Ever since Qatar won the 2022 world cup bid, I’ve had a hate-hate relationship with it. How dare this country come between Becks and Will’s glorious bid to bring the world cup back to England! Football was going far, far from home. Suffice to say the idea of going on holiday to this desert destination had little appeal to yours truly.
But the desert plains of Qatar are exactly why visitors shouldn’t be dismissing this small sovereign country. While hotels and shopping centres are being erected at an insatiable rate, vast parts of Qatar remain desert. Drive for an hour from capital Doha and find yourself at the the Zubarah Fort, an UNESCO site that looks like a life-size sand castle. The 1938 former military fort is surrounded by nothing but sand and camels for the obligatory tourist photo.
After stepping out in heat so intense it feels like it’s punched you in the armpits, I head back for a dip in the rooftop pool at the sumptuous Shangri-La hotel: not quite the refreshing dip I was anticipating, the water is like bath water. Instead of swimming laps I gaze up at the tall buildings, lighting up one by one, their own corporate light show.
In this country where temperatures in the summer months can hit late 40s, just walking from one building to another is a struggle – it’s no surprise then that even the staunchest of anti-shoppers flock to the malls of Doha.
The Museum of Islamic Art offers air conditioning without the accompanying obligation to purchase anything. Displaying Islamic and secular paintings, rugs and artefacts that span over 1400 years, the building itself is the real pull. Designed by award-winning architect I. M Pei ( he designed the Louvre’s iconic pyramid), the five-storey building sits on its own artificial peninsula and its interior’s simple symmetry is astonishing in its bold simplicity.
For a cool down that involves less clothes, head to the beach instead. The country is surrounded on three sides by the Persian Gulf, boasting 563 km of sandy beaches as a result. Don’t expect to pop down to a beach solo though, many are owned privately by hotels, providing more of a beach club experience.
InterContinental Doha’s private 500 metre beach is the longest in Doha and also open to non-guests (this is often the case with hotel-owned beaches). Conditions on the Persian Gulf are perfect for novice paddle boarders like myself. I don’t even mind falling into the warm water. Riding jet skis afterwards at InterContinental Doha’s watersports centre, is one way of managing the heat. Alternatively head to the hotel’s newly refurbed Greek-style taverna with outdoor shaded seating and order its twist on sangria made with rose wine and Campari.
For more of a boho beach club vibe head into the dunes. Regency Sealine Beach Camp is about an hour’s drive from Doha in Mesaieed, home to the country’s inland sea. Surrounded by sand dunes, the best/only way to reach the camp is to go dune bashing in a 4×4. We career up and down the dunes, a trail of sand blasting into the air behind us. Tents come with fully plumbed bathrooms, air con (natch) and wide screen tvs. Beachside cabanas even have rotating fans above and staff bring buckets filled with ice and soft drinks and sweet mint tea. Despite the mod cons the camp’s Bedouin vibe makes for a magical visit. And the barbecued lunch I eat at Regency is one of my favourite meals on my visit to Qatar – chicken thighs with preserved lemons, fluffy rice and lamb kebabs, breads, hummus and baba ganoush. All the simple but delicious flavours of Arabic and MIddle Eastern cuisine, combined in one generous meal.
At the other end of the dining spectrum is the newly opened Shanghai Club on the 43rd (of 44) floor of the Shangri la Hotel where I eat too much dim sum and clay pot rice.
On my trip I also feast on mango butter chicken at Sanjeev Kapoor’s Signature restaurant (at the Melia, Doha) and whole baked sea bass at Sabai Thai at the Westin Hotel, where I also stay for the second part of my Qatar stay. The ambience of Sabai Thai feels less high-rise hotel – not least because of its ground floor location – a novelty in Doha.
A visit to Qatar isn’t complete without trying the cardamon-infused Arabic coffee, which is smooth enough for even a non-coffee drinker like myself to enjoy: savour it slowly though, the smoothness belies the caffeine strength. As well as enjoying the dates served up in hotel lobbies head to the Souq Waqif in Doha to pick up dates, spices and other Arabic goods. I find dates stuffed with nuts, coffee beans and even Nutella. Pots of ready mixed Arabian spice are stacked neatly next to large basins of turmeric, mint and saffron.
The souq is open in the daytime but the best time to visit is undoubtedly in the cool of the evening. After the air conditioned order of hotel resorts and restaurants, the buzz of Souq Waqif is a welcome contrast. Find Arabic Oud (perfumes and oils), scarves and football t shirts, as well as a gold quarter and even sections selling horses and falcons. Local qatari men come to barter over falcons (in Qatar, the bird of prey is as much a status symbol as driving a Merc or Ferrari) and then get a juice, curry or shisha in the surrounding cafes and restaurants.
As far as authentic Qatar goes this is about as real as it’s going to get. It can be hard to meet Qatari people – the country is in effect building itself. I meet people from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Europe, Australia, Thailand and India – not to mention the migrant workers I see in Doha’s multiple building sites. And this is an aspect of Qatar that I hope the country holds itself better to account. Back in 2014 reports claimed as many as 7000 workers could die building the football stadia and accompanying malls and hotels. This country has a lot to offer and if it’s serious about attracting more tourists from Europe it needs to ensure that those at the bottom of the payscale are treated with the same Qatari hospitality that it extends so generously to its visitors.
Travelpack is offering a five night holiday to Qatar from £1,369 per person. The price includes two nights at The Westin Doha Hotel and Spa in a Deluxe Room Pool View on a bed and breakfast basis, three nights at Shangri-La Doha in a Deluxe Room on a bed and breakfast basis and return international flights with Qatar Airways. To book, call +44 (0)208 585 4080 or visit www.travelpack.com.
For more information on Qatar, visit www.visitqatar.qa.
Transfers, tours and activities can be provided by through Regency Travel & Tours. For more information, visit www.regencyholidays.com.