One of the locals I got to know during my visit to Qatar was Abdul, a big, jovial man who drove my photographer and me over 60-meter-tall sand dunes at up to 50 miles an hour. The desert safari, also called dune-bashing, is the most popular tourist attraction in the state of Qatar, a peninsula the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island that borders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and juts into the Persian Gulf. For sure, Qatar has pockets deeper than most Americans can imagine, thanks to its huge reserves of natural gas. Abdul talked with admiration about change in Doha and the emira€™s master plan for development. The Corniche, a 4-mile-long promenade along the Persian Gulf (known in Qatar as the Arabian Gulf), is a popular stretch for walking and seeing dhows (wooden boats traditionally used for fishing and pearling and today used for day trips and evening cruises). If you want to get out of the city, pack a picnic basket with goodies from the souk and have your driver take you up the coast about 50 kilometers to Al-Khor. On the ride back, I fell asleepa€”the heat of the desert and trudging through the sand had exhausted me. The W Doha Hotel and Residences (with a Bliss Spa), the Hilton Doha, the Renaissance Doha and the Courtyard by Marriott Doha will all open next year, followed by the Four Pointe by Sheraton Doha in 2009 and the St. Accessorizing Abdula€™s thobe (the traditional ankle-length white shirt) were a diamond-encircled watch and sparkly cufflinks that could only be described as bling in the United States.
Ita€™s not a safari in the typical sense of the word (although one can see the occasional fox or camel), but ita€™s the best way to see the natural side of a country that is, essentially, one big desert.
This little Islamic state, just 36 years old, is ruled by an emir and has a per-capita income of nearly $62,000, one of the highest in the world.
English is universal, and the exchange rate of the currency, the Qatari riyal, is fixed to the U.S. Begin at the souks, the traditional markets in narrow alleys where you can bargain for anything from spices and shawls to water pipes and swords.
The warm Gulf is ideal for all kinds of water sports: fishing, diving, water skiing and sailing.
The coastal town used to be known for its pearl fishing, but today, ita€™s popular with Qataris as a peaceful respite from Doha. The park, about an hour from Doha, is an uninhabited island on the northern coast of Qatar; visitors can see mangrove forests and wildlife, including flamingos, lizards, crabs, birds and nesting turtles. Soon we stopped, and Abdul pointed out where we were on his GPS, on the bottom tip of Qatar.
Weigh down a plate from a spectacular spread of Qatari and Lebanese dishes like hummus, tabouli, baba ghanoush, grilled vegetables and manakish (small breads filled with cheese or meat), and still have a spread of meat, fish (hamour is the local cod) and stews to tackle, followed by desserts and tea.
You can order beer and wine at hotels, unlike at the local joints, but thata€™s no reason not to venture out of your inn. The menu is huge, and you cana€™t go wrong with chicken shawarma, followed by puffing on an apple-flavored shisha (a water pipe, also called a€?hubbly-bubblya€?).
SUVs speed around ubiquitous roundabouts, taxis weave, and ita€™s not unusual to see impatient drivers climb curbs to circumvent obstacles.
While hiring a driver may seem excessive for those coming from the United States, it is customary in Qatar for residents and visitors alike. Friday and Saturday make up the weekend, and on Fridaya€”the holy day for Muslimsa€”most businesses are closed. The rustic Six Senses Spaa€”the largest in the Middle Easta€”has separate entrances and lounges for women, a prayer room, meditation room and a signature treatment that includes a four-handed massage. The Spa and Wellness Center has a private spa suite for two, a hydrotherapy lounge and a therapeutic ice chamber in the locker room. He wore a gurta (long headdress) and white sandals, drove a 2007 white Nissan Patrol and played a€™80s pop music on the radio.
Hearsay, no doubt, but the more time I spent in the capital city, the less unfathomable the comments seemed.
Instead, Doha sets itself apart from its Middle Eastern neighbors by investing heavily in education, science, sports and art, and hoping that when the construction is complete, tourists will come. Out of a Qatari population of 907,200, foreigners comprise a significant chunk of the work force, which makes the population wonderfully diverse.
The largest and most popular is Souk Waqif (off Grand Hammad Street), but the gold souk, the fruit and vegetable souk and the camel souk (where locals buy camels for wedding ceremonies or for meat) are also worth a visit. Both Gulf Adventures and Arabian Adventures, in addition to offering desert safaris and water excursions, have good tours of the city (which usually include the Corniche and the markets, among other attractions) and trips to the camel race track and oryx farm. Al Jazeera, the governmenta€“owned television network, is headquartered in Doha, and visitors can set up private tours of both the Arabic and English stations, with their impressive state-of-the-art studios and robotic cameras. If you go, stay a€™til darka€”locals say ita€™s worth the trip to Umm Tais just to see the magnificent sunsets over the park. I wondered how much it would be altered in the next year or five years, and I felt grateful that some thingsa€”like the vast, magical desert and the sparkling Persian Gulfa€”would never change. A local explained that if you go to a Qataria€™s home, he will present a table overflowing with fooda€”the best and the most he can offer.
They will stop anywhere (ideal if you want to tour the city and stop at a museum, a market, a restaurant and a coffee shop). While Qatar is known to be more accepting of Western dress than other Muslim countries, visitors should still err on the side of conservative attire. The royal villa, called Beit Al Shoukh, can be reserved for just under $28,000 per night and includes an airport pick-up in a Rolls Royce, five butlers, a chef and a driver upon request. A small bottle of cologne sat in the drivera€™s-side door pocket, yellow prayer beads hung from the grab bar, and A-B-D-U-L was spelled out in silver bubble-letter stickers below the dash. I met a Kenyan spa director, a Sri Lankan driver, an Egyptian concierge, a Canadian public relations associate, a South African technology consultant, a British masseuse and an American emergency medicine specialist, who told me hea€™s earning six times what he did in the States.
We continued our drive and eventually saw the giant Inland Sea, so blue and unexpected it could have been a mirage.
And I hoped there would always be spirited Qataris like Abdul who love to show off their country.
The second floor feels like a cafeteria with its fluorescent lighting, but the food is delicious, as are the fresh juices. You can hire drivers for about QR60 ($16.50) an hour, and it will save you a lot of time and frustration trying to hail a taxi. In general, dona€™t take pictures of the airport, security officers or women in traditional dress.
The glowing sun was setting behind the dunes, so we headed back to the paved road, inflated our tires and drove north to Doha. Ita€™s OK to bust out the bikini on the beach, but on your way to and from the surf, cover up that itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny. The airline, half owned by the government, last year unveiled its $90 million premium terminal at the existing airporta€”complete with spa, martini bar and 24-hour medical clinic. You wona€™t find a historic district or cultural center as you might in European capitals, because development and modern business have trumped all, often at the expense of older structures.
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