My first view of Doha, the capital of Qatar, was through a dust haze which the early morning sun was trying to dispel but wasn’t very successful. A sandstorm in a neighbouring country was responsible but it was likely to clear as the day progressed, I was told by my guide as we drove past palm-lined roads.
Clearing immigration at Hamad International Airport in Doha was a breeze with Qatar offering a visa waiver to Indian travellers (subject to a few conditions of course). I collected the luggage and was soon out of the airport, ensconced in a car that now sped through the near-empty streets. It was Friday, the weekly off day in Qatar.
As I mulled on the weather and the empty roads, the car swung into a driveway past towering statues of a pair of Arabian Oryx. Nursed back to a viable population from near extinct state, the antelope is the national animal of Qatar and a few other countries in the Arabian Peninsula. If the façade of St Regis Doha was impressive, inside it reflected an opulent mix of traditional Arabian and modern design in shades of gold, brown and cream. With bespoke service and a wide range of facilities, it was one of the finest luxury addresses in Doha.
Even then I was hardly prepared for the surprise that waited for me in the room – a platter of chocolates and cookies that resembled an artist’s canvas. A yellow fondant sun shining over a blue fondant sea washing up a crumbled cookies beach dotted with sea shells. But what really warmed me to St Regis was the tiny Indian flag made to perfection and bounded by chocolates.
Breakfast and shower over, I met my fellow travellers at the lobby for the afternoon tour, the first one of several that we would take courtesy Visit Qatar. Our first stop was Katara.
To most travellers, Doha, the hub of Qatar Airways, is a convenient transit destination. But this tiny nation packs in a surprising number of attractions that are good enough to make Qatar, especially Doha, a tourism destination in its own rights. While you may use a long stopover to catch an overview of the capital city, you can always return to explore the natural and the architectural sites, the beaches, the sporting facilities, etc.
Of course, any one travelling through Doha and its neighbourhoods now, would find the region a work in progress but that is because Qatar is getting ready to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Roads, overpass, hotels, stadiums and commercial complexes are being built or remodelled. And when completed, will showcase Qatar as not only as an oil-rich nation but also a tourism and education hub.
Katara is a sprawling beachfront complex that has been developed as a cultural and entertainment venue. Art galleries, an old-Greece style amphitheatre, an Opera House, the huge pigeon towers, the Katara and the Golden mosques, installation art by famous artists and sculptors, and restaurants are some of its major attractions. After a fabulous lunch at the Armenian-Lebanese restaurant Mamig and a sip of the Chai Karak (which can be likened to the Indian masala tea), we headed for Khor Al-Adaid.
Located about 60km south east of Doha, Khor Al-Adaid, popularly known as the ‘Inland Sea’ has been identified as a place of ‘outstanding universal value’ by UNESCO. ‘The juxtaposition of large mobile dunes reaching the sea coast, where they spill into the sea, together with the large tidal embayment, in an arid tropical environment, has no known parallel in the Middle East or indeed elsewhere in the world,’ it says on its website.
But we were there for a very different reason.
Packed into two Land Cruisers, we arrived in a corner of the sand dunes. Caparisoned camels stood ready to take visitors on a ride through the desert. We posed for a few statutory pictures with the camels while our drivers deflated the tires of the vehicles. It would give the tires more traction as we went dune bashing, a roller coaster of a drive over the sand dunes.
Bump-ity bump went the car, cresting the dune one moment and careening down the next. Sometimes it was as if we were riding on air to land with a thump. Would the car roll over I wondered as it almost travelled sideways throwing up a spray of sand; and just when I feared the worst, the driver straightened it with a flourish. In the distance, I saw a couple of quad bikes travelling over the dunes.
The ride concluded with a visit to the coast, just in time to see the sun go down.
