By Tanya Lunn
When friends heard that I was heading off to an adventurous new life in Bahrain, naturally they were quick to offer advice on adjusting to life in a very different environment to that of New Zealand. "You won't be able to take the cats, of course. No one keeps pets in the Gulf," one authority on the subject told me, having spent a fortnight with friends in Dubai.
"There's nothing to do there. You can't even have a nice garden in the desert," said my neighbour's horticulturist mother who knew a pilot working for an Arabian airline.
"Well, sports will be a distant memory for you up in the Middle East. I guess they swim and play a bit of tennis and of course you could ride horses if you're into controlling wild Arab stallions in the sand dunes. But as for cricket and rugby - well, I couldn't go there!" lamented a keen triathlete who water skis and goes fishing in any spare time left over after watching his kids play mini-rugby at the weekend.
Seven years, two cats, five rabbits, eight birds and 47 fish later, I'm just planning a trip to the garden centre for another load of petunias to brighten up the patio as the lawnmower roars past the cascading bougainvillea and hibiscus that frame the grass in our palm-dotted garden.
And sports? Our family enjoys regular sailing - competitive, recreational and tuition - at the Bahrain Yacht Club; golf at Riffa Golf Club and squash (on a rather erratic basis, though keen squash players can join a number of leagues run by sporting clubs, including the Duffers' League that has been going for a number of years and has around 100 players. Michael Brian, tel. 611096, is the organiser.) Our daughter also plays netball and, on occasion, tag rugby.
Yes... there is rugby in Bahrain! Bahrain Rugby Club's Cable & Wireless grounds in Saar provide excellent grass playing fields for the country's rugby matches against visiting teams from as far afield as Ireland. There have even been 'friendlies' versus teams from, among others, visiting New Zealand Navy ships (something that would surely gladden the heart of my Kiwi friend whose kids, incidentally, could join a mini rugby training team at the Rugby Club with ease).
As it happens, the largely expatriate Bahrain rugby team is one of the strongest sides in the Gulf. Other sports played at the Rugby Club include soccer, netball and circuit training, while the addition in 2001 of a new pool has led to the recent introduction of swim training squads - mixed, ladies' and junior groups. Call the club on 695809 for more information.
Five-a-side hockey is played on an occasional basis at the Rugby Club, while the Pakistani and Young Goans Clubs also have hockey teams.
The cricket nets at the Rugby Club provide a popular training spot for many would-be fast bowlers, but a great deal of the real cricket action takes place in the outfield of Bahrain's abundant empty lots. From Sanabis to Sitra and Manama to Muharraq, the 'thwack' of leather on willow resonates around the surrounding buildings as the pride of the resident Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan cricketing fraternity take each other on. Most of the country's better cricket pitches are to be found in Riffa, in the desert area just below the Riffa escarpment.
Cricket leagues flourish and the standard is very high, with several players having played at a senior level in India. Matches between clubs such as the Bahrain Cricket Club and the Indian Cricket Club, for example, attract a high spectator turnout. The general secretary of the Bahrain Cricket Association, Mohan Kutty (9633298) can tell you more.
If you're on holiday and would like to join a friendly game you could always try the Awali Cricket Club which plays at the 60-year-old Awali Oval. Social games take place there on Thursday afternoons and there's even tea in the pavilion. The phone number for the club is 756959.
Cricket is not a game with a great following among Bahrainis - but soccer is an entirely different matter. This is perhaps the most popular sport in the Middle East and almost a national obsession, with every village sporting a pair of goal posts at either end of a sandy football pitch. Bahrain's youths turn out in force for sundown kick-arounds and many have gone on to play for their local club. There are 26 football clubs in the country, 18 of them in the premier league.
Bahrain's national football team has a German coach and beat Iraq and Iran in matches in the preliminary round of the World Cup qualifiers for 2002. Call the Bahrain Football Association (685775) for information on upcoming matches.
Another game loved by Bahrainis is basketball. Regular matches are scheduled in the Juffair Dome, where international fixtures take place. If you'd like to catch a game, the Bahrain Basketball Association (713019) can give you a list of upcoming games.
Waterskiing, once the favourite sport of this family, has taken a back seat for us - not because of lack of facilities, of which there are many, but due to pressure of work. Of course, if you're visiting Bahrain on holiday, that shouldn't be a problem for you and you'll find boats keen to take you out at all the leading beach resorts and watersports clubs.
