Our plane commences its descent into Doha. I yawn mechanically with the mandibles of a predator, ridding myself of that familiar, cloying, ear popping sensation that leaves me transiently deaf. The monitor ahead of me reads 1am local time and with a delayed flight under my sleeve, my yawns hardly come as a chore.
I am not sure how many feet below 35,000 I am when the borders of nostalgia and exhaustion fuse indistinctly. Every time I fly above the Middle East, I feel like I am coming home. I curse myself for the silliness of this simplistic generalisation but the sentiment persists stubbornly.
Home, you see, was never Qatar. It was once Saudi Arabia, an entirely different nation albeit in the same region of the world, a different culture with different norms, different facades.
I have no right to feel like I am returning home as I land in Doha and yet, there is something oddly familiar and endearingly reminiscent about the prospect of impossibly succulent Medjool dates and hypnotic Islamic prayer calls, the chequered fabrics of the fez sported by local men and the dry heat of the desert. There is something in the aroma of Arabian Oud concealed by the Qatari women that transports me back to the first home I knew.
A Layover in Doha
But Doha and I meet for the first time. I have no in-depth knowledge of the place. I arrive in jet lag and I leave in haste. I lack the tools to give you an in-depth insight into this controversial destination but I am better placed than I was a year ago to show you what you could do if you found yourself with a 1-2 day layover in Qatar.
Souq Waqif, Doha Souks
To the untrained eye, the Souks in Doha feel somewhat like the social heart of the city, particularly on a temperate December day. Locals, expats and tourists, outnumbered only by pigeons, gather outside the main entrance and within the maze of narrow alleyways sandwiched within the Souq Waqif.
Some meander through in pursuit of Arabian textiles and handicrafts; others arrive solely to soak up the more traditional side to Doha, away from the luxury hotels and skyscrapers and some, like us, come in search of hot mezze and pots of steaming hot Arabic coffee.
If a moving wheelbarrow passes your vision, pushed forcefully by a stooping gentleman, pause to take note of the slice of history unfolding in front of you – for generations, men have made a living by wandering these very souks and transporting the purchases of the wealthy in these wheelbarrows. And those who aren’t manning shops, serving hungry diners or gripping wheelbarrows simply stand in the sun with a cluster of helium balloons in hand, drawing in toddlers with their floating, shiny eye candy.
The Museum of Islamic Art
To help digest all those shish taouks you gobbled down greedily, wander out of the souks and take a gentle stroll in the direction of Doha’s renowned Museum of Islamic Art. Don’t for one minute think that you need to know about art or have a vested interest in it to enjoy this space. I, for one, know diddly squat about art but this museum is so much more than portraits and paintings. Here, you will find gilded sword sheaths and bejewelled birds.
The princess within me longed for the 16th century rosewater sprinkler to sit on my own dressing table or even to be the kind of woman worthy of a sprinkle of rosewater. The staff were extremely strict about leaving bottles of water and foodie items outside of the exhibition rooms and photography is permitted but you must keep those pesky flashes well away. In between being dazzled by gold and gemstones, I was given the challenging of recapping some of my med school anatomical knowledge with diagrams from hundreds of years ago that gave me a newfound respect for how my predecessors must have trained back then.
Even if none of this appeals though, I still urge you to visit this free museum during your squeeze of a layover for if none of the art catches your eye (which I suspect it will,) the very architecture of the building with its external, clean, white right angles and the beautifully bright café inside that overlooks the water are reason enough to stop by.
For someone who had never even been in a pool till the age of eight, I am ever the water baby when I travel and not a trip goes by when I am not either in the water, on the water or by the water. Doha was no different and whilst we didn’t have the time to dabble in a Dhow cruise, we did enjoy a slow stroll along the Corniche waterfront, where the flawless white of the Museum of Islamic Art is juxtaposed vividly against the teal blue water.
We are rarely ones to shy away from a solid walk, once clocking up nearly 20 miles in a single day in New York City but a 36 hour layover only left us time for a brief lazy amble but with more time at your disposal, you could keep enjoying the Corniche for miles.
Now those of you with longer in Qatar could venture over to the expat filled micro-cosm that is “The Pearl” but if time prohibits, the good news is that your next best bet is the shimmering Pearl Monument and water feature; not quite an entire island but enough to give any other pearl you’ve seen a run for its money.
Capture the Skyline
On a pub quiz I took part in during my first ever cruise experience, I remember being thrown a question about the world’s top 5 most impressive skylines. Quite how one gathers a consensus on this I am unsure but we accurately guessed some of the stunning yet predictable world cities that featured in the answers – Tokyo, New York City, Singapore.
But while Qatar’s capital failed to make the cut then, I found myself bedazzled by the Doha skyline during my mini escapade in the city. Those of you with a penchant for Prosecco and a flair for fine dining would be best placed parking yourselves at one of the city’s numerous sky-rise restaurants or bars from where to soak up the skyline. I, on the other hand, a little jet lagged from our recent visit to the Philippines, took the lazier option of admiring it in my pyjamas with an undeniably impressive view available to us from the comfort of our hotel suite.
Indulge and Unwind
If there is one thing I have come to learn about hotels in the Middle East, it’s that they don’t do things by halves and Qatar has adhered to that formula, just as well as Oman did earlier in the year. In summer months, these hotels stretch beyond the reams of luxury and into the territory of necessity for all those tourists unprepared for the scorching summers; but even in the winter months, it is worth freeing up some time to immerse yourself in a little slice of pampering and luxury and if your pockets allow, parking yourself at a hotel that offers some luxury.
A quick Google search will soon prove there are no shortage of these in Doha so knock yourselves out choosing but from enormous hotel buffet brunches and swanky skyline bars to decadent dining and spacious suites, be sure to tap into the luxury dining and accommodation on offer. We gave up a whole evening and morning of our limited time in Doha to be able to make good use of the luxury Doha city hotel we had found ourselves in, using our suite to the max, munching the last of the welcome treats and dining in the newly refurbished garden lounge.
So, is this a comprehensive guide to Doha? No – and I’d be a fraud if I tried to pretend otherwise, having spent less than 2 days of my life there but hopefully, what this will give you is a realistic idea of how to skim the surface of some of Doha’s highlights at a leisurely pace even within the teeny time frame of a layover.
How do you usually spend a layover abroad?