Qatar: Capturing the Magic of Arabia
By Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey
Protruding from the Saudi Arabian peninsula like a thumb, the emirate of Qatar is small -- 4,416 square miles (11,437 sq. km) -- and nearly totally surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Arabian Gulf.
The country is flat with some rocky outcrops up to 130 feet (40 m) high, with the desert landscape ranging from rocky shrub-land to beautiful sand dunes, and some bleak salt flats in the centre of the country.
The country has fewer than one million inhabitants, some 80 per cent of whom are expatriates, mainly from India, Pakistan and the Philippines. Although there are several small towns and villages, 75 per cent of the population live in the capital Doha, on the east coast of Qatar.
After Dubai, Qatar is currently the most happening place in the Gulf. Since the emirate is hosting the Asian Games – a branch of the Olympics – in 2006, infrastructure and buildings are going up at a speed that warrants two visits just six months apart, simply to be able to appreciate the changes that can take place in such short a time.
But although buzzing, the country also has its peaceful attractions, most appealingly, perhaps is the Inland Sea with its fantastic sand dunes. True sandy desert, where tour guides will take you on a rollercoaster ride up and down the dunes in four-wheel- drive cars, pushing your adrenaline output to a all-time high.
And, along the 435-mile (700 km) coastline, you can find secluded beaches with very little development around, although more beach resorts are planned.
Qatari men dancing
When to Go
It is hot in summer, with temperatures of 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) and above. But the heat is mostly dry, with humidity limited to evenings and nighttime. The best time to visit is in spring and fall, generally any time between October and April, bearing in mind that in December and January the sea cools down a little, but daytime temperatures are great.
Qatar has one of the best young airlines in the world – Qatar Airways. Although there are no direct connections to the States as yet - London, Paris and Frankfurt all offer transfer hubs from where you can catch a roughly seven-hour flight to Doha.
The best idea is to either go on organized tours that take you to all the sites, or hire a car with a driver, which is not as expensive as it sounds, and saves you from taking part in the extremely erratic and often unnecessarily dangerous driving. In Qatar it is quite common to see very young boys driving large Landcruisers with driving fast being a popular past-time. An experience that on the whole can be a little scary for visitors.
Taxis are plentiful and relatively cheap, and there is a newly established bus service, but that is still rudimentary and only advised if you know exactly where you want to go and can explain that in Arabic.
Camels in the Qatari desert
Qatar is a very small country with limited sites, but the desert around the Inland Sea is an absolute must. The Inland Sea is an inlet of the Arabian Gulf that nearly cuts Qatar off from the Saudi Arabian Peninsula and literally runs along the border, so that you will be looking at Saudi Arabia across the water. The secluded beaches attract flamingoes at certain times of the year and are also visited by free-roaming camels on regular occasions.
The best way to experience the desert is by camping, and organized tours drive you through the desert to luxury bedouin tents, set up dinner and organize camel rides or sand-skiing for you. And after spending the night comfortably in the desert under more stars than you ever thought existed, you can go swimming in the Inland Sea before having a picnic lunch and heading back to town.
Mention the Singing Dunes to your guide, he can arrange for you to have a go at sliding down the horse-shoe-shaped dunes and making them sing!
Hitting the dunes
In the far north of the peninsula lies Zubara Fort, a castle-like fortification that looks like something from the French Foreign Legion and is only half a century old, but nevertheless attractive. Next to it lie the archeological digs of Qatar’s first settlement, several centuries old and well worth a visit. Set against the turquoise sea, the walls are full of tiny old shells that have been used with mud as mortar.
Palmtree Island is a man-made island in the bay of Doha and is in itself not very exciting, but it houses a good seafood restaurant. You ride over in a traditional dhow and for some reason, the beach is full of exotic shells not found on any of the other beaches in the country. At night you have an amazing view over to the Corniche – the seven kilometer long promenade that lines the horseshoe-shaped bay.
The desert is what Qatar does best. If you don’t fancy camping overnight, at the very least take a half-day tour across the dunes. The drivers are incredibly talented (and slightly mad) and drive you across the steepest sand dunes at breakneck speed. Not necessarily for the faint-hearted, it is however a unique experience that should not be missed.
