Middle Eastern island giving Dubai a run for its money

Cosmopolitan Bahrain is just across the border from Saudi Arabia – Getty

There are two statuesque women on each side of the DJ and, if you put their two outfits together, they would be enough for one (almost) decent one. In front of them, waiters pass jeroboams of champagne and primary-colored cocktails to unruly groups of twenty-somethings. In the corner, two well-grouped young men are dancing almost unhealthy with each other.

Apologies to both Judy Garland and Cristiano Ronaldo… Roro, I guess we’re not in Riyadh anymore.

In fact, we are in Bahrain, the country – admittedly more liberal – just across the border from Saudi Arabia that has attracted Ronaldo and many of the biggest international footballers who play alongside him in the Saudi Pro League.

Bahrain mixes culture with an excellent entertainment sceneBahrain mixes culture with an excellent entertainment scene

Bahrain mixes culture with a world-class entertainment scene – Getty

Some, like former Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, live in Bahrain; others, such as Brazilian striker Neymar and French footballer Karim Benzema, come to spend their weekends in this tiny island state that floats just off the coast of Arabia as a hazy, miragey, semi-mythical mix of Avalon, Xanadu and the nightclub that-on-a. -boat moored in the center of Newcastle for much of the 1990s.

Footballers aren’t necessarily the most discerning travellers, but this option is without B(ah)rainer. Saudi Arabia bans drinking, bare shoulders, sex outside marriage – and although, as of 2019, it is no longer compulsory for foreign women to wear abaya robes there, even the least glamorous part of Wags will have to four leave a fifth of his wardrobe.

By contrast, Bahrain has world-class restaurants, perma-party bars, a taste of Arabian culture and history – and you don’t need to be on Ronaldo’s £3.4 million-a-week salary to enjoy a holiday here.

It is known that the Brazilian striker Neymar will spend a weekend in BahrainIt is known that the Brazilian striker Neymar will spend a weekend in Bahrain

It is known that the Brazilian striker Neymar will spend a weekend in Bahrain – Getty

In fact, my first impressions of Dubai mini are a little more modest. Literally so, in fact, as the skyline of the capital, Manama, is exactly the same as that of Dubai – only with all the skyscrapers about 50 percent shorter (astronomers?). I just do one of the most notable: I’m staying at the Four Seasons Bahrain Bay, a luxury hotel that’s booming. The Life of Footballers lifestyle.

Saudi employers gave Gerrard a gym membership as one of the perks that got him to sign up (maybe not that much of a benefit, but wait until you get a massage there), and he’s not the only one it. star to be seen eating at its glamorous restaurants.

The place looks like it’s been teleported back from the future: a pair of liberating, 68-storey, futurist-brutalist concrete monoliths linked by decks of imbedded reflective glass, emerging from its self-circular man-made island in the bay. At his feet the natural is evident but the exquisite passage of a beach, and his rooms glow with the infinite luxury of marble and mahogany, and so perfectly put together as AI.

Traditional Middle Eastern architecture in BahrainTraditional Middle Eastern architecture in Bahrain

Traditional Middle Eastern architecture in Bahrain – Getty

Looking out, yes Blade Runner in the evening, all the lights flickering on a towering cityscape; but when I look out at the dawn it is sand dunes: a low, red sun chooses the colors of the desert on those patches of sand that have yet to be developed, and silhouetted in the tangerine half-eye the high-rise buildings look like ancient fortresses, with domes and minarets now visible among the gaps.

The only thing that breaks the spell, really, is The Cheesecake Factory directly opposite. An outpost of the tacky American caloriemongers sits just across the water in the Mall Avenues, which is not yet finished but which already houses a hundred odd shops, about half of them seem to be local perfumes, so that even when you are outside the sort that. unexotic emporia such as WH Smith, Boots and The Body Shop, you do so in a pleasant fugue of thick, rich, incensey oud, like dark purple Arabian velvet in the nostrils.

Shopping is, of course, the sport of the Wags, and Mesdames Ronaldo, Neymar and Benzema are well catered for in Bahrain. Just meters away from The Avenues is Moda, a more exclusive mall (swap out Claire’s Accessories for Tiffany, and chuck in an Alfa Romeo showroom), but my attempts to walk there are frustrated by Alfa’s pedestrian-unfriendly street system, and after 20 minutes of sweat and tarmac I finally get a taxi to the City Center mall, which I’m told is more “authentic” anyway.

Shopping is a popular pastimeShopping is a popular pastime

Shopping is a popular pastime – Getty

That seems to mean that among the 340 shops, 60 restaurants, two hotels and a permanent children’s play fair, there is also a “Souq area”, designed to mimic a traditional local market place, the date shops and all the shops. women’s clothing stores where the garments come in a whole rainbow of colors from black to (if Madam is looking for something a little more racy) dark grey.

Meanwhile, Manama’s souq is half a square mile of lose-your-own lanes and paths, where you can snag anything from ha’pengin chews to high-end jewellery. And to get a glimpse (you may have to lie) of what it looked like before the mobile phone shops moved in, the Bahrain National Museum has just a slightly waxwork version.

The most interesting/horrifying exhibits relate to the pearl diving industry – until recently, pearl divers still had clothespins clipped over their noses and rocks tied to their feet – and some eyebrow-raising traditional marriage and maternity policies .

Prepare to travel at Manama SouqPrepare to travel at Manama Souq

Manama Souq, half a square mile of lanes and paths to lose yourself in – Getty

There is more history at Qal’at al-Bahrain, the cruise ship castle that sits 20 minutes west, at the heart of Bahrain’s ancient trading empire. The battered, colonial-era Portuguese fort is most visible on top, but in layers below its 40-foot-high base are the remains of successive civilizations dating back some 4,500 years.

They have been discovered and clarified in the museum next door, but in truth it is difficult to focus when such an attractive cafe is attached: shaded by palms, lapped by the clear aquamarine waters of the Arabian Gulf, here anyone could order an iced peach for themselves. tea and forget about Saturday’s crucial match against Al Fateh FC.

Ronaldo’s famous six pack must also be hit here. I eat great everywhere – from the traditional £7 Bahraini cafe where the menu uninvitingly lists “shrimp mush” (but it’s a wonderful combination of rice, prawns, saffron, herbs and delicate rose water) to the steak £185 at Cut by Wolfgang Puck. Gerrard prefers the latter, back at the Four Seasons, and it’s easy to see and taste why: these amazing slabs of uber prime Wagyu and Gold Angus are flown in from Australia or the USA, and it’s just a class of cattle. .

Bahrain is not short of beautiful beachesBahrain is not short of beautiful beaches

There are no beautiful beaches in Bahrain – Getty

After dinner, it’s off to the Adliya area for a drink, shisha and some Unesco level people watching (Halo Lounge, with the gyrating and jeroboams, even the wildest bar in the great buzzing block or two of nightlife ). As I climb into my taxi, however, I hear the call to evening prayers coming out of a minaret somewhere, and it’s like a battle for my soul with the DJ on one side and the muezzin on the other.

When I visited the Grand Mosque earlier in the day, I was impressed by the peace and elegance of the mosque itself (though not certainly due to the guide’s gentle but persistent proselytizing).

I was not about to accept Islam then. But a country where I could heal my body and nourish my soul, within one moment of each other? That’s the kind of place that could convert me.


Ed Grenby was a guest at Four Seasons Bahrain Bay, which has doubles from £284 a single room (fourseasons.com/bahrain); Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority (bahrain.com); and British Airways, with Heathrow returns from £566 (ba.com).

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