Greetings from the Gulf
“The time is currently 9:05pm, and the temperature outside is 108° Fahrenheit. Welcome to Bahrain.” A shot of static signaled the end of the announcement, and I watched transfixed as the women on my flight transformed. In Athens, they had boarded the plane in high end resort wear, sleeveless designer dresses and tight, trendy jeans. In Manama, a whirl of fabric later, they deplaned swathed in elegant scarves, colorful hijabs, and long, dark abayas.
Welcome to Bahrain, indeed.
I spent a lot of time looking at flights in preparation for my six week summer trip through Europe. The only one for which I couldn’t find a bargain was Greece to Thailand. What I did find, though, was a very intriguing route — one that included a twenty-three hour layover in the Kingdom of Bahrain, at only forty dollars more than the cheapest option available.
And that’s how Bahrain became the first country I collected a passport stamp from in the Middle East, and the second country I’ve traveled to exclusively thanks to an airline layover (don’t worry, Singapore, there’s room for everyone in this bizarre and made-up travel category).
After the initial rush of booking the ticket and downloading the Lonely Planet Bahrain chapter wore off, I started to get the slightest bit antsy about how this trip was going to go down. Hostels are non-existent in Bahrain, and my guidebook hinted that cheap hotels often rent rooms by the hour, if you know what I’m sayin’. (Brothels, guys. That’s what I’m saying.) Basic hotels like the Holiday Inn or Best Western start at $100, and so I decided I was happy to pay up to $150 for a night of sleep somewhere comfortable. But I was also concerned about how I’d get around — I was eager to make the most of my meager time in Bahrain, but came up empty when searching for tour guides, and was unsure if I could talk a taxi into negotiating a flat rate for my stay. Oh, and did I mention I was visiting in August, the hottest and most humid month of the year? And that as a woman traveling alone, I was the tiniest bit anxious about visiting an entirely new region of the world for the first time ever?
All that is to say I can’t tell you how happy I was when the Intercontinental Bahrain offered to show me around this intriguing little island.
Landing late after a long day of work and packing and travel, I was ready to collapse in bed and set my alarm for an early morning wake up the next day. Then I opened the door to my room. Um, sleep? When I had all these chairs to test out, snacks to eat, and beautifully scented bath products to use? Who needs sleep!
Okay, I mean, I did crawl into my bed eventually. But wow, did I love this room — not to mention arriving in Thailand refreshed from two manageable half days of travel broken up by a great night of rest rather than one massive trans-continental slog. And while I was spoiled by a plush club suite, standard rooms at this hotel start at around $160 — a great value considering the city standard.
And there would be no airport food for this layover. Nope — I was dining in serious style at the Intercontinental’s own Legendz Steakhouse. Each course was a work of art, but even more impressive was the company. I ate with two of the hotel’s managers and lapped up their stories of expat life in Bahrain and their work in the hospitality industry across the Persian Gulf states.
My only regret is that with my short stay, I didn’t have more time to lounge around the hotel’s trendy bars (yup, alcohol is sold in Bahrain — in fact, it’s a bit of a weekend playground for citizens of more strict and traditional neighboring countries), tempting restaurants and oasis-like pool area.
In fact, when I woke up the next morning and went for a wander around the hotel, it took all I had not to flop face first into that pool. Did I mention it was a little warm?
That morning, twelve hours in and twelve hours to go on my time in Bahrain, my iPhone informed me the temperature would soon top 108° — with a 114° heat index. While I’d been assured that Western dress was acceptable in forward-thinking Bahrain, every woman I’d seen was swathed tastefully and stylishly in something that covered both shoulders and knees. (I actually chatted with a Mormon friend about this not long after leaving Bahrain. I was like, really, you’ve got to see these chicks! We concluded that the women of Bahrain need to bring high fashion modesty to the conservatively-dressing populations of the USA.) There was no way I was going to go out rocking some crumpled backpacker short shorts.
So, how to dress demurely for oppressive heat? Thankfully, I had picked up an outfit in Athens just for the occasion.
Stay tuned for my next post, in which my flamingos and I take on the top sights of Manama!
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Many thanks to the Intercontinental Bahrain for their overwhelming hospitality. As usual, you receive my honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.
I am always so tempted by those flights with cool layovers, and then by the time I finally book them they’re gone… and in their place is the crappy 4 hour layover where you really don’t have time to do anything except eat crappy airport food and wait… sigh.. Bahrain looks luxurious so far, can’t wait to see what else you did with your 24 hours! 🙂
I think with less than 24 hours it’s hard to get motivated to leave the airport (at least for lazy people like me). With my Singapore layover it was actually the cheapest option, and this one, at $40? No brainer!
Ok so a few days ago, I decided to go back in your archives & the last post I read was your “confessions of a picky eater” back in 2011 I think? I have my own comment to add to the post but seeing you celebrate all this fancy food on here like it’s no big thing shows how very far you’ve come! I’m curious about the impact long-term travel has had on your palate?
