Monday 22 October 2018

Qatar has direct flights from Dublin, but can it compete with Dubai and Abu Dhabi?

Fly direct to Doha

Doha, Qatar
Doha, Qatar
Doha's main souk
Inland Sea, Qatar
Thomas Breathnach

Thomas Breathnach

All eyes on you, Qatar. From World Cup 2022 to air-brushed diplomatic boycotts, the elusive Arabian micro-power isn't a nation to rest in the shade.

Today, that's more so than ever. New direct routes from Dublin to its capital, Doha, are wooing Irish travellers with an alternative stopover in the Gulf. Could Dubai and Abu Dhabi have competition? I wanted to find out.

Touching down in Doha on a fresh mid-winter's night, I'm instantly thrown into the mood by mild zephyrs ruffling through the date palms. En route to the city, effigies of ruling sovereign, Sheikh Tamim, are proudly festooned at every vantage, from the airport arrival halls to the downtown of ultra-modish Doha. At 37, Tamim is almost as young as the city's gleaming skyline. From the mesmeric Tornado Tower to the gherkin-like Burj Doha, it's hard to put a finger on the city's design brief, however. It's initially even trickier to find its pulse.

Of Doha's myriad luxury hotels, I check-into the city's brand new Mondrian, the fantastical work of Dutch design guru, Marcel Wanders. Inspired by the Gulf's strong falconry tradition, I arrive through a nest-wrapped facade into a fantastical monochrome lobby featuring enchanted orchards, giant gilded eggs (and a Magnolia bakery, of course). Upstairs, the largest ESPA spa in the world is topped off with a psychedelic rooftop pool worthy of a Beyoncé Vogue shoot. My panoramic suite, meanwhile, swathing in souk chic, is the ultimate urban oasis. Even for this travel pro, it's perhaps the most spellbinding hotel I've stayed in.

Qatar sure knows how to wow.

The next morning, following a heavenly continental breakfast in the hotel's Wolfgang Puck restaurant, my guide Jamal whisks me off to explore Doha. My first taste of local life comes at Katara Cultural Village (katara.net), a pristine beachfront settlement centred upon its magnificent mosque and amphitheatre. One of the few tourists around, I wander through its marbles and mosaics, in awe at the colours, the architecture and the haunting sense of history to it all.

Doha's main souk
Doha's main souk

When was it built? In 2010, I'm told.

That's Qatar, I soon learn. In 1960, just 50,000 people lived here. Since then, the country's pearl-to-oil boom has seen the population rocket towards three million. As a result, much of Doha feels like an abstract construction site, perhaps nowhere more so than billion-dollar la-la-land, The Pearl (thepearlqatar.com). Artificially forged onto the sea (much like Dubai's Palm Islands), the residential opus has added 32km to Qatar's coastline, creating dream villa developments for Doha's rich and famous - Janet Jackson, included. Beyond the cookie-cutter mansions, yacht-lined canal fronts are flanked with every luxe label from Ferrari to Roberto Cavalli. This is truly a next-generation Venice. Salaam, bling! Ciao ciao, soul.

For those seeking high street flavour, the new Mall of Qatar is the largest shopping centre in the country, featuring 500 stores and a high-spec epicentre stage, which draws top music acts from around the globe, I'm informed. It would be hard to imagine Janet Jackson busting out Rhythm Nation to the backdrop of a Tim Horton's food court... but this is Qatar. Truly anything could happen.

Amid all the futuristic flux, there are pockets of authenticity in Doha. The Museum of Islamic Art (mia.org.qa), resembling a niqab-veiled woman from afar, features mezzanines of beguiling exhibits - from magical Persian carpets to ancient Qur'an manuscripts. Doha's main souq also feels like the real deal. Its labyrinthine alleys may only date back a century, but there's a pirate's treasure trove feel to the place. The souk's cafés and shisha bars are also the best spots to mingle with native Qataris, a people outnumbered by expats and immigrants by 9:1.

Come sunset, Doha's vibrant dining scene comes to light. Just 2pc of Qatar's land is actually arable, so it's little surprise that global farm-to-fork trends are replaced by largely imported fare. That does mean a cosmopolitan cauldron of world cuisines, however - from Lebanese lunch-stops to Mongolian fine dining. My best meal comes at the Mondrian Hotel's Morimoto; a rose-gold Japanese sushi restaurant with mesmeric lantern installations and hamachi from heaven.

Beyond Doha's urban buzz, a Qatari stopover offers visitors a biodiverse bounty of natural havens. The country's north features the lush mangroves of Al Thakira, while the Ras Abrouq rock formations in the west make for eerie coasteering. Classic desert escapes are the most popular add-on, however, and I buckle up with a local outfitter (gulf-adventures.com; €80) to escape the city lights.

Parting Doha, we convoy south where mighty runway highways bisect a barren scape of Bedouin settlements and oil refineries. En route, scores of migrant workers line dusty road-sides, on their way to the country's latest building folly. Qatar may currently boast the world's highest per capita GDP, but witnessing such despondent sights, I couldn't help feeling that not everybody is enjoying the prosperity.

Around 60km later, we reach the pop-up industrial town of Mesaieed and the end of the road, literally. From here, salt pans and sand dunes occupy the nation as the desert folds down to Saudi Arabia and beyond. Our end station is Qatar's most impressive natural wonder, Khor Al Adaid, aka the Inland Sea (above). An actual inlet of the Persian Gulf, the UNESCO-recognised reserve is one of Earth's few spots where the sea encroaches deep into the desert.

It's also inaccessible by road, and our hefty Toyota Land Cruiser is about to become a dune basher. Roller-coasting through the sable, we speed over salt pans and scale the sands with the thumping base of Arabic pop adding to the reverb. Finally at the shores, I make a break for the sea and dive in to experience the highlight of my trip. Here, there are no grand designs, no touristy camel kitsch and no bling - just me and a deserted beach.

Qatar may prove unsettling at times, but it also delivers a sea of invigoration to lull any jetlag away. From A-list hotels to alluring wilds, it boasts enough USPs to match Dubai and Abu Dhabi... and beyond.

Inland Sea, Qatar
Inland Sea, Qatar

Travel Tip

Keep it Riyal! Qatar Airways & Qatar Tourism allow flyers to save euros/rial by availing of a free night's stay in Doha during a stopover. Check out the +Qatar option when booking on qatarairways.com.

Need to know

Thomas travelled as a guest of Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com), which flies from Dublin to Doha daily. Fares from €639 return. For onward flyers, there’s value with the airline’s longer-haul destinations; fares to Johannesburg start from €438 and Kuala Lumpur from €511 (return!). Irish visitors to Qatar can avail of a free 30-day visa-waiver upon arrival.

Staying there

The blissfully outlandish Mondrian Doha (mondriandoha.com) merits a Qatar stopover in its own right. Rooms start from €115pps, which includes breakfast in its mouth-watering restaurant CUT. Elsewhere in the city, rooms at the St Regis Doha (stregisdoha.com) start from €99 B&B, while katarahospitality.com offers a catalogue of Doha properties from €25pps.

For more info, see visitqatar.com.

Read more:

Free hotel in Doha? Qatar Airways is giving away luxury stopover stays to Irish passengers

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