Break up the Boredom!
We are all familiar with the downside to travel – long-haul flights and hours locked away in stuffy, overcrowded airports. If, like me, you feel the need to break up your trip to at least get some fresh air, why not turn that connecting stop into a micro break? The Middle East is moving up the popularity list as airlines like Emirates and Etihad take control of our favourite routes, but the (relatively) new kid on the block is Qatar. Qatar Airways transits through Doha to connect over 150 destinations, so why not spend a few days exploring this relatively unknown country? The visa is free on arrival and there is plenty to do!
I recently took 72 hours to explore Doha. Forget Abu Dhabi and Dubai which seem to be fantasy lands lacking any real culture, Doha feels like nowhere else.
The First 24 Hours: Explore, Explore, Explore!
Al Souq and Al Jasra
We stayed in La Villa Palace Hotel, a basic 3-star hotel that doesn’t monitor who shows up for breakfast – given we landed at 5 am that meant we were able to snag breakfast on arrival! Hello buffet! Whilst the hotel is basic, the location is fantastic. The nearby Souq Waqif offered a post-flight stretch of the legs and a great chance to watch the locals go about their everyday life. The narrow alley ways also provided a nice break from the sun that constantly beat down from above. Leaving the Souq for an (unshaded) stroll along the Corniche waterfront promenade offered views of the towering skyline across Doha Bay and showed the contrast between the old culturally rich Al Souq and Al Jasra area and Doha CBD where the wealth of the oil industry is flashed about.
The Museum of Islamic Art
Following the bay and ignoring the hollers from junk boat operators we found the Museum of Islamic Art (think carpet, tiles, paintings, etc). This place is a backpacker’s dream. It is FREE. It is air conditioned. IT HAS WIFI. I loved this museum – particularly as I travelled the Silk Road last year and could see the evolution of art from Uzbekistan (blue tiles anyone?) as one travels southwest through Iran and into Qatar. Caution: this museum may convince you to put the Silk Road on your bucket list!
Moving on we got lost (but isn’t that the point?) wandering back through Al Souq and Al Jasra and listening to the call of prayer from the Grand Mosque (we failed to find the entrance).
Souqs by Night
After dark the Souq really came alive – and no wonder, the temperature was much more bearable now that the sun was retreating. Cafes and restaurants were overflowing onto footpaths. Shisha was abundant and the fragrances of apple, orange and mint followed me down the street. Hawkers called out offering up places to sit, but I followed my instinct (and the hand painted arrows on the walls) and we were rewarded with a quiet place in a back alley. Venturing in, three women greeted us with huge smiles, a welcoming gesture and a table. The required miming was performed to order food and the abaya-clad women returned again and again from the kitchen with ever more delicious meals.
We worked off dinner by traversing the Falcon Souq, another architecturally intriguing place where the shops housed… you guessed it… falcons. Perched on poles in the middle of what can only be described as sandpits, the falcons watched with piercing eyes anyone who entered. Falcon hunting is a longtime tradition and every conceivable accessory is available in these shops.
Emerging at the illuminated Horse Stables across from the Grand Mosque left an eerie impression. By the glow of the lanterns the horses are majestic and don’t mind a visitor or two walking up to the fence – just be mindful of the guards.
The Next 24 Hours: Dune-bashing!
Our second morning saw us picked up by a thobe wearing man and bundled into his very nice, very clean Toyota Landcruiser. My eyes were glued to the windows as we passed out of the city boundaries; when the buildings ended, the sand began. Soon even the road gave way… to dunes.
A Skilled Driver
Sitting with his seat reclined, one hand on the steering wheel and one on the automatic shifter, our driver drove straight at a dune. Whilst I held my breath our beast of a car had no problems driving straight up it. As is the law of physics, what goes up must come down. I must admit I squealed and hung on for dear life as our incredibly talented driver maneuvered his impeccable car up and down these towering dunes. Sometimes forwards, sometimes sideways. Whilst my heart was pounding and I felt for sure this car was going to roll, not once did he look panicked. He knew what he was doing and I learnt very quickly to relax, trust and enjoy the ride. And what a ride it was!
A Deserted Desert Camp
I wasn’t sure what to expect as we headed to our camp for the night but what we got was peaceful bliss. There wasn’t another guest at camp, although it looked to hold a good hundred or so. We were shown to an open sided tent covered in handwoven carpets and floor cushions. The tent opened to the Persian Gulf and I couldn’t resist going for a quick dip. Unexpectedly, a shower (think festival style) was on hand and thank goodness for the sea was extra salty. Dinner was a BBQ eaten by lantern light. We lazed about in our tent pinching ourselves. We were given a sleeping bag and rolled them out right there on the carpets. When the stars came out I knew I had found paradise.
We hiked the nearby dunes for sunrise. The calm air had started to warm, there was no noise from the camp and not a soul to be seen. Peace… and then the smell of eggs! Breakfast and a less hair-raising drive got us back to Doha.
The Final 24 Hours: Forts and Festivities!
This third and final day we attempted to enter the Al Khoot Fort, an epic fail, but apparently worth a visit if you can get in. As the sun started to set, we grabbed a taxi to La Cigale Hotel in Al Sadd. Their rooftop bar is open to visitors and we made sure to get there during happy hour to avoid paying through the nose for a beer and the view. Ladies night at Glo Bar in the Marriott Marquis Hotel in the CBD offered up FREE cocktails for women, so after happy hour we headed to check it out. The place was full of loud music and scantily clad expats trying to recreate their lives from back home. If you can handle the cigarette smoke, enjoy. I downed my free drinks and headed for the waterfront. The Museum of Islamic Art was lit up and the skyscrapers above us offered their own silhouette in reply. The walk back to the hotel, although quite a distance, was worth it for the fresh air and view alone.
Time to move on.
We caught the 2am flight out, just shy of 72 hours after landing, energized from our mini break in Doha rather than exhausted. We were clean, with full bellies and a slight buzz from the cocktails; ready for the next adventure (battling Nairobi) rather than being disorientated and confused. It’s the journey, not the destination right, so why not try to enjoy it by having a mini break?