The story of Doha is a fascinating one, and never more so than right now. Qatar’s revenue originally came almost exclusively from pearl-diving and fishing until January 1940, when it joined the Middle East’s oil club. Fast forward 75 years and if you mention ‘The Pearl’ today, most people’s first thought will be the 4 million-m2 artificial island that lies on one of Doha’s previous major pearl-diving sites. Once completed, with its adjacent islands, it will resemble a dazzling string of pearls.
This phenomenal pace of change means that whilst Doha is racing towards the future, it still has one foot firmly in the past. The Dohan skyline is renowned for its panorama of skyscrapers, but lower your gaze and you’ll see the shoreline is dotted with traditional dhow boats. As a visitor, there’s pleasure in the futuristic architecture and cosmopolitan lifestyle, alongside an old world courtesy and welcoming sense of hospitality that the Middle East is renowned for.
Doha’s cultural landscape is emblematic of this past-future dichotomy, nowhere more so than in its museums. If the artworks and artefacts provide a gateway to the past, the buildings that host them look firmly to the future. Hosting 14 centuries’ worth of Islamic art, the Museum of Islamic Art is a masterpiece of geometric layers, designed by Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei. Meanwhile, the Jean Nouvel-designed Qatari National Museum is already an impressive sight, even while under construction. Built around Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al-Thani’s original palace, it is made from a series of interlocking discs, which will form walls, ceilings and floors, ensuring that it becomes an iconic feature of the Dohan coastline when it opens later this year.
No visit to a Middle Eastern country is complete without a trip to a Souq, and Doha’s 250-year old Souq Wafiq does not disappoint. The maze of narrow alleys offers an authentic taste of traditional street life, architecture and culture. Local shops offer pearls, gold and local spices at famously competitive prices, and you’re never far from a traditional musical/dance spectacle or a lantern-lit terrace where you can enjoy a hot Karak (spiced tea) and a shisha alongsids the locals – and you may even spot a falcon.
Until Doha’s underground transport system is ready (in 2019), you’ll mostly be travelling by road, where you’ll notice that the car of choice is the 4X4. The 4X4 can handle all types of Qatari terrain, in particular, the sand. If you opt for a Sand-dune Bashing experience, you’ll understand why. After letting some air out of the tyres and stocking up on Arabic coffee, your driver will invite you on board where you will endure a rollercoaster trip up, over and around the dunes, and if you’re especially lucky, all to a loud, local soundtrack which will drown out your squeals. Our experience had two welcome pauses – the first at the UNESCO-listed Khor Al Udeid (“Inland Sea”) – a breathtaking view of the sand and sea, where Saudi Arabia can be glimpsed on the horizon. For the second, we enjoyed some lounging and a barbecue lunch at a Bedouin tent camp on the beach – an unmissable experience when visiting Doha.
Qatar will host the World Cup in 2022, and preparations are furiously underway. With luxury hotels springing up left, right and centre, the competition to seduce guests has never been greater, with each one seeking to offer the experience that goes above, beyond and off the scale. As a visitor, you are spoiled for choice.
Of Doha’s resort-style hotel selection, the Marsa Malaz Kempinski sets the bar very high. As the only hotel on the Pearl island, the hotel embodies European palatial elegance and Arabian grandeur. Every single room or suite offers a large balcony or terrace, taking advantage of the exquisite views of the bay below. It also has its own private beach. The Saint Regis was Michelle Obama’s choice, and it’s not hard to see why. It boasts an Olympic size swimming pool, a jazz club in partnership with New York’s Jazz at the Lincoln Center, and Hakkasan and Gordon Ramsay are just two of the eleven on-site restaurants.
The West Bay is generally dominated by business hotels, but the exception to the rule may be the brand new Shangri-La hotel, which opened in December 2015. Boasting the loveliest swimming pool in the city centre, a choice of panoramic views from its 44 floors, and a warmth of hospitality that combines the best of Arabic and Asian traditions (including the house falcon who greets you in the lobby), you will simply not want to leave.
With year-round sunshine without the jetlag (GMT+3), a national airline that is making a habit of winning best global airline, and a position that makes it the ideal destination to continue travelling in the Middle East, to India or South East Asia, now is the perfect time to visit Doha.
Barrhead Travel is offering a seven night stay in Qatar from £1,499 per person. The price includes two nights at The Shangri-La Doha (bed & breakfast basis), two nights at The Marsa Malaz Kempinski, The Pearl-Doha (room only) and three nights at The St Regis Doha (room only), all based on two sharing. Also included are return flights from London Heathrow to Doha with Qatar Airways, and return airport transfers. To book, please call: 0141 222 2223 or visit www.barrheadtravel.co.uk