I’ll be totally honest here, up until about two years ago, Qatar never featured on my radar. The first I heard of it was a small mention from my boyfriend David in the midst of an anecdote about his trip to Thailand.
“We stopped off at Doha airport in Qatar airport for a few hours, it was the glitziest, snazziest airport I’ve ever seen.”
Apart from that, I knew nothing. And naively, I just saw it as one of those places you pass through on the way to another destination. Sure, I wanted to experience the Arab regions one day, but it wasn’t a place I’d put much thought into.
And then, it just started popping up on my radar everywhere. A subtle mention on Twitter, a few travel blogger diaries and an invitation to visit in January. So I made it my mission to look into this intriguing country and I was pleasantly surprised by my findings.
For what I found was a place that could offer a warm and wonderful beach break, a glitzy glamorous city break and a cultural immersive adventure, all in one. Qatar, or Doha – to be precise – is so much more than the place you stop at for an onward journey. It deserves a journey all of its own. And that’s exactly what we did!
Just four days in Doha convinced me that it’s one of those places I need to shout about. It feels untapped and a hidden gem among a sea of destinations offering individual USPs. Qatar has so much to offer in terms of luxury – and if you’re looking to add anywhere to your ever-growing list of must-see cities, Doha has to be it.
Where to stay
Qatar offers an abundance of luxury resorts, world-renowned named chains and towering skyscrapers when it comes to accommodation, so you certainly won’t be stuck for choice. However depending on the duration of your stay, what you want to get out of it and your budget, you should choose wisely – as each hotel offers something a little different.
If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the culture and get a feel for the buzz of daily life in Qatar, then you’ll want to be close to Souq Waqif, one of the oldest Souq’s in the city – with centuries old history and a labyrinth of alleyways, filled with street sellers offering you an assortment of spices, fabrics, perfume, souvenirs and rather unusually, pets.
Nestled right in the heart of the action (and rather conveniently, just 15 minutes from Doha airport) is the Souq Waqif Resort, a collection of nine unique buildings each with all of your modern five-star amenities and yet at the same time, overflowing with Arabian elegance. A sort of oasis in among the hustle and bustle of the Souq, you can relax in the outdoor terrace and watch the world go by, enjoying the evening concerts and indulging in gourmet Qatari feasts.
It’s certainly luxurious but not pretentiously so, as the decor is muted and the hospitality is friendly. It’s a great place to take Qatar at your own pace – whether that’s easing yourself in gently (and retreating back to your room) and dipping a toe in the delights of the surroundings, or submerging yourself into Souq shopping, which is certainly an experience you won’t forget in a hurry!
If you’re looking for a recharge, then perhaps it’s a wellness centric hotel that you’ll need – in which case, The Westin Doha is where you’ll want to head. A newer addition to the city (it’s just turned a year old this month), this Starwood property combines contemporary design with a serene spa like setting, for the ultimate tranquil retreat. Set in the residential district, in among an up and coming skyscraper city, the hotel offers an assortment of restaurants, pools and a plethora of glittering chandeliers.
The wellness element is woven into the hotel’s core values, with the room service menu offering an array of healthy and nutritious delights and a six-pillar wellbeing programme, which guests can implement during their stay if they so wish.
However despite a primary focus on health and happiness, it doesn’t mean that the hotel has scrimped on the fun and tasty elements – with gourmet dishes aplenty in each of their six restaurants and bars. We sampled the authentic menu in Sabai Thai, which I have to say – dishes up the best chicken satay I’ve ever tasted outside of its native country. And if you’ve got a sweet tooth, you won’t be disappointed with their breakfast pastry selection.
If you want to really unwind, booking a signature treatment at the Heavenly Spa is just what the doctor ordered. Featuring nine elegant treatment rooms, each complete with their own inviting bath tubs – the soothing environment instantly calms your senses and provides the perfect escape from all the travelling!
The Signature Massage is certainly the treatment of choice, using a Swedish technique and hot blanket-esque compress (which I must say, is possibly the best invention I’ve ever experienced – far surpassing the now average ‘hot water bottle’).
I can’t venture into too much detail about the treatment, because I was so relaxed that I actually woke myself up snoring. But you will leave after 50 minutes feeling like a new woman, re-emerging more flexible and with far less stubborn aches and pains!
