Travel: Qatar is the ideal winter destination

The beach at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Doha, Qatar. Picture: Contributed
The beach at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Doha, Qatar. Picture: Contributed
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ASK ANYONE to describe Qatar and the first thing they are likely to tell you is that it will hold the Fifa World Cup in eight years’ time.

The second is probably that it is the wealthiest country in the world. And the third, that it’s hot and sunny almost every day of the year.

Morning in Souq Waqif, Qatar. Picture: Contributed

Morning in Souq Waqif, Qatar. Picture: Contributed

The first two pieces of information are unlikely to sway your decision to visit, unless you have a habit of booking trips to the football nearly a decade in advance. But the third, well, let’s just say it ticks all the boxes for a dazzling winter sun getaway.

With direct flights from Edinburgh five times per week – set to increase to seven times a week from next May – with Qatar Airways, this tiny Gulf state is fast becoming a popular destination, with a host of souks, museums, restaurants and impressive hotels to draw in visitors.

Qatar Airways operates the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which is a highlight of the trip, and the six hour, 55 minute flight literally flies by.

Our travelling party of eight stepped off the Dreamliner to be greeted by a heady 36C at almost midnight. That day, our cheery Sri Lankan guide tells us, reached 48C and was regarded as “a scorcher”.

Fortunately, from November to March the mercury falls considerably and is typically a pleasant low to high twenties.

The capital Doha boasts a dramatic and ever-expanding skyline and, with Edinburgh flights arriving shortly after 11:30pm, it makes for a striking introduction.

Our first destination, the Grand Hyatt hotel, has a cavernous atrium and the feel of a palace, but the friendly staff of a guest house. Its bustling nightclub and terrace – located away from most rooms – give the hotel a vibrant feel, and many expats and Qataris come here for an evening out. Its renowned Jaula Spa, 400-metre private beach, and indoor and outdoor pools all offer a touch of luxury after a day out. A large imported German beer on the terrace costs around £8.

Doha itself is a city of straight, smooth roads, spotless shopping malls and pristine beaches. It’s a place where visitors can leave their wallet and sunglasses unattended, safe in the knowledge that crime is extremely low.

But the city has much more to offer than modernity. Look past the skyscrapers and the Pearl, the glamorous marina district, and immerse yourself in the hustle and bustle of the Souq Waqif by night.

Located in the heart of Doha and within walking distance of the Corniche, the waterfront promenade which runs for miles along Doha Bay, the souk is home to restaurants, shisha lounges and market stalls selling silks. High-carat gold – sold tax-free – is a big draw and is to be found in the upmarket stores on the edge of the souk.

Venturing on, one finds a warren of unending alleys, unplastered brick walls, and the air thick with spice. Huge sacks of nuts and dates line the narrow walkways, and children dash through the alleys playing games.

No visit to the souq would be complete without witnessing the prowess of impeccably trained falcons inside one of the bird shops off the main street. Hundreds of visitors pour into the store each night to watch the creatures swoop from post to post, a hood covering their eyes to aid concentration.

Falcons are so highly regarded by Qataris that many would rather spend their fortunes on birds than a luxury sports car, our guide tells us. Starting at a few thousand pounds, some of the finest specimens sell for up to £3 million.

By day, a stroll south along the Corniche takes you to the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by the American-Chinese architect IM Pei, regarded as the master of modern architecture.

Standing out from the shore at the southern end of Doha Bay, it offers impressive views of the high-rise skyline across the water. Inside are manuscripts, textiles, ceramics and other artefacts comprising a huge collection. Pei himself, now 97, came out of retirement and spent six months studying Islamic art before starting his designs.

A visit in late afternoon is recommended, as the museum’s terrace offers superb views of the sun dipping low over the city.

Come evening time in the illuminated capital, there is nothing better than a boat trip down the river. Junk-style crafts often found in the Far East come with kitchens on board, and our party enjoyed sitting on the top deck with a couscous Indian curry, watching the sunset.

If you are fortunate enough to be in Doha on a Friday, then clear your diary and head for the Doha Marriott. One of the city’s first international hotels, built in the 1970s, hundreds of expats flock to its legendary all-you-can-eat-and-drink brunches to celebrate the start of the weekend.

If Qatar has somewhat stricter rules on alcohol consumption than the United Arab Emirates – most Doha restaurants not attached to hotels are dry – then expats make up for it on Fridays.

If this all sounds rather indulgent then it’s probably time for a trip to the desert to see the real Qatar.

We visited Al Khor by minibus, a coastal town some 30 miles north of the capital, which is home to a bustling fishing trade. A little further on is the Zubara Fort. The fort itself was built in the 1930s, a time when Britain was protecting newly independent Qatar from sea attack, in return for oil access. The weakened Ottomans had pulled back from Qatar during the First World War, granting it some measure of independence.

On the way back to Doha, a spot of dune-bashing is thoroughly encouraged. For first-timers, this involves tearing through the desert at high speed and plummeting down sand dunes in Toyota Land Cruisers.

Before leaving Doha, a trip to the riverside Al Mourjan restaurant by moonlight is a must. The eaterie offers a plush air-conditioned interior but we opted to eat under the stars in the balmy evening heat, just a few hundred metres from the skyscrapers looming over the bay.

Al Mourjan has a hearty menu but it is best to allow the waiters to bring your party a selection of their most popular dishes, with couscous, curries, spiced vegetables, freshly made yoghurts, spicy sauces and cooling virgin mojitos all on offer.

After packing your bags for the homeward journey, a few hours in Hamad International Airport offers a chance to stock up on duty-free goods. We flew in on the day the airport opened, replacing the smaller Doha International, and by day three its restaurants, lounges and duty-free were in full swing.

Hamad International is the hub to the Far East and Australia for passengers travelling from Scotland, avoiding the need to use Heathrow. Except for a few teething problems – faulty gate screens gave us a testing half-mile dash through the huge airport to make our flight – it looks to be fast rivalling Dubai International.

All of this makes Qatar itself a jewel in the desert, and a gateway to an exotic world for Scots travellers.

Barrhead Travel has a five-night trip to Qatar from £1,139 per person. The price includes three nights at the Grand Hyatt Doha and two nights at the Doha Marriott, both on a B&B basis, and flights with Qatar Airways from Edinburgh to Doha. To book, tel: 0871 964 2124 or visit www.barrheadtravel.co.uk; www.qatartourism.gov.qa