Soaring above the azure Arabian sky bound for Doha, the capital of Qatar, we relaxed in style on board our Qatar Airways flight and gazed in wonder at the sight of the city, spread out below and crammed with ultra chic sky scrapers with each one demanding our undivided attention.
Qatar, located on the Arabian Gulf shoreline, features pristine beaches, mighty dunes and arid desert and Doha offers visitors an intriguing insight into a fascinating culture with the warmth of Qatari hospitality at its heart, and a tantalising glimpse of a rich and colourful history.
Leading up to the demise of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Qatar became a British protectorate in 1916 and Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani was duly recognised as the ruler. In 1939 oil reserves were discovered approximately 60 kilometres outside Doha but due to the outbreak of WWII, exploration was postponed. In the 1950’s oil revenue soon surpassed the returns from fishing and pearling and Qatar’s economy flourished.
Independence was declared in 1971 and following the accession of Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in 1995, Qatar continues to thrive. This small peninsular covers only 11,500 sq kilometres, has a population of 2.55 million, and now holds the world’s third largest natural gas and oil reserves, often ranking as the world’s wealthiest nation in terms of GDP per capita. Rapid development abounds ahead of the emir’s successful application to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and Qatar is preparing to take centre position on the world’s sporting stage.
On our first day in Doha we took a leisurely stroll along the 7 kilometre Corniche and paused awhile to admire the glorious views across the glittering waters of Doha Bay and the colourful traditional wooden dhows bobbing on the surface with their sails billowing gently in the breeze. We then made our way to the spectacular Museum of Islamic Art, a striking building designed by the Chinese-American IM Pei, admired for his talents on a variety of projects featuring modernist architecture and focusing on open space and natural components. The museum, which opened in 2008, is located next to Doha’s port on an artificial peninsular, surrounded by a beautiful crescent shaped park. We gazed upon the most beautiful treasures, which form the world’s largest collection of Islamic art. Exhibits include enamel, wood and metal works, glass, ceramics, textiles and jewellery, originating from countries including Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Spain.
To learn more of Qatari history visit the abandoned settlement of Al Zubarah, a UNESCO World Heritage site located approximately 100 kilometres from Doha. This walled coastal town prospered greatly as a pearling and trading centre during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and links were forged with traders from Western Asia, the Indian Ocean and Arabia. Destroyed in 1811 and deserted in the early 1900’s the site, which features palaces, courtyard houses, mosques, fishermen’s huts, a harbour with double defensive walls, a canal and cemeteries, has been naturally preserved by the shifting desert sands. Al Zubarah’s success as a trading centre supported the major coastal towns throughout the region and this led to the development of small independent states that remained beyond foreign control which later resulted in the emergence of the Gulf States.
The most popular attraction for visitors and the perfect spot to soak up the Qatari experience is the Souq Waqif, located adjacent to Doha’s Corniche. The original traditional market, which stood on the same spot, dates back to the 1940s and has been extensively renovated, but parts of the original walls and some elaborately decorated doors remain intact. The narrow meandering alleyways, where seafaring traders once plied their wares, are crammed with small shops displaying all manner of trinkets, textiles and gold jewellery, high mounds of nuts and succulent dates and the intoxicating aromas of rich spices, wooden scented fragrant oils, incense, and Arabic coffee flavoured with cardamom, hang in the air. We practiced our bartering skills with much success and then made our way to the falcon market, where the highest degree of bartering takes place and generous amounts of Qatari Riyals change hands. The ancient sport of falconry is practiced throughout Qatar and the prey of choice is the houbara bustard, which migrates south for the winter months.
For those with a penchant for a high-end shopping experience, the Pearl-Qatar, a man-made island off the West Bay coast, presents luxury boutiques and gorgeous Mediterranean-style marinas with sleek lined yachts jostling for position in front of waterfront restaurants. Known as the ‘Arabian Riviera’, this is an ideal spot to ‘chill’ and to recover from a credit card overload.
Doha offers an extensive choice of glamorous hotels including the excellent Fraser Suites West Bay, located in the upmarket Diplomatic Area. This property provides the highest levels of comfort and service and features luxury accommodations including spacious deluxe rooms and one, two and three bedroom apartments, which are serviced daily and include fully equipped kitchens with washer/dryers. Facilities include WIFI and access to the gymnasium and there’s a gorgeous covered swimming pool, an adjacent open-air area and a selection of very comfortable sun loungers. For visitors keen to take advantage of the freedom that apartment-style accommodation offers, this is the ideal place. The City Centre shopping mall is within walking distance there’s an enormous Carrefore supermarket. If you prefer not to prepare your own breakfast, head for the sumptuous buffet, served in hotel’s restaurant, The Social, and there’s an outdoor terrace, which is the perfect spot for ‘al fresco’ dining.
Should you prefer the splendor of traditional Arabic architecture, head for the Grand Hyatt Hotel and Villas, located in the desirable West Bay Lagoon area. The property, surrounded by beautiful, verdant landscaped gardens, offers a spectacular 400-meter private beach with breath-taking views across the Arabian Gulf and three outdoor swimming pools, and for those keen on outdoor activities, there’s kayaking and paddle-boarding, banana boat rides, jet skis, jet boats, and pedal boats. All accommodations feature a spacious balcony and are beautifully furnished with comfortable beds swathed in crisp, white linens. Bathrooms are very spacious with oversized tubs, walk-in showers and every amenity is provided. The service throughout the property is impeccable, and there is a wide choice of dining options including Rocca, a first-class poolside Italian restaurant, which features an open kitchen and a wood-fired stove. I sampled the succulent Penne Arrabiata, and accompanied by a cool glass of the 2013 Bramito del Cervo Chardonnay, it proved to be an outstanding dining experience. And as we admired the views of the tall palm trees we could hear their fronds rustling in the breeze and we raised our glasses in honor of the delights of Doha.
‘Top tip’ international flights
Qatar Airways is the world’s fastest growing airline and recipient of 2017 Skytrax Awards for the ‘Airline of the Year’ and ‘Best Airline in the Middle East’ and ‘World’s Best Business Class. Opt for business class and take advantage of an unparalleled level of onboard comfort and service and adapt your space to suit your personal needs. For more information visit qatarairways.com
‘Top tip’ hotels
For more information on the Fraser Suites West Bay visit httpss://westbay-doha.frasershospitality.com/en call +974 4495 5000 or email [email protected]. And for the Grand Hyatt Hotel and Villas visit httpss://doha.grand.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html call +974 4448 1234 or email [email protected]
‘Top tip’ –Doha airport transfers.
Book a private transfer with Blacklane, partners of Qatar Airways. Take advantage of a reliable and punctual, first class service. Prices are all-inclusive and guaranteed in advance, so you can sit back and relax upon arrival. Visit blacklane.com for more information.
‘Top tips’ – info, tours, and activities
For more information visit the Qatar Tourism Authority at www.visitqatar.qa and for tours and activities visit Qatar International Adventures at www.qia-qatar.com