A paraglider sails past the Sheraton
Qatar offers some superb hotels, starting with the stunning Ritz Carlton, which sits on its own island just outside Doha, and has a host of fine restaurants and an award-winning spa (email@example.com, Tel: 00974 484 8000),
the new Four Seasons, in the fancy West Bay area of town
(Tel: 00974 494 8888),
the newly renovated Sheraton with its landmark pyramid design
(Sheraton.firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel: 00974 485 4444),
the Marriott, close to the city and airport
(Marriott@qatar.net.qa, Tel: 00974 429 8888),
(email@example.com, Tel: 00974 484 4444)
Women making yarn
and the lower budget Moevenpick Hotel, right on the Corniche
(firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel: 00974 429 1111).
More new hotels are being built and will be opening before the end of 2006, in time for the Asian Games. Double check opening dates with your tour operator before you commit yourself.
Apart from all the excellent restaurants in the hotels, most notably “Porcini” in the Ritz Carlton, the best Italian restaurant in town, and “La Mer” in the Ritz Carlton on the top floor with a stunning view and excellent food, but prices to match, there are plenty of restaurants around town.
If you like a glass of wine with dinner, you should know that Qatari law currently allows alcohol to be served only in restaurants located in hotels. This is policy is currently being reviewed and a lot of new bars and restaurants are planned, in anticipation a more relaxed alcohol law.
The best Arabic food is probably served at the Lebanese eatery “Layali” on Salwa Road
(Tel: 00974 431 0005),
The vegetable souq
on the same road is “Mint” a concept restaurant filled with modern furniture and art and very good international food
(Tel: 00974 467 5577).
For great Persian dishes in a lovely setting, try the “Shebestan” on Al Sadd Street
(Tel: 00974 432 1555).
At the risk of going on about the Ritz Carlton – an absolute must is Friday Brunch in the “Lagoon” – the setting, atmosphere and food is fantastic, but you will need to book, because this is where visitors, locals and expats congregate every Friday
(Tel: 00974 484 8000)
Unfortunately Doha has only a small souq (market), but it is atmospheric and sells anything from colorful spices, traditional Arabic dresses to Indian sari materials that shimmer in butterfly colors. There are honey shops, perfume and incense vendors, kitchen shops that sell saucepans big enough to fit an entire camel inside and tailors who make you a garment there and then if you know what you want.
The souq may not rival Istanbul’s or Cairo’s bazaars, or Oman’s souq, but if you are not too travel-spoilt, then you can capture some of Arabia’s magic there.
For more modern shopping Doha has a number of malls, notably Doha City Centre and Landmark, both of which house international shops, food courts, cafes and supermarkets and are the place to hang out for locals on the weekend, which incidentally is on Friday and Saturday.
The Diplomatic Club
Visas and Documents
Most nationalities – including citizens from the US, EU, Australia and New Zealand - can obtain a visa upon arrival. In the arrivals hall you will find the required forms, the fee for a visa on arrival is QR105.00 (1US$= 3.65 Qatari Riyals).
Try and have some currency on you before you land as, depending on the time of arrival, at certain times there is no-one to change money for you, making getting a visa more complicated than it needs to be.
Health and safety
Qatar is one of the safest – if not the safest – countries in the Middle East. Locals rarely lock their doors and, in the summer, leave cars running in front of shops to keep the AC going, without having to worry that someone will drive off with them. Women on their own may get a few comments and adoring glances thrown at them, depending on how they are dressed, but otherwise are totally safe.
No vaccinations are needed, and there is no malaria. For emergencies, plenty of private hospitals accept international insurance cards, most notably Doha Clinic Hospital on Al Mirqab Street, Tel: 00974 432 7300, which is fully equipped with specialists and modern equipment.
Buildings in Qatar blend old and
Respecting local culture
Qatar is an Islamic country and although very liberal and tolerant, travelers are advised to respect local customs and cover their shoulders and refrain from wearing shorts in the city. In the hotels and on the beach swimwear, sleeveless tops and shorts are acceptable.
During Ramadan please refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public and visit the dedicated cafes and restaurants in the hotels instead. For couples, holding hands is fine but other public shows of affection may offend locals and should be kept private.
moi.gov.qa for visa information
experienceqatar.com Official site of Qatar Tourism Authority
qatarvisits.com Site of Arabian Adventures, who can show you the country
gulf-times.com Qatar’s best English daily newspaper
Pick up a copy of “Marhaba Magazine” in your hotel, the local "What’s up?" for residents, packed full of information on the country.
Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a freelance writer currently living in Oman. Her work has been published in The Weekly Telegraph, Business Traveller, Oman Today and CNTraveller.com. She is married to Ian Lemmin-Woolfrey, a part-time freelance photographer. Visit her website, ulwoolfrey.com