As for Bahrain, how exciting! The only Middle Eastern country I’ve been to is Israel and I’m dying to go back (with a more “mature” outlook, and freedom…i was on the dreaded bus tour). Can’t wait to see what you get up to!
So funny, I was just talking about that post with a friend last week! We agreed I need to do an update because SO much has changed since then. I think a lot of people would still classify me as a picky eater but my palate has expanded exponentially and I’m not really as embarrassed anymore about it…. usually.
it looks like you are having a great time! I have only been to the Middle East once (to Abu Dhabi) and it was crazy, but so different from what I was used to which I loved. Looks like a great layover!
I’ve flown through Abu Dhabi twice but never left the airport. Great people watching even from within the terminals, though!
I want that dress!! love me some flamingos . And the food looks delicious!
Ha, thanks! I’m glad it’s appreciated by some, as I’ve definitely gotten some thumbs down from a few friends, ha.
Loved this post Alex. It connected me to the time I’ve spent in Dubai – I’ve visited there 4 times but never managed to stay at the Burj Al Arab…yet!
The Arab world is very different to the UK and that was part of its charm I think. Although the first time I went it brought about a little fear when I was told I would be arrested if seen by Police, kissing my husband!
I once sat with a gentleman on a flight who was from Oman and he made it sound the most beautiful of places to explore.
So many stories to tell about it!
Your photos were amazing in this post and the sumptuousness shouted out where you were. Fabulous darling… 🙂
Yes! That crazy luxury is a defining characteristic of the Gulf, isn’t it? Oman is one of the countries I’d be curious to see after this trip!
I love it! Looks like you had quite a lovely luxury stay. It’s great that you were able to take advantage of such a short time there! It’s inspiring to see such dedication to making the most of your time in a place. Cheers!
I think you can almost see more with less time, sometimes, as it forces you to be high energy and efficient! No lazing around and sleeping in, and no “I’ll go tomorrow” 🙂
Wow, Bahrain actually looks like a cool destination! The hotel room looked like heaven, especially after days of traveling 🙂
It was quite the treat! Wish I could have stayed longer…
Wow! That hotel looks stunning!!! I’ve never been to the middle east in my life but my fiancé and me are planning a stopover in Dubai for our honeymoon at the Seychelles next year! I can’t wait to get to know this part of the world!
PS: I LOVE that dress!!!!
Thanks! It was from a local designer in Athens called HEEL. They were having a mega super sale and I scored a flamingo dress and a crab shirt — ha!
What a great idea! Such an adventure. I can’t wait to read about the rest of your trip!
Part II coming out tomorrow 🙂 So excited to share!
That flamingo dress is hilariously awesome. I’m pretty sure you pulled it off in a way I never possibly could.
Ha — it has become quite the running joke among my friends. I love it though!
Wow what a beautiful hotel! And that food looks insane. Are you going to tell us in the next post how much sweat was dripping down your legs under that long flamingo-laded skirt? That’s definitely what would happen to me. Yum.
It was SO HUMID. There was so much sweat. So much. But let me tell you, Bahrain knows how to do air conditioning well.
Well, that was not what I was expecting from Bahrain!! It looks amazing, and what a place to stay. I can’t imagine that heat though… I pretty much die in the Caribbean so I might explode in the Middle East.
I handled it much better than I expected I would! I think I find the cold more traumatizing.
I just love the Middle East! I’ve visited several of the Emirates, but never been to Bahrain. If you ever get the chance, I can highly recommend Dubai. The local food is heavenly!
One of these days I’m sure I’ll end up there. I have met some people traveling who work for Emirates airlines and are based in Dubai, and they are always telling me to visit. I need to take them up on it!
I did my first layover trip, which also happened to be my first visit to Middle East as well, just a few weeks ago to Qatar on my way to Cape Town. I have to say that it is actually a really nice idea to add in an extra location whilst traveling further away. Approx 20 hours is just a perfect amount of time to get a glimpse of a new place! Looking forward to see your following post on Bahrain, I’m quite curious to see if it is very similar to Doha, at least from those few photos you have here it looks quite alike 🙂
Check back tomorrow and tell me if I confirm your suspicion or not 🙂 New post coming out!
Definitely an interesting layover destination! I had 24 hours in San Francisco once and a night in South Korea another time. It’s a great way to break up a long journey and a fun way to get a little taste of a place 🙂
I think the key is going somewhere where 24 hours won’t feel like a tease… in Singapore and in Bahrain it was the perfect amount of time for a taster 🙂
This post was so pretty! I was reading back through your archives though, and it’s seriously crazy how much your travel style has changed with the growth of your blog. I used to read along for tips on my own travels, but now you’re always staying in super fancy places like your hotels in Greece and now here and doing lots of tours or activities. It’s still really fun to read along (so I don’t mean this in a bad way), but it would also be impossible for most other people your age to replicate these trips. I guess I’m just saying that I sort of miss the old days, but I’m really happy for you and impressed by everything you’ve accomplished!
