04 Oct 72 Hours in Doha
Being on the lookout for a great airfare to somewhere new, I was ecstatic after getting a notification of an inexpensive flight alert to South Africa from Philadelphia on Qatar Airways. It felt a bit like fate, especially after just talking at length to my close friend who had been raving about South Africa.
As part of the offer, it allowed a free stopover in Doha, Qatar (Qatar Airways hub, naturally) with seemingly no limitations on layover length. I decided to stay 3 nights and enjoy some beach time and Middle Eastern food and culture before my onward journey to Johannesburg.
I had never had any interest in going to Doha, but I couldn’t resist a few days in a new land and a new country to add to my roster. So the big questions and curiosities I wanted to answer were what would this city be like? Would it be images of Arabian nights, would it feel like the extravagance of Dubai, and would the controversies around the cities that amount to essentially modern day slavery of its immigrants appear to hold true?
I had a relatively pleasant flight from Philadelphia to Doha, despite an eye popping 12 and a half hour journey, landing in Doha in late afternoon on a steamy September day.
The weather was definitely not what I had expected. I had imagined balmy temperatures of 100 degrees which there was (this is the Arabian peninsula after all), but a dry heat, on par with Palm Springs or Las Vegas. Little did I know that sweltering humidity would par for the course in the area. It felt more like New Orleans, in which I had just visited a few weeks prior over Labor Day weekend, but only hotter.
The Grand Hyatt hotel was lovely, a very large 5 star resort hotel located on the city’s north side West Bay Lagoon area and across the bay from the Pearl Qatar, an artificial island and luxury development of homes, dining, and nightlife. The location was a bit of a ways from the city center, but I found out Ubers were plentiful and cheap. My Uber ride from the airport to my hotel was nearly 45 minutes long and spanned the full length of the city and rang in at around $12. Trips to the city center were about half of this price.
I took advantage of a hotel promotion going on (buy 2 nights, get your third night free) at the Hyatt. I get the impression that this promotion is a direct reflection of how much time people spend here in Doha The total for 3 days came in at just over $400. While not cheap, it was certainly a bargain for the amenities received. Due to my mid-tier status (Explorist) as a World of Hyatt member, I had received 4 free club upgrades. I redeemed my club upgrade for this hotel, reading about the quality of the club lounge here.
For those of you that don’t know, a hotel lounge is a generally an exclusive social space reserved for guests in the most expensive rooms and, in my case, top-tier (or mid-tier) members of the hotel’s loyalty program. My World of Hyatt credit card helped me get there. In this case, it meant free breakfast daily, snacks and soft drinks throughout the day, and canapes and appetizers at night along with free alcoholic drinks from 6 to 8 PM. Given the cost of alcohol in Doha (around $13 per beer!) I knew this would be a great value. Costs in general in Doha are relatively high.
I spent a good amount of time at the hotel during my trip, nursing my jet lag, getting some work done, and enjoying my club lounge benefits. There was a private beach here, along with a brand new beach lounge and bar called the Monkey Tale. It was a very lovely beach, and the lounge was great while DJs played electronic beats that were perfect for the vibe and surroundings.
Neither the beach nor the beach club were ever very busy during my stay, despite the Monkey Tale being recommended by multiple locals. Maybe this was due to the heat which may have been too much for even them. I must say, the outdoor pools and beach were so warm that even I didn’t last very long there myself. The water temperature in the bay felt more like a child’s bath, so it gave little respite from the heat. I eventually made my way into the indoor pool and spa area with jacuzzi, various saunas, and steam room (which were lovely).
I have only had the privilege to enjoy several hotel club lounges, but this one was definitely the best I have been to. Breakfast had a large and ample selection with a variety of hot dishes (American and Middle Eastern breakfast staples) available on order. What really set apart this club lounge was its evening offerings. While lounges don’t serve dinner but a variety of canapes and hor d’oeuvres, the offerings here very much felt like a full dinner spread. The variety changed daily, and there was definitely a Thai influence to many of the offerings which I believe probably stemmed from the in-house Thai restaurant at the hotel. The drink offerings were a huge bonus, taking the sting out of high priced drinks at the hotel. Alcohol in general in Doha is only available at hotels, making the cost generally exorbitant for adult beverages. I may have filled an empty water bottle with some vodka at the lounge, whoops!
