The Pearlof the Gulf

HARRIET BEDDER EXPLORES THE WINDING SOUKS, SAILS TO OCEAN SANDBARS AND PODIUMS FIRST - PLACE AT THE BAHRAIN INTERNA TIONAL CIRCUIT.



Waking up at The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain, is difficult. The beds are so soft that you literally sink into the mattress topper and, upon arising, you could easily believe that all of the pillows have nested around you to create a protective fort. Everything you need can be accessed from the comfort of your own bed and, from most rooms, you can linger among the pillows and open the electric blinds to feast upon the panoramic views of the sunrise over the turquoise waters of the Arabian Gulf.


Once the realisation of all of the great things the city has to offer kicks in, however, it becomes easier to spring out of bed, rush down to the state-of-the-art Techno-Gym and get in your workout - before anyone else has even woken up. Passing one of the four plunge pools, you get a real sense of being on holiday at The Ritz-Carlton. Despite being used as a base for many international and political meetings, the hotel maintains its status as the place to stay for easy luxury.


If the main hotel - with a level especially for club-lounge guests - isn’t quite private enough, The Ritz-Carlton has several 3-bedroom villas on the property, not only equipped with kitchens but also providing 24-hour butler and chef services, along with private infinity pools and outstanding views. It really feels like you are staying in your own property on the peninsula.


Other Activities


After five, relatively brief, days of scurrying around the culture-rich, bustling city, it’s amazing to still feel at complete peace (again, I’m thanking such a restful night’s sleep for that). For those who need an immediate post-plane, pre-jet-lag detox, the brand new spa is perfect, with any therapy you can dream of on offer, including the perfect personalised massage, complete with essential oils and aromatherapy.

If serious relaxation isn’t enough, The Ritz-Carlton offers a very special Cookery Class with one of its head Bahraini chefs, Chef Abbas, who teaches the secrets of cooking a traditional Biryani. Classes can be booked in any group-size desired and will give you the skill to bring back more than souvenirs from your trip to the Middle East.



RESTAURANTS


The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain has a whopping twelve restaurants on site, and we are lucky enough to test several. For the first evening, try the Hotel’s own Southern-Italian restaurant, Primavera. Here you can devour fried aubergine with cherry tomato and smoked ricotta cheese, seafood risotto, Caprese salads, carbonara and, of course fine Italian wines - all whilst overlooking the Arabian Gulf on the restaurant’s veranda.


If you fancy some Indian food after your Pearl 1 Experience, Nirvana is an authentic Indian restaurant - complete with santoor player - and divine, saffron-rich, aromatic curries. Here, amongst the carved wood and plush velvet, platters sizzle with grilled seafood and kebabs, and bowls are piled high with fragrant fusions.

For the final night, try something really special and head to La Table Krug by Y for a creative dining experience worthy of royalty.

The intimate restaurant is described as a sensual experience or ‘EXPeRiMENCe’ where the menu - paired with Krug, obviously - unveils an epicurean journey aimed to inspire and take the diner on a journey through palate and mind. The menu changes each day so no one dining experience is ever replicated. We enjoyed a balloon dog, made of chocolate and blueberry, to finish our extravagant 8-course menu that otherwise included yuzu, truffle, quail eggs and caviar. Led by Executive Chef Yann Bernard Lejard, La Table Krug by Y is part of the official Krug Ambassade program, represented in 27 countries all over the world. It marks the 151st Ambassade: the first-ever in the Middle East and the fourth La Table Krug restaurant concept after Vienna, Mexico City, and Berlin.


By far, our favourite activity of the trip is the Pearl 1 Experience, which is offered by the hotel. We are promised an island that only appears for two hours per day, with perfect white sands and clear blue water and, after an hour on the boat to get to Jarada Island (one of 33 in the Bahraini archipelago) we have to wait twenty minutes for the Island to become visible and have enough ground for us to leave the boat. It’s a truly amazing, humbling experience to see the split emerge from the sea and, once there, the staff set up a perfect Bahraini picnic of classic Lebanese-style food: thick halloumi steaks, mixed grills and, of course, pitta breads with creamy humous, rich babaganoush and, finally, trays of baclava. After two hours here, trying to see how far one can walk or swim down the 1-mile strip – plus playing ‘spot the sting-ray’- it’s time, as the sand begins to be washed away by the tide, to say goodbye to what feels like our own private island.



