My descent into Doha was exactly as I’d imagined – off the back of an unusually large desert storm, flight QR901 direct from Perth lowered over the desert into a hot sand-washed Middle Eastern landscape so foreign from the leafy neighbourhoods back home.
Not yet as well known as its UAE neighbours, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Doha is poised to become the next big Middle Eastern stopover destination. Jutting out into the Persian Gulf, the tiny sovereign state shares just one land border with Saudi Arabia and is on the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula.
With a population of less than two million, and a total area of 11,437 square kilometres, Qatar is geographically but a blip on the global radar, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in fortune.
Reserves of both oil and natural gas have given the country the world’s highest GDP per capita and this wealth is evident at every turn. In just one generation Doha has morphed from a traditional pearling village into an eclectic metropolis famous for its fusion of futuristic skyscrapers (among the most outlandish in the world) and traditional Islamic culture. From spas to art, artefacts and fragrant Arabic food, intrepid travellers will find plenty of fodder for a fun-filled couple of days.
THE PEARL QATAR: While still in construction, this multi-billion-dollar man-made island community will ultimately boast 10 Mediterranean-inspired districts with beachfront villas, elegant town homes, exclusive apartments and penthouses, five-star hotels, marinas, retail and restaurants. Stage one, Porto Arabia, is the place to currently go for top-end brands – Hermes, Emporio Armani, Cavalli and Alexander McQeen are just the tip of the luxurious iceberg.
SOUK WAQIF: No Middle Eastern city worth its weight in succulent dates is without a souk (market). Located in the old city, Souk Waqif is a popular local meeting place – through an intricate labyrinth of archways wafts a heady blend of fragrant shisha smoke and the aromas of authentic Arabic food. Most vibrant in the evenings, here you’ll discover a string of Middle Eastern restaurants and stores selling traditional clothing, souvenirs, handcrafts, jewellery, spices, local sweets and more. Shops open from 10am-1pm then again from 4pm until 10pm.
THE GRAND HYATT DOHA: Situated in the new West Bay Lagoon district (10km from downtown Doha), The Grand Hyatt with its lush grounds and private beach offers an inner city oasis. Its collection of top-end restaurants are favoured by both locals and high profile ex-pats, and there’s a wide range of recreational activities including an Arabian-inspired spa and three swimming pools. Rooms are spacious and decadent with large ensuite bathrooms.
AL NAJADA: Located in the heart of the Souk, this boutique property is spread through three traditional Arabic homes, joined together to create an intimate, exotic and homely atmosphere. The rooms are large with touches of traditional décor and sweeping ensuites. On the sultry rooftop balcony, overlooking the Souk, guests are encouraged to relax with canapés and cocktails. Al Najada is owned by Souk Waqif Hotels and is one of six properties in the precinct.
ORYX ROTANA: Owned by Qatar Airways, this five-star hotel is adjacent to both the current international airport, and the New International Doha Airport, scheduled to open in December. It’s also a stone’s throw from Souk Waqif and the Museum of Islamic Art. If you’re looking for a break from Arabic food its restaurant, The Cellar, is a sophisticated place to enjoy tapas and fine wine.
JAULA SPA: There’s no better place to escape Doha’s frenetic flow of traffic and searing heat than in the Jaula Spa. Hidden away in the Grand Hyatt Doha, it’s a sanctuary divided into men’s and women’s areas (there are also two couple’s suites) with saunas, steam rooms, relaxation lounges and even an icy plunge pool. A 60-minute aromatic full body massage is just the tonic for those looking to take a relaxing break from their busy itinerary.
SIX SENSES SPA: Sharq Village is a 174-room resort fusing five-star luxury with traditional service and architecture. It’s also home to the world-class Six Senses Spa. The largest in Doha, the spa offers a wide range of experiences, including a traditional hammam. For the uninitiated, a hammam, or Turkish bath, is where men and women bathe publically in separate bathhouses and are often scrubbed and buffed by an older man or woman until the skin literally glows. While initially confronting, the experience is invigorating, some even say spiritual.
DUNES DISCOVERY TOUR: Half-day trips from Doha expose the natural beauty and constantly shifting shapes of the desert dunes that fringe the city. Called “dune bashing”, the exhilarating tours wind their way to Qatar’s famous inland sea, sending travellers sideways down sheer dune faces along the way as experienced drivers expertly navigate the dunes in four-wheel-drives. Other highlights include an optional camel ride and the opportunity to visit the Saudi Arabian border. Day tours and overnight expeditions staying at a traditional Bedouin camp are also available to those with more time. Gulf Adventures’ Dunes Discovery Tour runs from in the morning and afternoon and costs USD$70 per person.
QATAR EXPLORER TOUR: Also run by Gulf Adventures, this full-day package includes Qatar’s major sights making it perfect for those short on time. It starts with a desert safari, followed by a traditional Arabic lunch in the Souk and ends with a leisurely tour to the Museum of Islamic Art, Equestrian Club and the waterfront Corniche among other attractions. It runs from 9am to 7pm and costs USD$90 per person. Both tours, plus a diverse range of others, can be booked at www.gulf-adventures.com or through Qatar Airways Holidays.
MUSEUM OF ISLAMIC ART: An absolute must-see, the now iconic Museum of Islamic Art was designed by master architect I.P. Pei (of The Louvre fame). The building sits on a man-made island and has been designed to resemble a woman wearing a Burqa. Inside is the world’s most comprehensive collection of Islamic art. Guided tours are available and admission to the general exhibition is free. www.mia.org.qa FALCON MARKET: Falconing is a big business in Qatar where the local Qatari community have a long history with the sport. On the edge of Souk Waqif is the fascinating Falcon Market where visitors come face to face with the prized birds, literally dressed to kill. There’s more action here during the falconing season (October to March) however the adjoining Falcon Hospital allows curious visitors to take a peek inside year-round.
The flight time from Perth to Doha is 11 hours, and almost 15 hours from Melbourne. Doha is five hours behind Perth and seven behind Melbourne. Visitors from Australia need a tourist visa, which can be collected on arrival in Doha. The Qatari Riyal is the currency used in Qatar (1AUD = approx 3.7 QAR). Currently it’s summer in Doha and the average maximum temperature is around 42 degrees. Although extremely safe, Qatar is a conservative Islamic country so visitors, especially women, need to dress appropriately. Respectfully, shoulders should be covered and clothing should be worn at least to the knee.
MAKE A BOOKING
Qatar Airways flies direct to Doha from Perth and Melbourne. For timetables and fares visit www.qatarairways.com/au. One-night stopover packages staying at the Grand Hyatt Doha including a city tour and airport transfer start from $194 per person twin share and are available through Qatar Airways, or through the hotel (www.doha.grand.hyatt.com).