I did take some time to venture out in the city. After some research, I was most excited to check out the Museum of Islamic Art, a lovely architectural gem on the port of Doha showcasing ancient art and artifacts on Islam and Arabic history dating over 1400 years. The artifacts, spread out over 3 floors, were unique and made a great way to spend a few hours. Take time to enjoy the views from the terrace and foyer out on the bay as well.
I took some time to walk along the Corniche promenade, where you will find the city’s infamous Dhow boats ready to take out locals and tourists alike for a quick tour of the bay. I talked to the tour operators who seem to take out their boats as soon as they have enough people. They all appear pretty similar, and they tend to have musical entertainment for the length of the journey. This was definitely the highlight of my day. I noticed that all of the partakers on pretty much all of the boats appeared to be of South Asian descent. This was confirmed by the boat operator on my boat who was Indian, and a part of the massive community of immigrants in Doha. These immigrants, controversially, are often subjected to intense and harsh working conditions. They often work 6 or 7 days per week for 12 hours per day and are paid next to nothing and have few rights. Held in Doha, many athletes had to pull out of the race due to the extremes of heat and humidity which caused scenes of chaos after multiple athletes collapsed in distress. This event was recently highlighted by several organizations who pointed out the conditions the immigrant communities faced on a daily basis, with fewer rights or resources than the participating athletes.
The Dhow boat tour was one of the highlights of my short time in Doha. I had a great time dancing to Indian music with locals on the boat, relishing the fact that I appeared to be the only tourist on any of the boats I had seen. We made our way out past the Museum of Islamic Art and took a quick tour of the bay before making our way back. It was $5 well spent, and it felt perfectly safe for tourists. It wasn’t easy to communicate with many of the locals on the boat, but their warmth and hospitality were apparent and made it a memorable experience.
Another must see attraction is the Souq Waqif in Doha. One could spend hours wandering this massive local marketplace, which somehow seems to be one of the few areas of Doha that preserves its historical and old-world charm. Over a century old, it is a shopping haven, with countless vendors selling traditional handicrafts, souvenirs, clothing, spices, and just about anything else you can think of. In addition, there are dozens of restaurants and shisha lounges in the area. I highly recommend Al Jasra, a restaurant with local Qatari food, Not only was the food delicious and homemade, but the owner and her mother who run the establishment are lovely and incredibly hospitable. Be sure to try a shisha in some of the delicious local flavors while you are in town as well while enjoying coffee or tea on a lazy afternoon, a favorite pastime of the locals. Don’t go to Marrakech Restaurant, where I went for a shisha near the hotel which was massively overpriced and generally terrible (they didn’t even have toilet paper!).
Doha was certainly an interesting destination to visit. One of the locals described it as a place that tries haphazardly to both be ultramodern and inviting to Westerners while maintaining a fiercely traditional Muslim society, and I feel that was a great way to sum up the city. Without a doubt, it’s far from being a haven for LGBTQ visitors, although I don’t think it felt hostile either. In general, I think the city maintains a wariness to Western life overall, which is fascinating for a place trying so desperately to be modern and attract tourists and expats from all over the world. In addition, the harsh working conditions for the thousands of immigrants that Doha calls home are readily visible and apparent as well. It definitely will stand out as one of the most unusual places I have ever visited.
Overall, it still wouldn’t be on my list as an independent trip, but it makes a solid and intriguing option to break up a long and strenuous layover if you find yourself on Qatar Airways, which I also recommend for its great prices and excellent service. The Grand Hyatt was an amazing place to stay, especially by combining it with free club lounge access and taking advantage of a double points promotion. I earned nearly 5000 points on this booking overall, almost enough for a category 1 hotel stay, plus another 1600 points I will earn on my Hyatt credit card statement.