On her first solo trip to Qatar region, our writer discovers the many pearls of Qatar’s chest in its capital city. By Bayar Jain
I have a confession to make. The prospect of travelling solo to the Middle East for the first time was frightening for me. The thought of exploring Qatar, an unfamiliar land, without the comforting company of my loved ones was daunting, to say the least.
To make matters worse, I land in the country in the middle of the night. An unfamiliar land in pitch darkness does not make a great first impression. My home in Doha is slated to be the grand Al Messila Resort & Spa, a sprawling botanical oasis in the heart of the city. As my ride makes its way to the regal white building, an opulent driveway dotted with water installations and enveloped by sprawling greens greets me. But this modern vibe is left at the doors, as the lobby welcomes me with golden Arabic embellishments on its walls. I scurry to take refuge in my private villa. By now, traveller’s fatigue has seeped in, and sleep arrives easily.
I wake up to the sound of cascading water, surprisingly not very far from me. Beyond the curtains of my room, my groggy eyes spy a mini fountain in the backyard! It’s only now that I realise my villa comes with its own private pool, a plunge pool, and a small waterfall as well. The rest of my abode, too, seems to carry this sense of extravagance–a widescreen television in the living room, lavish chandeliers in the living area, and a kitchen stocked with silverware. I take a quick shower in the marble bathroom and make a beeline for breakfast at Deli Kitchen, the property’s all-day delicatessen.
My walk to the main building rings with the chirruping of birds and the gentle gurgling of waterfalls. A lavish breakfast buffet, replete with local bread, live egg counters, and a never-ending array of dishes, makes for a great start to the day. However, my mornings cannot kick off without a cup of joe; the habit takes me to a specially crafted epicurean coffee journey on the property’s lawns.
Traditional Arabic coffee tastes nothing like the roasts back home. Brewed in a dallah, a traditional coffee pot with a long spout, and served in a finjan, a small handle-less cup, this uniquely light yet flavourful drink is a powerhouse of energy. What seems strong at first, owing to the lack of milk or sugar, slowly breaks into a dance of flavours on the tongue. The trick is to keep a piece of date in your mouth, letting the coffee sieve through it to make its way down your throat. The potent brew is all I need to get over my inhibitions and venture into the city.
My first stop is the centuries-old Souq Waqif. Literally the ‘standing market’, this labyrinthine area once hosted locals and Bedouins who sold their goods standing. Although the marketplace was originally close to the river, today it’s landlocked. But the market’s cobbled lanes and whitewashed buildings with mud walls and exposed timber beams remain, as a homage to its glory days. As I meander through the narrow lanes, traditional garments, handicrafts, spices, souvenirs, and attar shops offer a glimpse of Doha’s culture and history. Each alley seems to be selling a different commodity. In one lane, eager shoppers politely haggle for a better deal on a thobe (robe-like garment), keffiyeh (scarf), and agal (black cord worn over the scarf)—the traditional set of clothes for Arabic men; in another, bakers sell hot Iranian breads. Somewhere in the distance, the gentle plucks of an oud can be heard. After a few hours of window-shopping, I finally settle on buying stone candy-sweet pebble-like chocolate covered in a thin layer of fluorescent mint.
As a vegetarian, my trips to traditionally meat-loving countries usually end in despair. Parisa Souq Waqif, however, dazzles me, literally! Overcompensating for the simplicity of its exteriors, this two-storeyed restaurant shimmers in gold and mirror work on the inside. Intricate mosaics, ornate chandeliers, and hand-painted Persian artworks overwhelm me in the best way possible. While my companions dig into Persian-style lamb chops, chicken kebabs, and grilled beef fillets, I savour my veg khorak with delight. Made using a mix of eggplant, potato, tomato, and saffron in a tomato gravy, and paired with the signature crisp barbari bread and baghali polow (Persian dill rice with fava beans), the riot of flavours hints at the many surprises that await me in this country. By the time I finish eating, the sun has set, leaving behind a shimmer of ephemeral gold on the entire marketplace. The Al Fanar, Doha’s iconic spiral mosque, glistens in the distance, with a surreal yellow sheen. Taking the cue, I call it a night and head to The St Regis Doha, my second abode on the trip.
Located on the West Bay, near the diplomatic district of Doha, the twin towers of the lavish hotel align with the extravagance of the city. The hotel is home to 12 restaurants, including two restaurants by Gordon Ramsay; an Olympic-size swimming pool; a cake shop; a private beach; the Remède Spa; and over 300 rooms and suites. My room, the Grand Deluxe King Guest Room, mesmerises with its azure sea views beyond expansive glass windows. A cream-coloured bed coupled with plush golden carpets and the bed’s canopy-style decor adds yet another rich chapter to my Qatari experience.
My morning begins with a walk around the Katara Cultural Village, just three kilometres away from the hotel. So far, my Middle-Eastern sojourn was woven together with a thread of luxury.
Opened in 2010, this waterfront village, however, strips off the opulence and shows me the city’s heritage, culture, and traditions. The first thing to catch my eye is the Pigeon Towers, mud, brick, and lime-plastered towers with numerous incisions and tiny protruding perches. My guide explains the twin purposes of these towers: one, providing pigeons refuge from the blistering summer sun and predators; and two, collecting bird droppings, which are later used as fertiliser. “In traditional Islamic culture, pigeons are a revered species,” she reveals.
The narrow shaded streets of the cultural village are lined by small water canals, and the buildings are a sandy shade of yellow. It’s almost as if I’m in a Disney musical rendition of Aladdin. The shades of ochre that dominate the many libraries, art galleries, museums, and heritage centres here create an aura of old-world mysticism, taking me back to the 1940s. Soon, I find myself at an amphitheatre, akin to Rome’s famous Colosseum but with a sprinkling of Islamic features like arches and domes. While it may look historical, the amphitheatre was completed only in 2008 and has been hosting concerts and performances since. I twirl on the stage in the centre to soak up the grandeur. The seats glisten under the cloudless sky, and the sea applauds in the distance.
My next stop is The Pearl-Qatar, an artificial island resembling a string of pearls. Divided into 12 districts, this residential estate features an ensemble of yacht-lined marinas, luxurious residences, and high-end boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. Although the island’s reclamation and construction started as recently as 2004, space itself comes with its own history. Built on one of Qatar’s major pearl diving sites, the estate pays homage to a once booming industry that went downhill following the introduction of Japanese cultivated pearls in the market and the Great Depression in the 1930s.
This fusion of history and modern industry is even more prominent at The Ritz-Carlton, Doha, my third and final accommodation in the city. The soaring property is a curious mix of the old and the new, the natural and the man-made. On one hand, the hotel celebrates the city’s progressive spirit with an exclusive Club Level, modern rooms and suites, and legendary outdoor pools, while its traditional ethos echoes in its seven dining options. My favourite aspect, though? Looking out from the 22nd floor, I notice the blues of the sea merging with the clear sky, soothing all my frayed nerves. The Middle East no longer scares me.
Indians don’t need prior visa arrangements to enter Qatar and can obtain a visa waiver for a span of 30 days upon arrival. If one wishes to stay for more than 30 days, a tourist visa is required. There are many direct and connecting flights from Mumbai (three and a half hours direct), and New Delhi (four hours direct). To explore Doha, taking a cab or renting a car is your best bet.
If you’re looking for an oasis-like resort, then the Al Messila, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, Doha (from ₹22,172 per night) should be your refuge. The St Regis Doha (from ₹21,208), and The Ritz-Carlton, Doha (from ₹19,378) are some of the other recommended hotels owing to their proximity to popular tourist spots.