I needed to get away. I didn’t need to bask on a beach, I just needed warmth on my skin. I didn’t need retail therapy, and if I did, I didn’t need post-festive misery disguised as the hollow thrill of a sale bargain. I definitely didn’t need a long flight, but nor did I need a short one on some joyless economy carrier. And I wanted wonderful accommodation, fantastic food and a bit of relaxing down-time, coupled with at least a bit of energy - after all, I’d had plenty of ‘downtime’ post-Christmas whilst sulking on my sofa…
The journey to Qatar
In my football-mad family, it’s impossible not to be familiar with Qatar, or the idea of it at least, since it will be hosting the 2022 World Cup - and having heard amazing things about Qatar Airway’s service standards and about Doha’s “so much better than Dubai” appeal, I decide that a weekend in the Qatari capital might be just the remedy for my January blues.
Qatar Airways doesn’t disappoint - the 6.5 hour flight is both effortless and relaxing and, although the three-hour time difference isn’t arduous anyway, I’m more than ready to roll when I reach my destination. Having said that, I’m not in the mood for a holiday bender - I’m not a Dry January proponent (the airline cabin staff bringing me G&Ts will attest to that) but nor do I want to return to the UK feeling worse than when I left - so spending my first night in one of the nine boutique hotels of the dry Souq Waqif is a fine way to start.
The attention to design and service detail is exceptional here. While relaxing with a (non-alcoholic) fruit drink during the seated check-in, we’re at liberty to admire the decoratively tiled floors, plump bolsters on low, square sofas, light-scattering lanterns and ceilings featuring mashrabiya - the instantly familiar carved wood latticework of Middle Eastern countries. Our evening meal is enjoyed al fresco - yes, al fresco! (when did I last do that in the UK?!) against a background of live, traditional music, which the locals seated nearby are enjoying with a great deal of enthusiasm and copious amounts of shisha. I’m not a smoker, but when in Doha … the lemon and mint variety we opt for is flavoursome and refreshing - and our determined puffing earns us the approving fist pumps of the next table.
Proof white horses aren’t just in fairy tales
When we set out the following morning, there are two white horses with riders clothed in long, white robes outside the hotel. Maybe they’re just there for tourists, but after a blissful night’s sleep I’m in that delighted state of mind where everything seems wonderfully, authentically exotic and marvellous. The feeling isn’t lessened by my outfit: despite the heat, I’m dressed in light layers from neck to ankle, with arms and legs covered. Qatar is a tolerant country, well-used to foreigners, but some degree of sensitivity is required, especially when visiting somewhere as culturally significant as the Museum of Islamic Art, my destination for the morning.
It’s a stunning structure built on a manmade island so that development can’t encroach upon it, designed by Chinese-American architect I.M Pei (best known for the Louvre’s glass pyramid), who, at the age of 91, travelled through the Muslim world for six months to soak up the culture and seek inspiration for his design. The Louvre is brought to mind in another way, too - just as the Mona Lisa’s eyes seem to follow you everywhere, so too do the architectural ‘Muslim woman’s eyes above a veil’ seen from the building’s exterior. Inside, the cool, high spaces are a welcome reprieve from the Qatari heat, and the dim lighting allows each exquisite piece to be beautifully illuminated and showcased.
Leaving the museum, we’re surprised by the heaviness of the Sunday traffic, until it’s explained to us that Friday and Saturday form the Qatari weekend: today is a work day. Not for us, however - and it’s on to the St Regis we go, where we sit on the warm terrace at Gordon Ramsay’s Opal Restaurant, which overlooks the incredibly vast pool area. Local and international flavours jostle for your attention on this menu, and the food is as beautifully presented and deliciously fresh and flavoursome as you’d expect from a Ramsay restaurant. Having said that, the hotel houses another eleven dining options … if only I had eleven stomachs, not to mention £11,000, which is approximately what it would set you back to spend one night in the two-story Presidential Suite.
To amble off the post-lunch haze, we head to Souq Waqif which, despite its bustle, is strangely relaxing. Although the buildings themselves are relatively new, they’ve been designed with pleasing authenticity, a nod to the fact that trade and commerce have taken place on this site for many years.
Despite the city’s modernity, and a skyline that bristles with skyscrapers (with plenty more to come in the lead up to the 2022) a visit to the Souq is like stepping back into another, more exotic time. Mounds of spices, piles of saddles and rugs, bolts of bright cloth, instruments with unfathomable purposes and glinting silverware are seen at every turn, against the constant thrum of rising and falling voices, guttural and hypnotically soothing.
