If we’re talking bucket lists, it’s fair to say Bahrain was never particularly high on mine. Or rather, flying to Bahrain to be chauffeured to a five-star hotel in a Maserati by a could-be model in a bespoke suit wasn’t particularly high on mine.
That, I’d always told myself, was exactly the kind of gauche travel experience aspired to by the most terminally basic: reality TV show contestants, and suburban accountants rich in capital, but piss-poor in taste.
Then I tried it. And, of course, sort of loved it. Sod’s law.
Merchant House is, in a hotel landscape that could otherwise be described as “banal luxury”
In my defence, however, the pick-up service offered by the Merchant House Hotel, Bahrain’s first five-star boutique hotel, is a lot… well, cooler than one might expect it to be. Instead of classic black, the driver wears a cobalt blue suit with a blue and white striped shirt. And instead of, say, a Rolls Royce or something similarly expensive but ultimately quite boring, we rode in a sleek dark blue Maserati. Subtle as they may be, these are the touches that set the Merchant House apart from its competition.
Opened in February 2019, Merchant House is, in a hotel landscape that could otherwise be described as “banal luxury”, a breath of fresh air. With 46 individually styles suites, the property eschews stuffy luxury for an aesthetic that is at once contemporary and attractively eclectic, with nods to both British quirkiness and Bahraini craft.
The hotel is also the latest opening from Gordon Campbell Gray, the hotelier behind the Phoenicia in Malta and Le Gray in Beirut, which means art plays a leading role in the interior. In fact, Merchant House is home to a collection of around 300 artworks that runs the gamut from established and emerging Bahraini artists to a smattering of titans including Chagall, Matisse, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. The art extends beyond the frame too, with a specially commissioned graffiti-covered stone pillar holding court in the lobby and bedroom screens and bathroom walls in designs adapted from sketches by Bahraini-American artist Nasser Alzayani.
The hotel’s art bent is surprising on account of its location. Situated in the heart of downtown Manama, Bahrain’s capital city and busy financial hub, the Merchant House’s immediate neighbours are mostly financial institutions and the hotels catering to the people doing business with them. The decision to build the hotel here was, as a Merchant House spokesperson pointed out during my stay, initially met with a few raised eyebrows. I can’t say it’s hard to see why, either – take a glance outside its front entrance and you’ll spot several office buildings (including the spectacularly ugly Standard Chartered Bank) and – perched around the corner at the entrance to the Bab Al-Bahrain souk – a stall selling T- and sweatshirts printed with “Habibi” in the style of the Hermès logo. It’s ideally located for business, but some leisure travellers might find the nearby hub-bub a little too vibrant.
That could be set to change, though. As part of its pledge to grow tourism to a value of $1bn by 2020, the Bahraini government is currently regenerating several parts of the downtown area, hoping to bring in tourists other than those in town to broker deals.
Once famed for its pearl fisheries, Bahrain was hit hard by the advent of Japanese cultured pearls in the early 1900s. And while oil has been a key source of growth for neighbouring Gulf countries since the 1930s, Bahrain hasn’t fared so well on account of its limited reserves. Hence the country’s vested interest in finance and tourism.
Speaking of which, an itinerary planned by the hotel gave me a taste of what Bahrain has to offer. Along with some historical bits, the UNESCO-protected Bahrain Fort, the National Museum and the totally #housegoals former residence of Sheikh Isa Bin Ali Al Khalifa, there was a tour of the souk (hidden gems here and there but mostly tat), the Bahrain International Circuit (I mean… it is what it is) and a camel farm (basic, but totally brilliant). There was also a tour of the Al-Fateh grand mosque, which culminated in an overzealous guide attempting, Southern Baptist preacher-style, to convert all present to Islam, and a pearl-diving excursion I decided to pass on once I’d watched a few YouTube videos in my hotel room and concluded that it probably wasn’t going to make me rich.
While some of these activities offered an insightful introduction to Bahraini culture, others felt a bit… filler. A shame, I thought, to be herded around the Grand Prix gift shop when tours of the pottery village where Merchant House’s beautiful custom ceramics are made were also available, and even closer to the hotel.
Still, you could have a perfectly nice time in Bahrain staying in the hotel itself (and you wouldn’t spend hours in traffic, either – Bahrainis drive everywhere, all the time). There is a bit of a song and dance made about its first-floor library (specially curated to reflect Bahraini and global culture, but mostly the assortment of glossy Taschen books you’d probably expect to find in a hotel library made for Instagram), but the real draw at the Merchant House is the rooftop.
Here, an emerald tiled pool glistens alongside Indigo, the hotel’s open-air restaurant. Decorated to feel like the meeting point between an eccentric British country home and a Mediterranean garden, the terrace is filled with trees, verdant potted herbs and floral sofas.
The food, helmed by ex-Nobu Shoreditch chef Rob Shipman, is generally pleasant, and occasionally delicious. But given that the Merchant House is setting its sights on worldly travellers keen to explore local Bahraini culture, the menu is disappointingly ‘global’. Save for locally caught hamour-e, it’s burgers, sandwiches, pasta and steak (albeit an exceptionally good Australian Wagyu steak). Dates, for example, are nowhere to be seen, despite the Middle East producing some of the best.
I should say that my stay wasn’t without its teething problems. A stale English muffin for breakfast one day. A call to reception in the early evening going unanswered on another. And restaurant service that while always friendly, could at times be scattered, with starters and main courses sometimes arriving at the same time and waiters often having to awkwardly lunge, stretch and generally engage in an impromptu game of Twister with diners in order to retrieve plates, though that of course says more about Indigo’s layout than the calibre of its staff.
Blips aside, Merchant House is a gem. As well as being more eclectically modern than other Bahraini hotels, it has in spades what so many other hotels desperately try but so often fail to cultivate: buzz. Merchant House is fun. Sure, there’s the contemporary interior of concrete walls and juicy pops of colour, but the hotel’s vibrancy is as much reflected in its atmosphere as its aesthetic.
The staff here are largely young, attractive, multicultural and excited to have joined a venture that feels like the brave new world of Bahrain’s sometimes tired hotel landscape. They strike a perfect balance – it occurs to me while waxing lyrical about red wine cocktails with the Filippino bartender one night – between respect for social mores and a charming irreverence.
And irreverence, a healthy sense of fun, is something you never quite cherish more than when you find yourself, perched on a bar stool, sipping a very dry martini just an hour’s drive away from a country that’d have you lashed for doing the same. C
The Merchant House, 150 Government Avenue, Manama 304, Kingdom of Bahrain
+973 1667 1000; campbellgrayhotels.com