PUBLISHED: 12:02 07 December 2017
"Doha?" "Why Doha?" Asked every single person I told about our impending trip to the gulf city. Friends and colleagues knew where it was, but not what was there.
I was looking for guaranteed sunshine, good food and a bit of culture. Flying time is just over six hours which makes Doha a great short trip destination.
I’ve heard it billed as the new Dubai. I’m sure calling Doha the new Dubai is pretty offensive to its inhabitants. It’s as similar to Dubai as Berlin is to Paris. It has no reason to emulate its gulf Neighbour - it has its own personality, style and gravitas. The two places are strikingly different. I’d also challenge the ‘city in rapid growth’ claim. Yes, the city is obviously growing with building works visible. No, the growth is not on a rapid par with other gulf cities where buildings are erected quicker than a Lego tower by hundreds of thousands of ant like construction workers building around the clock. Outside of the city, building work is more frenzied with preparations for the controversial Fifa World cup to be held in 2022. Qatar will be the first country in the Middle East to host the competition.
Despite Qatar’s vast wealth thanks to having the world’s third largest natural gas and oil reserves, the capital city of Doha is not is brazenly opulent as Dubai. The city feels very understated; very small in fact. It balances confidence and calmness which could never be said of Dubai.
There is a strong will in Doha to retain a strong link to the past and its heritage. Doha is not trying to transform itself into a new city.
No stronger is the connection the past more celebrated than the Museum of Islamic Art. Designed by I.M. Pei, the same architect responsible for the glass and steel pyramid that’s sits atop the Musee du Louve in Paris, the museum is a jewel in Doha’s crown. The building holds a stunning collection of Islamic art, sculptures, pottery, jewellery, rugs and tools from the Middle East, Turkey and Central Asia.
While the collection spanning 1400 years was world class, it was the actual building which blew me away. It doesn’t look much from afar. A white box on the side of the Corniche. As you approach the site you see how it represents the joining of past and present. From inside, windows perfectly frame the new Doha skyline next to the Doha Bay of old; the souk, the trading boats and old buildings.
As we sat in the MIA Café, the water outside rippled under our seats and we were mesmerised by the water in the stunning atrium fountain. The interior is breath-taking. You can see the thought, expense and perfectionism that has gone into every line of every surface, even the stunning interior ceiling on the lifts which glide between the five storeys.
A short walk from the MIA is Souq Wafiq. The bustling market was renovated in 2008 making it pleasant destination to browse stalls filled with jewellery, incense, spices, fragrances and fabrics. We couldn’t resist buying slippers and scarfs made from colourful silk. Some of the alleyways had stalls dedicated to building materials and large scale catering equipment. My son was impressed with the cement mixers and soup pans with a capacity for 100 portions. I was drawn to the smells and colourful sights of the spice stalls. I bought a selection which are sure to remain unused in my cupboard until I have a clear out in five years.
I could hear birds squawking as we left the souk. Falcons are popular in Doha and represent the historic Qatari pastime of falconry. Our hotel, Shangri La has a resident falcon who is happy to pose for photographs with visitors. The Shangri-La hotel is a jewel in the crown of Doha’s expanding hotel offering. The large pool is surrounded by perfect gardens with the setting feeling more resort than city.
The interiors are stunning and the excellent Shangri-La service is evident in every area of the hotel. Several of Doha’s best restaurants are situated in the hotel. The multi-award winning Shanghai Club is usually fully booked weeks in advance. We were slightly sceptical of eating in Santorini – the hotel’s Greek themed restaurant. I shouldn’t have let my brain be distorted by the cultural mismatch. The food and wine was excellent and the restaurant is beautiful. The manager had brought back several Greek items from a recent trip to help decorate the space. Shangri-La has two great bars as well as its Lobby Bar famous for afternoon tea: The Den and the Shanghai Club Bar – both bursting with atmosphere.
The CHI spa is another Shangri-La highlight. CHI is consistently the best spa offer from 5 star international chain hotels. The Doha outlet did not disappoint. Pure relaxation with a selection of treatments blending a unique selection of Asian and Arabic treatments based on authentic natural healing methods found in traditional well-being practices.
There is plenty to do in Doha including the usual sprawling Middle East shopping malls. New cultural centres and mini galleries are popping up throughout the region and the desert adventures of dune bashing and 4x4 safaris are on your doorstep.
The sun shines year round in this desert climate. The best time to go is during the winter months of November until March when temperatures are usually in the twenties, humidity is low and rainfall is rare.
Sandstorms are most likely to occur in spring. Summers are hot with temperatures sometimes reaching 50C with 80 per cent humidity but air-conditioning makes these months tolerable
For a short winter break Doha has a lot to offer. Even spending a few hours in the airport is an enjoyable experience with more great shopping and the best airport kids playground I’ve seen. I couldn’t quite work out the significance of the 23-foot canary yellow bronze teddy bear with his head in a lamp but it provoked happy faces from children and adults alike.
Flying Qatar Airways became part of the holiday rather just than a means to get there. The A380 was impressive and their flights are full of friendly service crew. There were more staff than I’ve seen on other flights and they were missing the pained face of indifference that’s rapidly spreading across crews of other airlines these days.
In June 2017, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya cut diplomatic ties with Qatar but it has not affected European travel to the region or Doha’s plans for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The rapidly expanding Qatar Airways has won the World’s Best airline Award for the last four years including 2017. Many are familiar with using Doha as a quick stopover on business or travel but now the offer of a tree transit visa has made staying for a few days more financially attractive.
No wonder Qatar is welcoming more European visitors and has experienced the highest year on year growth from the region at over 17%.
Doha’s dream of becoming the pearl of the Middle East, polished and perfectly formed, is within reach.
Shangri-La Doha: www.shangrila.com/doha
Direct flights with Qatar Airways: www.qatarairways.com
Museum of Islamic Art: www.mia.org.qa
Museum of Islamic Art: www. Mia.org.qa/e