will be given a customs form to complete, and drivers entering Bahrain from Saudi must purchase temporary Bahraini insurance and also sign a personal guarantee.
Bahrain International Airport (17 325 555; flight information 17 339 339) is on Muharraq Island, 12km from the centre of Manama, and handles frequent services to many intercontinental destinations as well as other countries in the region. It is modern and efficient and has one of the largest duty-free shopping areas in the region. Check-in time is officially two hours before flight departure.
The national carrier is Gulf Air (17 222 800; www.gulfairco.com; Manama Centre, Government Rd, Manama), which flies to destinations worldwide. It is a highly regarded airline with a good safety record and reliable departure times. Reconfirmation of tickets 48 hours ahead of departure is necessary on many Gulf Air flights.
British Airways (BA; 17 214 584; www.ba.com; hub Heathrow Airport, London)
Lufthansa (LH; 17 828 762; www.lufthansa.com; hub Frankfurt)