Four Hours in Doha (2007 UK edition)

Doha

1. DOHA CITY CENTRE

Navigating Doha independently can be hard as there is no public transport. Taxis can be hailed from the roadside, but it’s easy to get stranded in a pedestrian-unfriendly area where it’s difficult to flag one down, so you need to plan carefully. Start with a visit to Doha City Centre: it’s the largest mall in Qatar and gives a good introduction to the wealth of the country, plus a chance for some great people-watching. Young Qatari men wearing national dress and designer sunglasses talk animatedly into their hands-free sets as they glide past on the travelators. There’s a scattering of storefronts catering to Arabic tastes with gleaming gold and silverware, lush carpets, and mannequins adorned in long, flowing abbayahs, but these are outnumbered by a profusion of stores overflowing with plasma TVs, laptops, mobile phones and designer jewellery.

2. OLD SOUQS

Time for a contrast. Take a taxi to the old souqs tucked away on either side of Grand Hamad Street, behind the Corniche. Go through Souq Al Ahmad and out the other side, which will take you to the jumble of covered walkways of Souq Waqif, the most authentic of the old souqs, where stalls sell everything from tools and hardware to perfume, fabrics and traditional clothes. Recently restored, Souq Waqif now includes more traditional cafés and restaurants and is highly recommended as a must-see stopover. Some of the other markets in the area now look more like mini shopping centres, but make sure to visit the gold souq, just off Al Ahmed street. Tiny jewellery shops are packed together and each window is crammed to the rafters with mesmerising gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets: pure dazzling eye-candy for jewellery lovers.

3. THE CORNICHE

Take a stroll along the Corniche, the 7km stretch of promenade bordered by a sculpted grassy verge and peppered with monuments in homage to Qatari history (a giant oyster shell containing a pearl is a reminder of the country’s pearl-diving roots). The best time for a walk – and to do any sightseeing in Doha, including the souqs – is after 5pm when everything starts coming back to life after the afternoon siesta. The most pleasant time on the Corniche is after 8pm when Qatari families arrive, set up their picnic chairs and relax in the cool air. Traditional wooden fishing dhows bob around in the harbour, framed against the high-rise modern five-star hotels at the northern end of the Corniche. Also on the Corniche, coming up in March next year is the Museum of Islamic Arts, which will be yet another notable landmark as a repository of world-class antiques, ceramics and
jewellery from all over the Arab world.

4. HARBOUR TOUR

On the jetty outside the Balhambar restaurant, about two-thirds of the way towards the northern end of the Corniche, half a dozen dhow-style canopied boats sit, waiting to ferry customers around the harbour to view the city from the water. The journey takes you past what was once the Palm Tree Island (now just a land mass with no green cover) to the outskirts of the harbour. In the muggy heat it’s an excellent way to feel refreshed, and for QR30 (£4.60) you can sit back and watch as the fairy lights of the Corniche recede and the new towers at the northern end of the Corniche, including the Four Seasons Hotel and Qatar telecoms tower, slide by. After a few stuffy hours of friendly haggling in the souqs, it’s a good way to wind down, and you may even find it’s your own personal service; I was the only passenger on board during my tour.

5. THE PEARL LOUNGE, MARRIOTT

The social scene among the expats and foreign workers – who make up three-quarters of Doha’s population – is found in the hotel bars, many of which open late and offer live music and, of course, alcohol. Take a taxi to Marriott’s Pearl Lounge, open from 7pm to 2am and closed Saturdays. (Qatari men wearing national dress are not allowed here, to avoid embarrassing the conservative local culture.) The bar serves a mean range of cocktails and has dark, moody lighting. Note: it’s best for women travelling alone to order a “Karwa” taxi, by calling +974 458 8888.

6. SHARQ VILLAGE AND SPA

If you can spare the time for a holistic spa experience or a quick but relaxing spa treatment, head to the new Sharq Village and Spa, a beautful Arabesque resort barely a minute’s drive from the Marriott. The 6,503 sqm Six Senses Spa has a true Qatari setting and includes four spa villages with 23 treatment rooms. Their jet lag recovery (QR400) and corporate stress relief treatments will leave a lasting impression, and even make you want to come back to Doha, which has a plethora of sporting events coming up in early 2008, including the Qatar Masters Golf Tournament (January 24-27) and the Qatar Cycling Tour (January 28 to February 2).


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