Hey Rachael! Thanks for being such a long time reader and sticking with me. Actually though, I don’t think I agree with your assessment. While I stayed in swank places for my one night in Bahrain and for some of my time in Greece, those followed three weeks of sleeping on couches and in hostels throughout the rest of my Europe trip. I still spend the vast majority of my time in budget accommodation or crashing with friends — I think the occasional luxury locations probably just stand out more 🙂
I wish I’d known you were going to Bahrain. The Arabian Gulf was Terry’s and my home from 1998 until 2006 as residents – the UAE; first Abu Dhabi, then Dubai. Then we put our things in storage in Dubai in 2006 and went on the road, although we were we still based in the UAE for years, flying in and out every few months to work on stories and guidebooks. It’s only now we’re finally cutting ties – we’re about to get our storage unit shifted to Cambodia.
When we lived there full time, it was so easy to travel to neighbouring countries and we had so many holidays, so we often hopped on a plane to Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria 🙁
That was long before they were all tourist destinations too, so it was a very different experience. Nobody came to Abu Dhabi or Dubai on holidays then unless they were family/friends of expats. When we first started going to Oman in ’98, only other Gulf Arabs and expats around the region went there. It was wonderful – it felt so undiscovered. How things have changed.
Do let me know if you’re going again. I must get some of those stories up on Grantourismo!
Wow, that must have been such a unique experience. I will absolutely be picking your brain when I return to the Gulf someday… and in the meantime I’d love to see those stories on Grantourismo! Oh and yes, I dined with two managers. I found their expat tales fascinating, but I can certainly understand your avoidance of PR meals 😉
I meant to add that the InterConts are amazing in the Gulf. One of our favourites is the Dubai Festival City property. Though having been a full-time travel writer for so long, I will do absolutely anything to get out of dining with hotel PR people – a drink is fine but dinner painful. (GMs are more interesting because they have travelled so much more.)
There’s also the issue of needing to concentrate on the food, engage with the waiting staff, and observe other diners to see if they’re enjoying their meal when we’re reviewing a restaurant. However, I have to say that some of the InterCont PRs we’ve met over the years have been so lovely – and more interesting and more worldly – that we’ve become good friends with them! Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton similarly. There must be a story in that…
We once had a 3 day stopover in Bahrain. Like you we where temped by a nice route. In this case Muscat to Kathmandu. It was supposed to be a 27 hour stopover but then the airline changed flight times and it became 3 days. Unlike your post says there are actually a couple of hostels including a pretty nice one (big kitchen, clean double room for 40 dollar a night, secure parking) from the Bahrain Youth Hostel association. But you will have to rent a car if you want to get there, but with car rent being so cheap and gasoline almost free this was not a problem for us.
Three days would definitely have been a better amount of time — twenty four hours was a little short! And thanks for the heads up about the hostel — I guess I should be embarrassed but when I didn’t see any in my guidebook or on HostelWorld (my typical go to) I really thought there were none! Regardless I don’t think I would have been comfortable renting a car, so I probably would have skipped it anyway. But it’s great info for others!
I went to high school in Qatar and Abu Dhabi so I feel the maxi dress/skirt business. Or flow-y pants. So many of the Abu Dhabi ladies wear silk flow-y pants (probs by Gucci or some madness) and 6 inch heel and some how are never sweaty.
I love modest fashionistas. You have to be a little more creative to dress with sass with out showing your knees and shoulders.
Seriously… and they do it so well! What an interesting experience that must have been attending high school in those places, Danni!
First of all – I love that dress. Second of all – I love that pool! You could definitely have found me there if I was in your position! A lengthy layover sounds like a great way to get a sneak peek of what you could experience in a country. Bahrain must have been incredibly fascinating.
It was indeed! Can’t wait to share all the sights I crammed in tomorrow…
Probably one of the only places where normal people can afford to stay at the Intercontinental :). Gotta love countries where you can have a luxury vacation at an accessible price. Can’t wait to read about your experience there the next day alone as a woman.
Details coming up tomorrow 🙂 And yes, Bahrain is a place where it’s worth it to splurge!
Alex that is the most magnificent flamingo dress I have ever seen. I speak from experience. I stalk flamingo clothing like there’s no tomorrow!
Ha, really! That’s quite a thing to collect 🙂 I’m glad this one impressed!
I’ve never really found a good deal when it came to layovers and always ended up crashing on random airport benches…
But this one looks amazing!
Love the flamingo dress by the way!
I’ve done a fair bit of airport bench crashing myself… it only gets worse with time!
Mmmmm, Pork Belly! 😛
Worth making another stopover for that alone!
Again: I. Want. That. Dress!
Check out HEEL in Athens. Awesome local designer in Greece! Also picked up a backless crab shirt 🙂