Boating and sailing are, naturally enough for an island nation where the temperature of the shallow coastal waters is pleasant year-round, very popular and relatively easy to arrange. You may be lucky enough to find that your hosts are among the considerable number of people in the country who own a boat, but if not, try the Bahrain Yacht Club (700677) or Zallaq Sailing Club (836078) - the former also offers boat trips out to see the dolphins. If you're a competitive sailor, see if you can hitch a ride crewing in a Cruiser Fleet race, or maybe even in the annual Cable & Wireless Regatta, which is organised by the Bahrain Yacht Club in October each year.
Those who prefer to let others do the work can hire private dhows for day trips. These traditional Gulf boats offer a unique way of seeing some of the outlying islands (fashts), most of them barely more than sandbars. The cost of hiring a dhow means you'll probably need a group to make it cost-effective, but it's amazing how easy it is to persuade people into taking a dhow trip! Be prepared to bring your own food and drink, not to mention plenty of sun protection. The experience is well worth it, and guaranteed to make memories that will linger long after the tan has faded.
Another exciting boat trip to take is the one to Hawar, a glittering jewel of a beach resort set in the aquamarine waters of the Gulf south-east of Bahrain's main island. Not only are the beach and swimming pool facilities superb, there are ample opportunities for sailors and fishermen to enjoy their sport, while paddle boats, kayaks and jetskis (and pushbikes!) can be hired from the hotel. Call 849111 for details.
Jetskiing is also available at a number of locations on 'mainland' Bahrain, including at the Yacht Club, Al Bander Resort (701201), the Marina Club (291527) and Le Royal Meridien Hotel (580000). Le Royal Meridien boasts a superb white sandy beach fringed by date palms, a lagoon and a man-made island, not to mention a luxurious indoor/outdoor pool complex. The resort offers the chance to go paragliding, water-skiing, windsurfing, sailing and kayaking or take a ride on a pedalo or 'banana'. Marina facilities are also available.
Fishing is another popular pastime in Bahrain and annual fishing competitions attract a high number of entries, including one run annually by the Yacht Club in early October. Typically, a good catch for a day's recreational fishing in Bahrain could include a Hamour (local variety of Grouper) weighing 8-10kg, so you're not talking tiddlers here. To find out more about the contest, which is open to everyone, call Mohammed Hakiki on 700677. Even if you aren't the fishing type, the weigh-in at around 4pm on competition day always draws a big crowd of spectators with cameras at the ready - in 2001, a stingray weighing in at over 50kg took first prize!
Seeing marine life in its natural habitat can also be enjoyed in Bahrain's warm waters. Most watersports clubs offer dive courses, but if you're a qualified diver and you'd like to go exploring beneath the waves - well, ripples really in these tranquil waters! - you should contact Aquatique (271780), which offers guided dives starting at BD30 for two dives. Marine turtles, dolphins and dugong are all to be found among the brilliantly-coloured fish that populate Bahrain's waters. Underwater visibility is best in the summer. When booking a dive, be prepared to show your diving certification card.
Back on dry land, you might feel like a round of golf. Believe it or not, the land in the centre of Bahrain is not as dry as you might expect. In fact, it's a luscious oasis of greens and fairways carved out of the desert and shimmering with lakes, just 15 minutes' drive from Manama. The 18-hole, par 72, PGA Championship golf course opened three years ago and has already played host to some important tournaments including the 21st Arab Championship in 2000 and the 2001 GCC Championship (both of which were won, incidentally, by Bahrain, whose national golf team is said to be the best in the Middle East). For information on booking tee-times or golf tuition at Riffa Golf Academy, call the Golf Shop on 750777, ext. 110.
You can also swing into action at Awali Golf Club, which makes for a different golfing experience. Teeing off from a piece of grass that they carry round the course with them, golfers find themselves putting holes on the oiled sand 'browns', rather than greens! Awali also welcomes visitors midweek - call 756770.
It goes without saying that ice-skating was one of those sports we thought we'd have to forgo in Bahrain, and I am happy to report that we were wrong! You can even take lessons from a former Scottish figure skating champion at Bahrain's recently upgraded ice rink in the Funland Centre, on the Al Fateh Corniche. I think one of my enduring memories of life in Bahrain will be the incongruous sight of Arab men gliding gracefully around the rink clad in traditional national dress of the long white thobe and ghutra headdress, designed to keep the wearer cool under a blistering desert sun!
