Finally I was heading to the other boot! Most of my life, both feet have been firmly planted in Italy, but, at the end of last year, I was given the opportunity to try on the other boot for the first time – the Arabian Peninsula.
Three nights in Doha was the top prize at a blogger event I attended and, lo and behold, I was the winner, all thanks to the generosity of Qatar Airways and the Qatar Tourism Board. Running through Abu Dhabi and Dubai airports heading to Bangkok or the Seychelles totalled my experience in this part of the world. This time, I would be stopping to smell the camels.
Tiny Qatar, with only three million people, is the richest country in the world with oil and natural gas keeping it top of that list. Still, 1.5 million of those are expats and live in Doha, so the city is filled with restaurants and shops catering to all tastes. Of course, this tiny peninsula in the Persian Gulf will be holding the FIFA World Cup 2022, so there is much construction all over the city and the country.
The A380 is always fun to fly, but while settling in my huge seat in Qatar Airways’ Business Class, when they handed the founder of Best Sips Worldwide a cocktail menu and pointed me toward the bar, I knew we just weren’t going to be on the plane long enough.
They’ve won a slew of SkytraX World Airline Awards including World’s Best Business Class, Best Business Class Airline Lounge and the Best Airline Staff Service in the Middle East. As the flight attendant was stirring a mojito, I didn’t have to ask why. The Arabian Breakfast, chaser to the mojito, began the journey to the East, the wines first rate and the movie selection endless. Six hours was too little to spend on this flight.
Home for the three days was the Westin Doha. Less than a year old and a bed as comfy as mine at home, with a seriously fantastic spa, the Westin welcomed me, as if I were a member of the family.
The Qatar Tourism Board had put together a smashing first day – how did they know I was longing to see sand? I convinced my guide that I was extremely happy with very tame Sand Dune Bashing, as dropping from great heights is not my forte. Making him stop several times, to just look out and stare at the endless yellows and listen to the silence, made him a little perplexed, but he understood it was my first time seeing a desert. (He had never seen snow, so we were even!)
I made my guide brake as soon as I saw the sea. I just had to dip my feet in the Persian Gulf. He attempted to stop me, claiming the water was very cold at this time of the year. Needless to say, it was warmer than the Med in August.
A drive back through the Doha financial center, famous for its picture postcard backdrop, for an extremely informative cooking lesson with Executive Chef Talal Aridi at the Intercontinental Doha.
Using spices common to the cuisine of the Middle East to rustle up a taster of Moroccan, Lebanese, and Indian with the chef, I realised my desire to try local cuisine was never going to be fulfilled. The Chef made it very clear that the only way that was going to happen was if I were invited to someone’s house. When Qatari’s dine out, they want the exotic, not home cooking. It kind of makes sense, but can be super frustrating for those of us eager to taste a country, as well as see a country.
The closest I got to tasting Doha was sipping the omnipresent Lemon-Mint quaff on every menu, the best example of lemonade I have had outside of Cyprus. Chef Aridi said that new local chefs do use as many local products as they can, and there has been talk of creating a Qatari themed in town, but only because tourists keep asking for it! So lunch was Greek – which the Cypriot found amusing.
Dinner was Chinese at the new Shanghai Club in the Shangri-La Hotel: great food and killer cocktails with a view over the whole city.
If there is one reason to go to Doha, it’s the IM PEI designed Museum of Islamic Art, holding one of the most beautiful collections I have ever seen. Not only is the building a wonder, but, the manner in which the art is displayed, in my opinion, equalled the Bardo Museum in Tunis and the Archaeological Museum in Athens.
I.M Pei has put couch-potatoes of all ages to shame, when, at the age of 91, he could have put on cashmere slippers and padded around the house. Instead, he came out of retirement to take on new project.
A very short clip of what the museum’s huge windows saw in the distance.
Spending six months of his own time traveling throughout the Muslim world for inspiration, he went on to create this masterpiece as his last work.
Set on its own island on the street they call the Corniche (reminiscent of Cannes’ Croisette), its presence cannot be underestimated and has influenced other Arabian countries to create “celebrity” architect-driven museums in their own countries.
We set out for a wander around the Pearl, an artificial island housing over 45,000 people, the most famous resident being LaToya Jackson, passing the über-masculine Jean Nouvel designed tower on the way.
As well as apartments, the island is home to every luxury brand found on the great shopping streets of the world, with even a Ladurée for those Parisian macaroon cravings.
From there, a completely different and slightly more authentic shopping experience was to be had. Souq Wasif cannot be missed, if only to try Arabic coffee. Although it looks spanking new, it actually has been there for over 100 years, but has since been restored.
Like other souqs I have been to, if you spend time to ramble through its winding alleys, you’ll discover local finds amongst the tourist tat. My favorite was the toy boat seller above, making everything by hand.
The Falcon Souq is a mini-souq-within-the-souq where falcons are bought and sold as playthings. A special Falcon Hospital also sits within the falcon souq for falcons who are not so lucky.
After a wonderful Lebanese feast, (stopped asking about local cuisine and went with the Middle Eastern theme) in one of many restaurants and coffee bars in the souq, I settled down to try Arabic coffee which, bear in mind, tastes nothing like coffee. Tasting much more like chai tea, which I drink for breakfast, I was hooked.
I even went to a second place, Al Ennah, in a lovely square in the quiet souq, to rest my feet. Although they were smarting from always too much walking, I knew that once back in London, I’d want to hop on a plane again to wear this boot again.
Thanks so much to Qatar Airways & the Qatar Tourism Authority for all the effort they put into making this journey unforgettable. Also a short thanks to Chef Theo Randall who selected me to win the prize after tasting my interpretation of one of his dishes!
Qatar Airways flies from London Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh to Doha with return fares starting from £557 in Economy Class and £3,496 in Business Class. Business Class is the way to go! To book go to www.qatarairways.com or call 0333 320 2454, For more information on Qatar: www.visitQatar.qa