Tuesday 24 April 2018

Futures and pasts in timeless Doha

Doha, Qatar

Traditional dhows afloat in the bay facing the ultra-modern skyline of Doha
Traditional dhows afloat in the bay facing the ultra-modern skyline of Doha
Queen of the desert, Madeleine
Madeleine Keane

Madeleine Keane

The jeep balances precariously on top of the dune before our driver plunges down a vertiginous cliff of sand to shrieks of fear and excitement from his passengers.

It's early December and while my home town shivers under a blanket of snow and frost, I'm in shorts and a T-shirt in the midday sun of a desert. Qatar Airways launched its new service from Dublin direct to Doha in June and we're having a brief taster of the city's highlights.

As this is just a flying visit - Friday to early Monday morning - it's a welcome treat to travel business class, where a glass of Champagne is immediately pressed into my hand. The cabin staff are utterly charming and the experience is a delight from start to finish; a couple of colleagues who pull the short straw later and return to the coach, tell me the service on the back of the bus is just as pleasant.

We're weary on arrival as dawn starts to streak the Doha sky but the Mondrian jolts us into wakefulness. This brand-new hotel (it is open less less than a month) reflects the city in its grandeur, eccentricity and opulence. Alice in Wonderland was an inspiration behind the design and indeed I feel Alice-like beside the outsize fixtures and fittings.

Queen of the desert, Madeleine
Queen of the desert, Madeleine

As befits such a place, it has a state-of-the-art spa where my therapist, called Snow White (of course) tells me her seven dwarves will assist in my massage, and, with the aid of luscious ESPA products, it is deeply restorative after the rigours of first- class flying. Doha is intriguing: on the one hand (to continue the Disney theme) it's a place as old as time but yet so very new with its crenulated skyline of futuristic buildings, each trying to outdazzle the other. "It must be a designer's dream to work here," remarks one of my companions. Our guide informs us that in 1982 there was one hotel - the Sheraton - now the horizon is an architect's smorgasbord of fantasy and excess. Sitting on the third largest natural gas reserve in the world, Doha is awash with money and, as the city gears up to host the World Cup in 2022, there's evidence of great energy and massive investment while it beefs up the infrastructure.

Needless to say the place is a shopper's nirvana and the organisers are proud to show off the Mall of Qatar. Only open a year, this is 5,000 square metres of retail heaven. However, I'm far more interested in a pre-prandial trip to the local Souq Waqif which is, as I expected, enthralling.

Here since time immemorial when the Bedouins first used it as a trading spot for livestock and wool, it fell into disrepair in the 60s. After a fire consumed much of the market in 2003 the government stepped in and rebuilt it, staying true to the souq's traditions and architecture.

So we step into history as we wend our way through narrow labyrinthine streets, passing porters in their distinctive burgundy waistcoats, into tiny shops offering traditional costumes, jewelry and handicrafts to my favourite, a sweet-smelling emporium entirely devoted to the selling of spices.

In a men's club, while locals play backgammon and smoke shisha, we partake of traditional, knockout coffee. There's even a pet market and nearby stables of Arabian stallions, as well as a falcon hospital - this avian is much revered in Arab culture.

We get a very welcome dollop of culture in the monolithic shape of the Museum of Islamic Art. Designed by IM Pei (the architect behind the Louvre's iconic pyramid) and built on reclaimed land, this massive building belies its contents: a small but exquisite collection, gleaned from three continents, of delicate Turkish ceramics, fragile fabrics and swords from the Ottoman Empire. All in all, it's an intelligent fusion of modernity and antiquity, with an incredible view of Doha's staggering skyline an added bonus. Note that conservative dress is required here - no flip flops or T-shirts, and shoulders and arms must be covered.

There's also public art on offer. I'm particularly taken by a stunning piece of a windswept woman attempting to corral the globe. Titled 'Force of Nature' and the work of figurative sculptor Lorenzo Quinn (son of the actor Anthony), it was created as an artistic response to the 2009 Samoan tsunami and is on view outside the Katara Cultural Village which is also home to the capital's opera house and amphitheatre.

Just as Dubai has its World Island, so Doha has a man-made island: the Pearl (built on what was once a major pearl diving site) which, with its yacht-bedecked waterfronts, designer boutiques and sumptuous villas is a millionaire's masterclass in monetary symbolism.

Our final night is spent in the St Regis, a behemoth which combines decadent old-world glamour with Arabic design and boasts a gargantuan (everything is on a large scale) Olympic pool and a great view of the Gulf. We enjoy a memorable dinner here at the Astor Grill which models itself on a New York steakhouse and grill. And another culinary highlight happens at the InterContinental where, in one of the city's trendiest new eateries, Gemmayze, we lunch on traditional Lebanese cuisine - a luscious array of mezzeh, kebbeh and freshly baked breads.

But back to my favourite part. On the outskirts of the desert, while we have coffee and camel rides, the drivers let air out of the jeeps' tyres to ensure we will glide safely over the sands. Away from the glass and steel symphony that is downtown Doha, I'm happiest here, playing at Madeleine of Arabia - dune-bashing (think of a rollercoaster on mountains of sand) camel-hopping and finally, most blissfully of all, dashing into the ocean to wash away the heat and dust.

A desert camp, where a tent furnished with couches and carpets appears, suddenly, almost like a mirage and out of nowhere a delicious barbecue is conjured up. First though, we are released from our rollercoasters and run as one into Khor Al Adaid, the inland sea, swimming through cool, clean waters, in a paradise which has been described as 'one of only three places in the world where the desert meets the sea'.

Get there

Qatar Airways flies direct every day from Dublin to Doha, connecting Irish passengers to over 150 destinations throughout Asia, Australia, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The Qatar Airways Dublin-Doha route is serviced by a state-of-the-art Boeing 787 Dreamliner which brings luxury to the skies, employing new technologies that actually invigorate and promote health and comfort aboard. More info at www.qatarairways.com

* Transfers, tours and activities can be provided by Gulf Adventures. For further information please visit: www.gulf-adventures.com. For further information on InterContinental Doha please visit: www.intercontinental.com/doha. Overnight stays at The St Regis Doha start from €200 per night, on a bed and breakfast basis in a Superior Room, based on two sharing. For more information or reservations, visit www.stregisdoha.com or contact +974 4446 0000.

* Overnight stays at Mondrian Doha start from €235 per night, on a bed and breakfast basis at CUT Doha, in a standard room, based on two sharing. For more information or reservations, visit www.mondriandoha.com or contact +974 4045 5555.

* For more information on Qatar, visit the Qatar Tourism Authority website at www.visitqatar.qa

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