With Qatar Airways adding ever more flights, Doha is the newest stopover city in the Gulf. Ian Taylor reports
If you dream of sun, sea and skyscrapers, Qatar is the ideal place for a 48-hour stopover.
You could gawp at four soaring buildings an hour, never look at the same one twice and not take in all those constructed in the past decade.
If Dubai is the Las Vegas of the Gulf (without the sin), Doha has the feel of a modern Manhattan. View the forest of 200 towers in the ‘new city’ from a moving vehicle and the effect is kaleidoscopic.
The oil-rich metropolis will stage the first World Cup in a desert in 2022 and is bidding to host the 2020 Olympics – not bad for a former fishing and pearling village in one the world’s most inhospitable spots.
Yet for all its wealth, Doha retains the feel of a place based on more than fantasy, and not just because most of its population are migrant workers from Asia.
The corniche offers miles of waterfront to stroll. The traditional souk retains an authentic Arab feel with crates of overflowing spices, exotic perfumes, chirruping birds and painted chicks.
A trip to the camel-racing track offers a modern version of a most-traditional Bedouin pursuit, while the Museum of Islamic Art conveys a sense of the divine in human affairs. Everywhere, the food is fresh and sumptuous.
Just three points are worth bearing in mind. One, Doha is hot – daytime temperatures average 38C between May and September. When I visited in early May it was 42C an hour before sunset. January is cooler, with an average maximum of 22C.
Two, Doha is conservative. It may be the home of Al Jazeera TV, a sign that Qatar is more open politically than some states in the region, but the country is conservative in dress and behaviour.
Three, Doha is dry. There is no alcohol served anywhere other than the bars and restaurants of five-star hotels. Drinks are not even allowed in the lobbies of these hotels.
Start the day along the corniche, the Doha Bay promenade, looking out over the Gulf, taking in the cityscape and the dhows in the bay. Don’t expect to jog even at this hour, although some fools will run past. The Museum of Islamic Art is at the southern end of the promenade, near the harbour, but save it for when the sun is higher.
Adjourn to the W Hotel in West Bay for an early lunch at the Spice Market which offers an astonishing buffet of sushi, dim sum, Thai curry, salads, roasts and pasta. Thus fortified, you are ready for the camel racing.
It can be a 60-minute drive to the camel racetrack at Al Shahaniya and you may need to arrange entry in advance. Speak to your ground operator or hotel. Outside the track, hundreds of camels and trainers lollop by. No one is riding.
Instead, small weighted battery ‘robots’ perch on the camels’ backs, each with a long ‘whip hand’ on one side which spins and cracks the camel’s haunch at a touch of the trainer’s remote control.
This appears strange, but also welcome following a ban on child jockeys. If you’re lucky and it’s a race day, your driver may move through to the track.
Here a posse of battered four-wheel drive vehicles jostle and collide, hurtling beside a herd of racing camels spurred on by robot jockeys, the owners battling to pull alongside to yell and work the whip. You career around the track in a cloud of dust in a race that makes the Grand National seem like tiddlywinks.
With the smell of camel still strong, head back to the city for the high culture of the Museum of Islamic Art. The plain white building, constructed over the water and opened in 2008, has the serenity of a mosque, its surfaces reflecting the changing light of the day.
The museum houses manuscripts, textiles and ceramics from across the Islamic world and throughout Islam’s history. The displays include exquisite pieces and no few surprises. But be sure to check opening times before visiting as these vary considerably.
After freshening up, head for Souq Waqif, a redeveloped but traditional ‘standing market’, selling everything from jewellery to kitchen utensils and fenugreek to falcon caps. Do not miss the falcon shops – there is even a falcon hospital – but take time to stroll the spice-laden alleys before settling down for dinner at one of the many restaurants. The Al Tawash is splendid.
If the shisha or hookah lounges of Souq Waqif don’t tempt you, head for the Grand Hyatt Hotel on the shore of West Bay for a drink in the laid-back Dunes bar where there is live but mellow music on most nights.
The Katara Cultural Village, with its changing festivals, workshops and exhibitions close to West Bay, may be worth a stop for those tired of ‘chillaxing’ along the corniche. Be sure to stop for tea. Katara also boasts concert and opera halls, theatres and cinemas for evening entertainment.
A trip to the absurd Pearl Qatar may beguile or disgust you, depending on your view of conspicuous wealth. An artificial riviera-style retreat for those with more money than sense, the Pearl sprawls over 985 acres and 12 miles of beaches, with a marina full of Abramovich-style yachts.
It is one of the few places in Doha where foreign residents can buy property and will be home to 40,000 of them. It also provides five-star accommodation for holidaymakers. The Lebanese Burj Al Hamam restaurant is excellent.
Nervous passengers and backseat drivers should skip the next stop on the itinerary: a desert safari to Qatar’s Inland Sea. The sea is worth the trip, but you may wish you were wearing the equivalent of a falcon cap if you’re sitting in the front of the 4x4 vehicle that takes you.
The drivers delight in the screaming as you circle the crescent of enormous dunes at right angles to the ground hundreds of feet below or plunge over a rim and descend vertically. If you’ve been on a small boat in a storm you will be fine.
After a lie down you’ll be ready for something sedate – a night-time cruise on a dhow, perhaps to the Diplomatic Club for dinner or around the bay and return to eat back at the souq or at the W Hotel in West Bay where the ground-floor restaurant Market offers a great choice. This also allows you to move on to...
Wahm, on the second floor of the W, is a cool bar with good DJs, an outdoor terrace and tables around a swimming pool, so you can choose the level of sound that suits. The noisier Crystal club is one floor down.
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