Paddling the Persian Gulf
One Expat’s Favorite Thing to do in the Little Desert Country of Qatar
By Chandi Wyant
The flat expanse of the Persian Gulf sparkles silver and in the 113 degrees F heat I’m pleased with the breeze that I feel only now that I’m on the water. I dip my paddle and bend my knees, dip, and bend, striving to keep up with Lucy.
Her compact limbs flex and her board sweeps forward over the waves left from a passing jet ski.
Other paddlers in our group are off to either side of me—women from Greece, France, and England. We’re paddling across the stretch of water from the Intercontinental Hotel to the Pearl—about three and a half kilometers.
Lucy, from Brazil, started Surf and Soul, a SUP business (Stand Up Paddle Boarding) from the beach of the Intercontinental in Doha in August of 2014.
“I started the business,” She tells me, “to have a healthy way of life, to be outside and to manage my own time, and to have happy people around me! I came to Qatar with a different job and then ditched that in favor of SUP.”
An Escape From the Dusty City
Lucy who always seems jubilant to me, continues, “SUP is the best part of my life in Qatar. I can be on the sea with the sun shining all year long. SUP has allowed me to enjoy Qatar for six years now!”
I readily agree with Lucy. It’s great to escape from the dust of the city and the trials of Doha’s traffic. When I’m on the water the daily grind drops away and the city’s skyline looks most attractive when seen from across an expanse of gently swaying sea.
Our group paddles the last stretch to the Pearl—a man-made Riviera style island development. We converge on a beach and pull our boards onto the sand. Lucy hands out bottles of water from the cooler that has been riding on the front of her board.
We submerge ourselves in the limpid warm water and chat about our jobs.
Ever alert to the wind, Lucy announces, “It’s shifted. Time to head back.” Forty minutes later we’re back at the Intercontinental beach ordering fresh watermelon juice. I drink plenty of water too, to ensure I don’t catch heat stroke.
Once I’m revived I carry my board to the outdoor shower to rinse it. I bought it in the fall from Melinda; a Hungarian woman who runs QSUP—The first SUP business in Qatar which she started in 2012. From a dock in a marina at The Pearl she offers a variety of fun SUP sessions from basic ones, to long-distance paddles, to “SUP Yoga.”
The Desolate Landscape isn’t Easy
When the weather was cool, in December, I joined one of Melinda’s early morning long-distance paddles to what she calls “Bird Shit Island.” The distance round trip is six to seven kilometers. The island’s terrain is typical of Qatar: drab beige-colored sand and sharp little rocks. But near the island, we are thrilled to see stingrays and flamingos.
This is serious wildlife when you live in such a desolate landscape! Being a California native, the desolate landscape isn’t easy for me, but I can handle it because of the sea. It’s my kind of sea: warm and flat.
From December through February the water becomes slightly cold and I use a half wetsuit. Some days the winds kick up enough to create slightly rough conditions but most of the year the sea is tranquil, balmy, and full of lovely colors.
Another fun destination near Melinda’s business is the Qanat Quarter (also know at the Venice Quarter) at the Pearl. While I’m not one to normally be enthused about a fake Venice, I appreciate this area because of the attractive Italianate buildings, the Plumeria trees, and the quiet canals. Boats and jet skis are not allowed in the canals, making them a serene place to paddle.
“SUP allows you to discover the treasures of Qatar from a different perspective,” Melinda says, as she explains to me why she recommends it for visitors to Doha. “It takes you close to islands, beaches, and marine life not approachable by powerboats.
Also, a visitor joining us for SUP gets to connect with ex-pats who live in Qatar and can learn all kinds of fun facts about Qatar from us!”
Melinda includes in her business a focus on families. “I empower kids to learn SUP and water safety. It’s a great way for a family to spend time together, complete small challenges on the water and play together and get stronger and healthier.”
Fitting SUP Into a Busy Schedule
Lately, I’ve been managing to fit in paddling a few mornings a week now that I’m teaching in the afternoons for summer school. I go with Sarah from England who has just completed a SUP certification course and now assists Lucy.