THINGS TO DO


Guided tours are arranged for us to visit some of the must-see sights of Bahrain. A special trip to and around the Qal’at al-Bahrain (Bahrain Fort) to watch the sunset rates high on our list of experiences and it is a joy to hear the last call-to-prayer as the day begins to fade over the peaceful city. The Fort is located in part of the ancient Dilmun capital and is one of the Gulf’s few UNESCO world heritage sites, dating back over 4,000 years and containing seven stratified layers, created by various occupants from 2300 BC through to the 18th Century. We are given a talk about Bahrain’s inclusivity and its reputation for being laid back and friendly, as well as the only religion-inclusive country in the Gulf.

Start your morning right before heading into the souks of Manama - a winding treasure trove of gold brokers, jewellery shops, sweet shops and spice stalls, each piled high with their wares. It’s easy to get lost here, and we do, so we are glad we thought ahead and feasted on an authentic Bahraini breakfast at Haji’s Cafe.


Situated in an alleyway of the souk, this restaurant has bright blue chairs and detailed cushions, reminiscent of all the goods you will find in the souk. We eat a delicious mix of scrambled egg and beans with cheese, parathas, okra and biryani, careful not to have too much spice before we have a chance to wash it down with our chai. It’s 10am and already close to 33°c in the Bahraini winter.


Another tour for another day, we head to the old houses of Muharraq and are treated to a guided tour of Sheik Isa Bin Ali House. The Sheik, reigned for 63 years and was thus one of the longest reigning monarchs of the region. Eventually forced to abdicate by the British but considered Bahrain’s ruler long after, he lived here with his four wives, five sons and four daughters until his death in 1932.

Many of the houses along what they call the ‘Pearling Trail’ in Bahrain are open to visitors and showcase the traditional architecture and lifestyle of Bahrain. This 3.5km walkway in Muharraq is a World-Heritage Site named for Bahrain’s famed pearl-quality, and has - over the years - attracted the attention of many, from Alexander the Great to Jacques Cartier.

Cartier famously travelled to Bahrain in the search for the world’s most perfect pearl, and you can follow in his footsteps by taking the UNESCO world heritage pearling trail in Bahrain, visiting the old merchant’s houses and warehouses. Here, in Assyrian texts dating to 2000 BC, you discover the first mention of pearl diving in Bahrain: the pearls are referred to as ‘fish eyes’ from Dilmun. Bahrain was ’famous for the vast number of its pearls’ and heavily influenced what’s been known as the ‘golden age of pearling’ between the 1850s and 1930s. At this time, pearls were more precious than diamonds, hence Cartier’s keen interest; by the end of 1930, there were 30,000 pearl divers, making it the principal industry in Bahrain – before, of course, the discovery of oil, which changed everything for the country. Today, the trading of cultured pearls in Bahrain is prohibited very few pearl divers remain: each pearl must be taken to the Government, documented and verified as a Bahraini pearl to be recognised in the country.


Before heading back to The Ritz-Carlton for a siesta by the pool, we go to the heart of Muharraq to dine in Saffron Restaurant, a traditional Arabic restaurant loved by locals. Welcomed with dates, Saffron’s speciality, I am finally blessed to see a menu with chicken liver, much to the delight of our hosts, but to the confusion of my companions. We also sample the Shakshuka, Bahraini-style bun quesadillas, daal and biryani, before washing it down with a refreshing green juice.

Other activities you should be sure to feature on your itinerary include a trip to the Al Fateh Grand Mosque, built in 1987 and named after the founder of Bahrain, Ahmed Al Fateh. As one of the largest mosques in the world, we are amazed by its architecture, including the world’s largest fibre glass dome, sitting at 26 metres wide. Below the dome, a ring of 3-metre-high calligraphy covers its circumference, beneath which the main square is formed by four arches. These repeated archways, along with intricate Islamic patterns adorning every surface, are breathtaking, and we are humbled by its design. After dressing in abaya and hijab, we are given a tour of the interior, and shown around the building that encompasses 6,500 square metres: the mosque has the capacity to accommodate over 7,000 worshippers at a time.


One for the motoring fans is a trip to the Bahrain International Circuit; home to the Formula One Grand Prix. The BIC is vast and it’s no surprise that is one of the world’s leading motorsport venues, despite only opening in 2004. Not only is the BIC used for drag-racing, GP2 series and the 2004 Grand Prix (which was the first in the Middle East) but you can enjoy the track yourself and experience go-kart racing.


For more information

on the Kingdom of Bahrain, Bahrain Tourism & Exhibitions Authority (BTEA), events and attractions please visit:

www.bahrainalwayswarmer.co.uk

Gulf Air - Return flights from London Heathrow to Bahrain start from £509 economy and £2,563 business. For further information, fares and

reservations visit: www.gulfair.com

Please note these fares are subject to change

and subject to availability

The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain - Rooms at The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain start from £290, including breakfast. For more information or to book, visit www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/middle-east/bahrain