Running is a pastime enjoyed by many, and if competitive running is in your blood, you might want to get in touch with the Bahrain Cross Country and Road Runners (CCRR) Club. The club organises races, varying in distance from 3km to a full marathon, every weekend and visitors are welcome to enter for the nominal sum of 500 fils (call Adnan Al-Qassab on 689320 or check out www.bahrain-ccrr.org).
Hash House Harriers, the international social runners' organisation, has a chapter in Bahrain comprising around 100 members. The Hash meets on Mondays at 5pm and runs are followed by a barbecue. All comers are welcome - you can obtain recorded directions to meets by calling 862620.
Arabia is home to some of the world's finest horses and the tradition of horsemanship goes back thousands of years in the Middle East, where it is a deeply-rooted passion. Today, show jumping, flat racing and endurance riding combine to form a horse scene that keeps riders busy throughout the year. Casual riders are welcomed at most stables. Try the Dilmun Club (690926) in Saar; Twin Palms (591668) at Shakhoora or the Country Club (593593) in Janussan, all of which offer riding lessons and hacking for riders of all ages and abilities.
If equine speed is your thing, you can enjoy a day at Bahrain's national racecourse at Sakhir. Organised by the Equestrian and Horse Racing Club, race meetings are held on Fridays from October to May and feature some of the Gulf's finest horses from Bahrain's Amiri Court stables. Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa family has a deep love of horses and racing and keenly monitors the breeding programmes of both traditional Arab horses as well as thoroughbreds. The country has four official stud farms, breeding around 1,500 registered thoroughbred foals annually.
Land speed of a different type can be enjoyed at Rally Town (612992), near the Saudi Causeway and the Silver Go-Kart Circuit (780011) in Tubli where you can test your skill on a variety of karts of varying engine sizes. Karting as a sport has fired the imagination of a number of residents in the country to the extent that an annual 24-hour endurance rally, the Bahrain Superkart Challenge, now takes place at the National Stadium in Isa Town.
Bahrain will also shortly become the first country in the Middle East to stage a Formula 1 race.
Of course not everyone likes their excitement in such an adrenaline-pumping manner. If you prefer the quieter pursuits of Mah Jong, chess, bridge or Scrabble you will find groups who meet regularly to play all of these.
Bahrain's Scrabble League is something of a legend in the area, and its chairman, Roy Kietzman, is known by the Dubai Scrabble fraternity as 'The Grandad of Gulf Scrabble'! The league has around 40 players and meets twice weekly, on Mondays at the Hilton and on Fridays at the Diplomat Hotel. Players of all abilities are welcome at the meetings, which are organised by the Bahrain Mind Sports Association (BMSA) - call 242641 for more information.
Also under the umbrella of BMSA are clubs for chess (call Khalid Al Awadi on 9468715) and bridge, played on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays with Ladies' Mornings on Sundays and Tuesdays (contact Rizwan Mumtaz on 9687190).
To get back to those two sports that my friend thought would be on offer in Bahrain, namely tennis and swimming, well, he was right! You can swim just about everywhere. There's the sea, of course, and I wouldn't like to hazard a guess as to the number of swimming pools on the island - it must run into the hundreds.
Tennis courts are similarly ubiquitous and the game is played by so many people at so many places, it's hard to know where to start. All resorts and sporting clubs offer tennis coaching and joining a tennis ladder is easy. Try the Tennis Association on 687236.
What else can you do in Bahrain? Gymnasia and fitness centres are to be found at health and sports clubs throughout the island and all the five-star hotels have gyms with resident instructors and trainers. Ten pin bowling has seen an upsurge in popularity since the opening of the new 12-lane Bahrain Bowling Centre at the Seef complex. You can also bowl at the Busheri Bowling Centre in Budaiya and at Al Bander Resort, and there's short-lane 'neon' bowling at Magic Island in Seef Mall.
All this is certainly more than enough to keep the average sports enthusiast extremely busy for several years - the only problem is that work tends to get rather annoyingly in the way. Meanwhile, before I get back to my golf lessons, the roses need watering - the Bahrain Garden Club will be holding its 37th Annual Horticultural and Flower Show in March and I may be in with a chance! Let's hope the puppy we're planning to get doesn't dig everything up.
Formula 1 fever
Kingdom of the horse
Golf in desert oasis