Falcons, their proud, curved beaks thrusting out from beneath their tiny hoods, shift restlessly from claw to claw on the small podiums to which they are chained, unable to see the protective gauntlets and other accoutrements of the sport that line the walls. Swarthy-faced men stride, clad to the ankle in flowing white robes and headdresses, intermingled with clutches of black-swathed women, their eyes bright and shrewd above their face coverings as they make their market selections.
The Shanghai Club at the Shangri-La Hotel
And so we ease into the evening, with drinks at one of the city’s hippest spots - The Shanghai Club. The cocktails are impressively large and, after my previously dry evening, I’m ready for a fishbowl-sized G&T. After drinking it, I feel as twinkly on the inside as the views of Doha’s striking skyline surrounding this slick bar, which occupies the 43rd and 44th floors of the Shangri-La. Actually, views are something that the Shangri-La does very well - whether from its rooftop pool or any of its seven restaurants.
Despite this wealth of choice, we opt to stay where we are and spend the rest of the evening feasting on Chinese food about as far removed from that which you’d find at your local takeaway as you can imagine - it’s sublime. As devoted carnivores, any slight twinge of regret we feel at not trying Fuego, the hotel’s Argentinian steak restaurant, dissolves in a haze of more cocktails, as well as our slight crush on the Shanghai’s glam girl artworks and sassy, cheongsam-wearing DJ. Incidentally, if you happen to be here mid-week, this cool girl vibe lends itself very well to the club’s Ladies & Bubbles nights, where champagne flows freely (in both senses) every Wednesday until 1am.
Bright and early next morning, we’re picked up by Gulf Adventures, a well-established presence on the Doha travel scene, and driven a mere 30 minutes or so out to a vast expanse of desert. It’s a slightly depressing drive - traffic in Doha tends to be heavy, due to the almost complete lack of public transport, although a Metro system is currently under construction and, well, because of construction: Doha is expanding at a staggering rate and the route to the desert is lined with large-scale building sites.
Once in the desert and stretching our legs, however, we’re surrounded by camels, tents and men in robes, and if you just squint a bit and ignore the pylons dotting the horizon, you can pretty much convince yourself that you’re in the middle of an exotic nowhere. And then it’s back into the 4WD, its tires now deflated and ready to tackle the near vertical walls of the endless white dunes.
Dune bashing, as it’s known, is one of Doha’s must-dos, giving a heady yet controlled hit of adrenaline: it’s that combination of solid vehicle, seat belts on, windows up, with gravity-defying up and down manoeuvres and long seconds where visibility - yes, the driver’s too - is completely obscured by a thick spray of white sand.
But then you do end up pretty much in the middle of nowhere (although not quite, because there’s still WiFi - nope, you don’t even have to wait to post your Instagram Stories) surrounded by vast banks of shifting sand and the cool blue water of the Inland Sea. The Gulf Adventures Bedouin camp is fantastically exotic, with low sofas, cushions and carpets in rich colours, plus changing rooms for those wanting to swim while lunch - a plentiful spread of meats, dips, rice and freshly-baked flat bread - is being prepared.
Our accommodation for this, our final night in the city, is a relative newcomer to Doha: the Westin, where that buzzword ‘wellness’ forms an integral part of the brand’s offering: you’re encouraged to take a #westinwelfie for Instagram and to keep up with your exercise regime even if you’ve neglected to pack your kit: just let them know your sizes and they’ll sort you out with a loan.
The hotel’s commitment to your health and wellbeing doesn’t stop at the public spaces such as the pool, gym and Heavenly Spa, where I drifted away during the course of a Signature Massage - it’s incorporated into the room design, too, as well as into the fairly virtuous room service menu. That said, there’s no shortage of deliciousness to be enjoyed here, from the magnificent array at the breakfast buffet, to the fantastic meal we enjoyed in Sabai Thai, where the decor and table settings had me in almost as much of a swoon as the meal itself.
For someone who’s usually chomping at the bit to go, see, do, explore, Doha perfect for a long weekend, however, someone who just wants to luxuriate in the city’s exceptional service standards, eat fantastic food and chill out by the pool, could probably happily spend several more days here. Either way, during gloomy January it was just the tonic I needed to see me into February and to those first, teasing signs of spring in London.
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.
*During my stay, I was hosted by Visit Qatar. All words and opinions are my own.