Qatar’s international border with Saudi Arabia was not far, we were told, Qatar’s only road link to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. The rest of the country is surrounded by the waters of the Persian Gulf (or the Arabian Gulf as some prefer to call it). But with diplomatic relations snapped between the two countries, any further travel towards the international border was not allowed. As the gloaming crept in, we headed back to the area near the Sealine Beach Resort. A snaking queue of cars stood in front of the rows of car repair shops, most waiting to have the tires reflated. We too joined the queue and waited for our turn. Then it was one long race to the city.
Rising early the next day, a few of us headed to Qatar’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, Al Zubarah Archaeological Site. According to UNESCO, the abandoned settlement of Al Zubarah, not only ‘bears a unique testimony to the human interaction with both the sea and the harsh desert environment of the region’ but also ‘the only remaining complete urban plan of an Arabian pearl-merchant town,’ a testimony to the merchant and pearl trading tradition of the Persian Gulf during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Although the archaeological site was around 100km from Doha, we arrived in less than two hours. Unfortunately, a visit to the site requires prior permission which we did not have. However, we were allowed to pay a visit to the fort, which stood in the middle of a barren desert, a cannon for company. Inside the fort, a small museum displays Qatar’s pearling history and details of the excavation that took to unearth the site. As the desert wind blew hard, we beat a hasty retreat and fled city-wards to meet the rest of the group waiting for us at the Pearl.
A city within a city, the Pearl is a high-end residential complex located on a manmade island in the West Bay. Kitted with supermarkets, shopping malls sporting global brands, top of the line restaurants, etc., it offered us an opportunity to avoid the sultry outdoor. It even has a Mediterranean style marina where gleaming yachts and designer dhows remain anchored.
After lunch, it was time to head to one of the best kept secrets of this desert nation, the Al Thakira Mangroves, lying north of Al Khor city. Al Khor is about 60km from Doha. We had pre-booked with a group who had arranged a kayaking trip for us. Far from the city and the urban sprawl, the lush green mangroves were a comfort to the eyes. In winter, you can expect to see flamingos here.
The next day we paid a visit to Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art (MIA). This architecturally quaint building stood on its own island, a treasure trove of Islamic arts collected from various nations, including India. In winter, the MIA Park is a hub of activities, including bazaars and food zones. You may also walk down to the Al Bidda Park.
We saved the traditional market, the famous Souq Waqif of Doha, located about 10 minutes’ away from the MIA, for late afternoon – because that is when the market is at its liveliest best – and decided to take a peek at the Qatar National Library.
Housed in a 45,000 square meter state-of-the-art building, it is an excellent place to seek refuge if you are looking to spend time away from the hustle and bustle of a regular routine. The trip also allowed us to have a look at the 2,500 acre Education City, which began its journey with braches of reputed universities such as Cornell, Carnegie Mellon and Georgetown, under the aegis of Qatar Foundation, and is slowly evolving into an experiential zone with world-class hotels, public open spaces, and high level sports, and recreation facilities.
At the Souq Waqif, an Embrace Doha volunteer was waiting to take us around.
Centuries ago, the market would spring up on the bank of Wadi Mishrieb (river), a marshy land. So the Bedouins and the Arab merchants who came to buy and sell at the weekend market would remain standing, which soon earned it the name of ‘Standing Market’, which is how it is still known. However, today the market stands in the heart of a busy neighbourhood, in the shadow of the famous Al-Fanar Islamic Cultural Center, marked by the spectacular Spiral Mosque.
the area has been renovated to give it an old world look, with mud walls and exposed beams. Today, restaurants, shisha joints and souvenir outlets and other shops line the main road while the old market is a maze of narrow alleys. Each alley is devoted to one product, such as incense and perfumes, spices, textiles, jewellery, lamps, household goods, etc. It was at the café Majlis Al Dama that we learned about the board game Dama, an almost forgotten traditional game of Qatar. There was a thriving bird market that not only sold birds but other pets too but avoidable. Instead, you may head for the Falcon Souq, where the birds of prey were bought and sold. One of the shops allowed us to pose with the birds for a photo souvenir. The Gold Souq is also worth exploring if you are in the mood to splurge. One of the best ways to enjoy this traditional market and its varied attractions is to stay at one of the Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels by Tivoli located here. We however settled for a Moroccan dinner at their Argan restaurant.