The other morning after a 90-minute paddle we tried some yoga poses on the boards. I haven’t had a chance to take Melinda’s SUP Yoga but I was inspired by the idea. How hard can it be you ask? Very!
Downward dog is no problem. But then I try Warrior 1. Complete fail! I only semi-managed Warrior 2. By the time we finish, it’s 11:00 am and the heat is fierce. Luckily the African security guard helps me carry my board back to my car. After a cold shower, I’m in a great mindset to face Doha’s traffic and go to work.
Best Experienced at Sunset
While SUP is a lovely way to start the day, I like it best at sunset. The other evening I joined Tara, an Australian ex-pat, for a sunset paddle out of Porto Arabia at the Pearl.
As we head out of the port every boat passing by is full of Arab guys. They call out greetings and wave. I momentarily lift a hand off the paddle in order to wave back. We head into the open sea, angling up the coast of the Pearl.
Young men on jet skis zoom past us and two coast guard boats circle the area of slate-colored water ahead of us. The water is churned up from jet skis, boats, and the wind. We paddle over crazy swells that come at all angles. The wind shifts and picks up and it takes us much longer than usual to get to the no-name crescent of beach rimmed by mansions-in-progress.
The sun disappears particularly quickly in Qatar and as we sit on the beach resting, a blanket of the dark sky suddenly drops over the water. The air is warm and the wind is cooling. We don’t want to leave.
“Let’s swim!” I say.
“Yes, I was just thinking that.” Tara agrees.
“Oh it’s so warm!” we call to each other as the soft water envelops us.
The water is the color of pencil lead and so is the sky. I set a course breaststroking through the churning swells. I float on my back while the stars come out. Granted I only sense them come out. The sky is not clear, but floating in the buoyant warm water in the dark after a strenuous paddle is as close as I can get to something heavenly in Qatar.
To enjoy SUP in Doha you can join one of the groups through QSUP or Surf and Soul. (Individual rentals of boards are not available for safety reasons.)
QSUP with Melinda:
90-minute sessions are 150 Qatari Riyal ($42)
Her weekly schedule is based on the weather forecast and thus booking is open 1-2 weeks ahead. Bookings can be made here:
Surf and Soul with Lucy:
90-minute sessions are 150 Qatari Riyal ($42)
She takes groups multiple times a day, every day unless the weather is not favorable.
Contact Lucy at Surf and Soul by phone or email:
(974) 33209044, firstname.lastname@example.org
An alternate number is the Intercontinental’s: (974) 44844444
Doha is not a city of cheap guesthouses and B&Bs. I recommend paying more for one of the 5-star hotels along the water. The cheaper hotels are back in ugly parts of the city and it’s not worth being shoved off in an unappealing area. Some of the quality hotels with nice beaches are the Hyatt, Ritz Carton, Saint Regis, Intercontinental, Hilton, Sheraton, and The Sharq.
Alternately, there are some beautiful new hotels in Souq Waqif. (The most attractive souq in the Gulf region!)
They are Qatar’s first boutique hotels and are housed in lovely Arab-style buildings whose traditional appearance gives way to unexpected opulence on the inside.
When to Visit
The hot season is late April to early October. The hottest month is July with temps around 42 Celsius (107.6) and humidity at about 80 percent. During this time we SUP early morning and sunset. By mid-October through mid-April, it is much more comfortable to be out in the middle of the day and there are more options for SUP although the water gets a bit cold from early December through February.
Ramadan is not a good time to visit because restaurants are closed, as are nightlife venues. Based on the lunar calendar, Ramadan moves 11 days each year so Google to see when it is before you visit.
Chandi Wyant is a historian, writer, educator, and world traveler. She currently teaches college history in Qatar where her male students are shocked to learn that she sails and paddleboards by herself in the Persian Gulf. Follow her at Paradise of Exiles, her blog, or on Facebook.