What to eat
Doha is a foodies delight, because each of the hotel’s have their own gourmet USPs – whether it’s replicating a British pub at the top of a skyscraper (complete with pint-clutching old British men, I will add) to sourcing the best Argentinean steak for authentic flavour, you certainly won’t be going hungry.
On our first night in Doha, we dined under the stars on the terrace of the Souq Waqif Boutique hotel, listening to the evening concert and the gentle buzz of the locals, as people bartered for goods or enjoyed their busy surroundings. We were treated to an incredible Lebanese feast, which featured possibly the largest array of hummus-esque dips I’ve ever seen, followed by grilled beef skewers.
For lunch overlooking the sea – and a rather spectacular view of the skyline, the St Regis Doha is your next stop. Home to Opal by Gordon Ramsey (among 11 other dining options), the hotel introduces guests to both local flavours and celebrated international cuisine. The outdoor terrace overlooks the rather magnificent looking pool area (is it just me or does it remind you of the Sex & The City film), so you can sip a cocktail and admire the view simultaneously.
The food is just as delectable and the chef is very accommodating of dietary requirements. Even if you’re a self-confessed carb addict (like me), you won’t be able to resist the peach and endives salad which has the most incredible flavour and tangy sweetness, immediately questioning whether you’ve been avoiding salads for all the wrong reasons. I’d also recommend the hoisin glazed braised short ribs to start and poussin grilled chicken with fries for something more filling. The perfect destination for a beach-side lunch!
As an emerging skyscraper city, it makes sense that you’d probably want to utilise the view when you’re dining out – and if so, the Shangri-La Hotel is where you’ll want to head. The luxury five-star hotel not only has a fabulous roof-top pool, but a grand total of seven vibrant restaurants for you to choose from – all while admiring the view. I personally recommend the Shanghai Club on level 43 and 44, with sleek stylish decor and dramatic chandeliers. Offering a unique Chinese dining experience, the venue is a glamorous choice for the Qatar social scene, as they offer artistic cocktails and a very memorable ‘Dim Sum Brunch’.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention. Wherever you venture for delicious delights, make sure you keep hydrated with a lime, mint and soda concoction – as everywhere we went seemed to offer them and they make for the most refreshing drink!
What to see
If culture is your thing, then obviously the Souk’s are a must-see however I’d also recommend a visit to the stunning Museum of Islamic Art, where the building is in itself a stunning creation worth admiring. The iconic landmark was envisioned by renowned architect I. M. Pei, with the shape of the design reflecting the image of a Qatari lady – with her eyes spanning a 360 degree reach.
The interior is again a stunning creation in itself, with spiralling staircases, open glass ceilings and possibly the biggest window you’ll ever see, offering incredible views over the Doha skyline. With the museum’s key goal to capture the beauty and complexity of Islamic culture, you’ll benefit from a guided tour of the fascinating artefacts, showcasing the rich and varied history of the Arab region as we now know it (or don’t know it).
If you’re keen for something slightly more bold, then you’ll want to enlist the help of Gulf Adventures to provide you with an experience you won’t forget. Whether it’s a harbour cruise on a stately Arabic boat (also known as a Dhow), admiring the twinkling lights of the Corniche (the main sea-front strip) and learning about the old pearl-diving industry, or a desert safari, you can be rest assured you’re in safe hands with these guys.
In fact, speaking of the latter, when I saw that ‘dune bashing’ was on the itinerary, involving sailing sideways down sand dunes in a 4×4 at top speeds, I immediately *metaphorically* balked. There was no way that I could handle that kind of car sickness and terrifying adrenaline. Especially not since I can’t even handle looking at my phone on the M25 as a passenger, or a slight bump on my train journey into London in the morning. I’m not the most adventurous of creatures, but that’s totally okay with me.
However, fast forward several days and there you have me, wailing (and smiling, I will admit) in the back of a huge 4×4 as sand whirls around us and the dune to the left of us, is a sheer drop. I had a great time and it’s an experience I won’t forget in a hurry (if ever). While it provides a much greater exhilaration than any rollercoaster I’ve ever been on, there was something totally unique about sailing (on wheels) crazily through the desert, with nothing for miles around you, just white sand.
I don’t think I would have gone ahead with it if it hadn’t been for the kind reassurance of our driver from Gulf Adventures, who told us to tell him if we were feeling at all car sick, but that he’d been doing this since 1997 and we’d have a great time. He was right. It’s something not to miss in Doha!