Like any other metropolis, capital Doha sports high-rise buildings, each basking in its spectacular design. The popular Zigzag Tower appeared to be one of the popular landmarks. An evening visit to the Corniche, Doha’s popular promenade by the sea, is a good time to enjoy a view of the illuminated buildings throwing up a rainbow of colours against the dark sky. So that’s where we decided to conclude our day’s trip. When the weather is mild, expect to see cultural and entertaining programmes being held here.
We paid a brief visit to the Doha Golf Club the following morning before heading for the Banana Island Resort Doha by Anantara.
Doha Golf Club includes an 18-hole Championship Course, a 9-hole Academy Course, an enormous driving range and putting green, eight artificial lakes, landscaped areas and a clubhouse designed in old traditional Arabic style; located at one of the highest points on the course, it offers a good view of the surrounding areas.
We checked in at the city-side jetty of the resort for a 20 minute boat ride to the island. It also gave us a chance to see Doha’s skyline from the water. A musical welcome awaited us at the resort’s jetty after which we were whisked away for a tour of the sprawling complex. Promoted as a luxury wellness retreat, it included a botanical garden and a private beach. The elaborate spa menu combines Arabian rituals, including Turkish hamams, with Thai and Western forms of healing; if you are feeling indulgent, you may even opt for a Royal Moroccan Bath Ceremony. Among the various other facilities on offer are a state-of-the art cinema hall and a full-motion Formula One simulator.
In between, we packed in visits to some of Doha’s spectacular shopping malls. One of the most popular was the Villaggio Mall, which many have likened to the shopping zone inside the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, down to the gondola rides along the shopping arcades. Although still not on the popular shopping destination map of West Asia, Qatar’s appeal is poised to increase as the 2022 FIFA World Cup nears. So maybe this is the best time to explore Qatar before the crowd starts pouring in.
Getting There: Qatar Airways operates direct flights to Hamad International Airport, Doha, from several Indian cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Nagpur, Goa, Bengaluru, Kochi, etc.
Indian nationals can obtain a free of charge visa waiver – valid for 30 days from the date of issuance – upon arrival in Qatar by presenting a valid passport with a minimum validity of six months and a confirmed onward ticket. https://portal.moi.gov.qa/qatarvisas/.
Getting Around: Hamad International Airport (https://dohahamadairport.com) is located to the south of Doha while West Bay is to the north. It takes around half an hour to reach the city centre from the airport with normal traffic.
To go sightseeing in Doha, apart from taxis and rented cars, you may avail the Hop On Hop Off bus service run by Doha Bus (https://dohabus.com). The bus tours are available between July and May.
Stay: Accommodation in Doha matches that of any leading metropolis. To name a few --
- St Regis Doha, Doha West Bay; tel: (974) 4446 0000; http://www.stregisdoha.com/
- The Ritz-Carlton Doha, West Bay Lagoon; tel: 4484 8000; http://www.ritzcarlton.com/
- Shangri-La Hotel Doha, West Bay; tel: 4429 5000; http://www.shangri-la.com
- Four Season Hotel Doha, The Corniche; tel: 4494 8888; https://www.fourseasons.com/doha/
- The Torch Doha, Aspire Zone; tel: 4446 5600; http://www.thetorchdoha.com.qa/
Eat and drink: Doha offers a wide range of options, from local Qatari to Mediterranean to Italian and French cuisine to name a few. Drinking alcohol is an offence in Qatar. Even possession or showing up drunk in public are punishable. Alcohol is available at licensed hotel restaurants and bars for visitors only and therefore expect to be asked to show your passport. However, you may find a visit to Qatar an opportunity to drink gallons of Arabic coffee and Chai Karak (a version of the Indian masala tea).
Best time to visit: November to March is the best time.
Qatar: Happily merging the best of both worlds, traditional and modern