Who said there wasn’t anything to do in Kuwait? If you’re the outdoorsy, adventure and curious type, there’s one place to be in the next couple of weeks.
There’s no better time and weather to visit Failaka island. The peninsula is only twenty kilometers from Kuwait. Yet it feels like a world away. This is not just because of its history. Its also because of its very particular character and place in history.
Setting foot on its abandoned streets is like visiting an island that combines a ghost town eerie feel, a soap operesque holiday resort and hotel and just heaps of history and culture. The village is deserted and it just adds to the sense of desolation that sweeps the island.
Be warned: this is not a visit for those who expect to have everything laid on a touristic plate. It’s very much DIY tourism and that is what we loved about it. DIY!
Failaka isn’t for everyone. It’s an alternative day trip. It’s the kind of place that appeals to those who want to stand at the crossroads of great civilisations and say “wow” as they stand on the top of what used to be the Crown Prince’s island summer house. It attracts school camping trips, Kuwaitis in search of peace and quiet as they escape the smog of the city and expats who wander scratching their head at the bizarre cocktail that make the island today.
First for the history. Mesopotamians settled in Failaka at least a century before the Dilmun civilization. Traders from the Sumerian city of Ur occupied the island and ran a mercantile business. It’s well worth reading up on this period before you embark on your visit, because of what it says about the region and Kuwait today.
But it is Alexander the Great’s awe-inspiring conquest of Asia that put the island on the map in more modern times. The ruins from this period have been drawing archaeologists to its shores for decades now. Greek government experts have also been excavating here, as have dozens of different government sponsored missions over the decades.
They hope to find the secrets of an earlier conquest, a settlement established by Alexander’s general, Nearchus, in the 4th Century BC.
The result of centuries of history? The island boasts some of the most incredible ruins in the region. They are usually closed to the public, but a friendly conversation can lead to incredible discoveries. The site is run by the National Museum and visits can be organized for groups.
Second reason to go? The island was the cherished home of a close-knit Kuwaiti community that today is fully integrated into mainstream society here. They were forced to abandon their homes after the occupation after the government declared the island uninhabitable and made some of it a military zone.
Today, the village lies deserted and feels like a ghost town. But the deserted roads and dilapidated homes tell their own story. Some of the houses are riddled with bullet holes, dating back to the invasion but also more recently when the homes were used as target practice for the Kuwaiti army. To those who have visited Quinetra in Syria, Bosnia or some parts of Iraq, the village is reminiscent of those villages torn apart by war and in this case the Iraqi occupation.
Third reason to go? The beaches are pristine, deserted and the water is clear. For outdoorsy types, it offers a combination of easy cycling as well as snorkeling and windsurfing. The beaches are rocky but untouched and unspoilt with not a neighbor in sight.
If after a day ambling or cycling its streets you want something bordering on surreal, the visit to the local heritage village is another highlight. A double decker bus, in which quality drinks are juiced up, is parked outside the village. The hotel offers a selection of basic rooms as well as cabana accommodation. It’s actually worth staying the night as the island tranquility is akin to what can be found on the outer fringes of Greek and Sicilian villages.
The highlight of the heritage village is the Palace of Sheikh Abdullah, now fully restored and which has been transformed into an interactive museum. Rooms and Palace are as they were in 1950.
Accessing the island couldn’t be more easy. There is a KPTC Ferry, as well as a hydrofoil. It only takes about an hour to reach. The ferry option also allows you to bring your car, bikes and as many passengers as you wish for a day of rugged and educational fun.
Just make sure you read up beforehand because the greatest shame is that no books or guides that pay tribute to its place in history have ever been published to date in Kuwait. As the history gets eroded, make sure you get a glimpse of it. And fast.
Written by: Maryann Horne
Originally published pre-covid!