How to get there
The best airline for flying to Doha is Qatar Airways – who not only offer impeccable service but also a 96 hour stopover option should you want to combine your stay with a destination further afield. They’ll combine a transit visa and stopover to your itinerary without any extra charges, and if you want to take the stress away of booking your tours while in Qatar, they’ll also do that for you.
A return journey in March costs around £564 economy when priced up, however it is definitely worth combing your flight with another destination to maximise your budget!
If you really want to go all out with the luxury aspect, you could treat yourself to a business class upgrade on board. We were lucky enough to be upgraded on both legs of the journey and I have to say, the flight felt like a mini holiday in itself. I was almost disappointed to have reached our destination! Having always been rather cynical of the extra cost of an upgrade, I was delighted to find that the price you pay – really is worth the added spend.
Having your very own pod on board, with so much space to relax, eat and watch your favourite films – completely takes the stress associated with travelling away. Although I will advise not to get as carried away with the bottomless champagne, because the theory is that the bubbles expand quicker when you’re 38,000 feet in the air, resulting in a much more powerful effect and accompanying headache. Not that I’m talking from personal experience or anything…
When to go
I visited at the end of January, which is essentially the Qatari winter but by no means is it cold. The best time to go is spring or autumn, when temperatures are manageable but not so overwhelming that you have to spend all your time indoors. Avoid July and August when peak temperatures of 113 °F are often reached. May and June are good months to go, when humidity is at it’s lowest.
Did you know?
- Weekends in Qatar are on Friday and Saturday, which is why the ‘Friday Brunch’ is a common theme among many restaurants. If you want to dine somewhere special on a Sunday, do double check before you arrive, as some places may be closed.
- Doha is currently building up – and out. In preparation for the 2022 World Cup, they are massively expanding the city to welcome the thousands more visitors expected in conjunction with the sporting event. And in anticipation of the further interest in Qatar this might create, they’re even building an entirely brand new city! Destined to be the most efficient and modern place in the world, Lusail City is one of the most ground-breaking and ambitious projects of its kind. It will be connected to Doha by metro-link and eventually will be able to host a population of 260,000. The plans show marinas, residential areas, island resorts, luxury shopping and commercial districts – so I’m very intrigued to see what it looks like when it’s all finished. There are a few very interesting videos on their website showing what the projected city will eventually look like – and I have to say, I’m excited about it!
- There are little to no forms of public transport in Qatar, so hiring a car or grabbing a taxi is your only reliable way of navigating the city. Unfortunately this also means that some of the main roads can be more congested, so leave in plenty of time if you’re venturing from one side of the city to the other. In a few years time, Doha’s metro will be finished – which will make things much easier!
- In a bid to attract Hollywood’s elite and creatives from all over the world, a development on a manmade hill in central Doha, featuring an assortment of luxury villas will be gifted to a number of top authors, actors and designers. It’s hoped that they will bring their skills and inspiring words of wisdom to teach the Qatari people and create a more diverse, creative community.
- Doha is still a very new city! In fact, Qatar only declared independence in 1971, with Doha as its capital – so soon after, all the old neighbourhoods were bulldozed, with residents moved to more suburban developments. The 15-storey Sheraton Hotel was built in 1983 on the Corniche and then years after, tens more skyscrapers followed. It’s incredible to be able to watch a city emerge and develop itself before your very eyes.
- Contrary to popular belief, Qatar is very safe for women and although you do have to adhere to the dress code to avoid sticking out like a sore thumb, the locals are very friendly and welcoming. While some women wear the niqab (which covers everything except the eyes), others choose to wear more western clothing, so it truly is a diverse mix which welcomes everyone. It’s advisable to cover your elbows and knees when venturing outdoors – and while it is safe, do remember to exercise caution when venturing to places you haven’t yet been!
Travelpack is offering a six night holiday to Qatar from £1,385 per person. The price includes three nights at The Westin Hotel Doha and Spa and three nights at Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels both in a deluxe room and on a bed & breakfast basis with return international flights from London Heathrow with Qatar Airways. To book call: 0208 585 4080 or visit: www.travelpack.com/guide/qatar
I was a guest of Visit Qatar for this trip, but all thoughts and words are my own.
Watch the trip: