As you wander around the busy streets and passageways you may think that you’ve gone back in time. You’re in the middle of the desert, at a souq full of tempting spices, fabrics, gold… and falcons.
Qatar, with its wealth of history, breathtaking vistas and mouthwatering food, is only seven hours from Manchester, but can seem a world away. Ask anyone to tell you what they know they about the country and you will probably get the fact it’s the host nation of the World Cup in 2022.
It’s hot – very hot in the summer months. The mercury can reach 45 degrees, but in the winter, it’s a lot cooler. 20 degrees celsius is normal for the days, and is one of the reasons the World Cup will be held in November and December, instead of July.
The Middle Eastern gulf state has been transformed in just 100 years; from a traditional country relying on pearling, to the richest in the world in terms of GDP, thanks to oil. It tops the list of people moving to live in it, and it’s the second safest in the world according to the World Economic Forum.
This is where Islamic culture and modern socity, with all its trappings of wealth, combines in Qatar. The evenings is when the souq truly comes alive, especially during the spring festival, held every year in January and February.
You can expect pop-up shows in the alleys, art performances, and even a dolphin show! Stages host bigger events all while you walk around browsing tempting goods.
And tempting they are. Taking a stroll around the souq will lead you down narrow passages, which was close to being lost until the Qatari government stepped in. Anything built after 1950 was demolished, leaving just traditional architecture.
If it’s not the distinctive smells of the spices and feel of the fabrics that gets you, it’ll be the opulent jewellery in the gold souq. Also for sale in the souq are minerals and trinkets, traditional Arabic food and coffee, and the animals loved by all Qataris – falcons.
Being the Qatari national bird, they are revered country-wide. Prices for these elegant creatures can reach into five or even six figures, some even around the million US dollar mark. Stopping by the Falcon hospital to see some of these glorious creatures for real is a must – and you may even see Qataris walking by with their falcons on their arms.
A trip into the desert with Gulf Adventures is a must while you’re in Qatar. The drivers who lead you on these know their stuff, and you’re given a thrilling ride before lunch with an incredible view.
It’s up and down dunes with abandon. Sky, then sand, then sky, followed by the best bit – careering down the other side.
That is followed by a barbecue lunch in the desert – by the inland sea of Khor Al Adaid – in a bedouin tent that will make you appreciate the wilderness you find yourself in. Apart from your group and your guides, there’s no one around for miles, and the scenery is outstanding. You can even do an overnight stay here.
The Museum of Islamic Art
Designed by Chinese architect I.M. Pei, the Museum of Islamic Art takes you through a tour of Qatar’s, and Islam’s, history and showcases some of the treasured objects gathered over time. You’ll see the magnificent surving artifacts from more than a thousand years ago, such as a ceramic bowl from the Abbasid Caliphate in Basra, Iraq. A tour takes in silk textiles, brilliant jewellery and intricate details etched onto cermaics, calligraphic scrolls, and cenotaphs.
One of the most striking items among the 800 or so on display to the public is the ferman of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, dating from 1538 CE. A ferman is a proclamation from the Sultan, and each sovereign had their own individual sign, which was handwritten on each proclamation. The detail is outstanding, and the knowledge of the guide that showed us around was second to none.
Where to eat
The Al Terrace restaurant, located in Al Mirqab Boutique Hotel, is the way to let the atmosphere wash over you as you take in their signature Lebanese dishes. A live band plays local music as you relax in the cool evening desert air. End the meal with traditional aromatic shisha pipes in their many flavours – a must-try if you’ve not done it before.
Opal by Gordon Ramsey, at the St Regis Doha, is a great place to enjoy an Al Fresco afternoon meal. This is where Michelle Obama stayed when she was in Doha – and the view from the presidential suite is sublime. Eating on the terrace down below, you’ll want to wash it down with some fancy mocktails. The choices on the menu range from braised lamb shanks to Eel Nicoise. If you fancy something a bit different, the new Raw Bar, specialising in the freshest of food, is very tempting, and also under Ramsey’s banner.
The Shangri La brings far-eastern Asian cuisine to the centre of Doha, and under executive chef David Pu, the Shanghai Club restaurant serves a platter of exotic chinese dishes, accompanied by cocktails and wines to complement. 162 metres up above the city. The view, and the food, is extraordinary, and accompanied by the sounds of a live DJ.
And at The Westin Doha, the Thai restaurant Sabai Thai has brought the authentic Thai experience to the city. The food features genuine thai spices and flavours, and the warm welcome to the restaurant is excellent. The deep-fried honeyed chicken, and the red curry with roasted duck were both a class above.
Where to stay
Staying in the middle of the Souq is a must-do. Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels is a short drive from the airport, and is nestled in the heart of the traditional district of Doha. You lose yourself in the comfy, large bed in your air conditioned room after the flight, and wake up to the sounds of the souq and views of Doha. Being right in the middle of the action means it has to stick to the traditional style of building like the rest of the souq. The Al-Mirqab Boutique Hotel features a range of restaurants, pool, spa and a brilliant style.
The Westin Hotel is a modern five-star affair, with a bed you can sink into, views of the city or the pool, and a bathroom with a walk-in shower and a large bath. The Heavenly Spa at the Westin offers a Swedish massage and a hot compress to relax your muscles and leave you feeling uplifted – perfect after a day being thrown around a car up and down sand dunes!
How to book
Travelpack (0208 585 4080) is offering a six night holiday to Qatar from £1,535 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 Manchester with Qatar Airways.