Travel review: Bahrain - more than fast cars and oil

It's home to the Formula One but there's more to Bahrain than fast cars and oil. Lisa Haynes discovers what the Arab state has to offer.

Ahmed Al Fateh Grand Mosque. PIC: PA

The deafening roar of F1 engines reverberates from my eardrums to the pit of my stomach. Somebody offers me a pair of earplugs to muffle the sound, but I politely decline. We are just metres away from the starting grid at the Bahrain International Circuit and there is no adrenaline rush like it.

The fact that we’re stone-cold sober – watching from a ‘dry’ box to respect our local hosts – means we’re even more focused on all 57 laps as Sebastian Vettel cruises into pole position. Even the podium finish vetoes champagne spray in favour of a sparkling non-alcoholic drink called Waard (though drinking alcohol isn’t banned in Bahrain for non-Muslims).

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Home to the Formula One since 2004, the annual race spectacle in mid-April is undoubtedly Bahrain’s biggest tourism pull (tickets from £123 at Revving up over three days, a schedule of practice sessions, driver meet-and-greets, pit lane walks and pre-race concerts (hello, Enrique Iglesias) means that hotels, hip restaurants and plane seats get booked up fast during the F1 buzz window.

But the small island state in the gulf is gearing up to be a tourist destination in its own right; like a baby Dubai of sorts – but with more history and cultural pull.

Bahrain is made up of 33 islands but the most people live on mainland Bahrain and the island of Muharraq. Islands such as Hawar and Umm An Na’san are mainly sanctuaries for Bahraini wildlife, like spiny-tailed lizards, sand gazelles and protected Socotra Cormorant birds.

Bahrain – still known as the Pearl of the Gulf – first discovered oil in 1931, which coincided with the collapse of the once flourishing world pearl market. We visit the very unassuming site of the first ever Oil Well No.1 at the foothill of Jebel Al Dukhan. The clunky machinery is a far cry from the high-tech hydraulics we saw in action at the Formula One.

Now, with limited reserves and oil prices plummeting, Middle East countries like Bahrain have switched their focus from trade to tourism – attracting 200,000 visitors a week in the process.

New Instagram-able additions include high-gloss hotels, like the Four Seasons Bahrain Bay, which you’ll find on its own exclusive island, and chic international restaurants, like Asia de Cuba.

Bahrain Bay, on the north coast of capital Manama, is the equivalent of Dubai’s mega-luxe The Palm – an ambitious $2.5bn project that includes the new Wyndham Grand Manama Hotel, an iconic twisted glass structure that you can see for miles.

But despite the hype of shiny new development, it’s the Bahraini culture and history that’s perhaps the biggest draw.

We visit Haji’s Cafe, the oldest restaurant in Manama dating back to 1950, to refuel for a day of sight-seeing. A recent visit from celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck has made the authentic café even more popular with locals and tourists.

There’s no set menu because it changes by the hour, so we’re warmly welcomed with red tea and saffron milk as we receive plate after plate of surprise mini breakfast dishes (all for around £4 each). It’s a banquet of egg mixed with tomato and coriander, chickpeas, cheesy beans, warm Bahraini flat breads and natural yogurts.

Going back even further in time, to around 2300BC, we brave the searing midday heat to explore an archaeological site which was once the capital of Dilmun, one of the region’s most important ancient civilizations. The ruins of the 16th century Portuguese fort Qal’at Al Bahrain, now a World Heritage Site, perch there.

Another trip highlight is wandering through the magical narrow alleyways of Muharraq, Bahrain’s second largest island and another World Heritage Site. Extensive restoration projects – some still ongoing – have brought some of its oldest properties back to life.

We seek shade at Sheikh Isa Bin Ali House in Muharraq, which gives you a glimpse into how 19th century Bahraini royalty lived.

With its ornate wall carvings and stained-glass windows, it’s considered one of the most impressive examples of Gulf Islamic architecture in Bahrain. Other features include a natural take on air-conditioning – we stand under a mini ‘wind tower’ to feel the light breeze created by the building’s cooling system.

We make a pit-stop at the House of Coffee for a mid-tour energy boost. Gahwa (Arabic coffee) is lighter and sweeter than black coffee at home and often flavoured with cardamom and other spices.

We head back to Manama, to weave through the colourful markets.

The original location for Manama’s jewel trading, the Gold Suq has more than 30 family-owned stores selling nothing but gold. The purest available in Bahrain is 24 carat and the price per gram is £31.86 (around 15.50BHD).

With his pearl diving ancestry, it’s only fitting that our guide Fadhal takes us to one of Manama’s most prestigious pearl shops, Al Hashimi Pearls. The owner proudly showcases dana pearls, which can set you back around £20,000 for a necklace.

Well, there might be a Formula One driver just around the corner...