The World Cup football fever for this year has barely ebbed while hectic preparations are underway in another part of the globe for the next meet four years from now. Qatar, which hosts the world’s biggest sporting event in 2022, is pulling out all stops to ensure that the 22nd edition of the most-watched sporting event is a resounding success despite the economic blockade imposed on the country.
A group of visiting Indian journalists got a glimpse of what the peninsular Arabian Gulf nation has to offer. With construction work, in preparation for the World Cup 2022, underway all across the country, Qatar still manages to fete its visitors with an array of places of tourist interest. Its skyline defined by towering skyscrapers and with an excellent network of roads and highways, the country has at the same time managed to preserve its ancient heritage.
What also confronted us was the modern outlook of its people. Stories of a traditional Islamic state were busted when we encountered casually dressed Qataris. Yes, several women wore the abaya and almost all covered their heads with hijab. Yet, there was a sense of freedom that set one at ease. And no, as visitors we were not forced to conform to local tradition.
World Cup fan
We got a taste of what to expect when Qatar hosts the next World Cup four years from now. Right from the airport, as we drove down to our hotel, the St Regis Doha, there were signs of the nation’s passion for football. Apart from the construction work, that gave the place an appearance of being churned up or getting a complete overhaul, many facilities are already in place for a football fan.
Starting from the airport, the country’s variety of fan zones promise visitors an immersive football experience at different venues across Qatar. Hamad International Airport (HIA), Khalifa International Stadium, Ali Bin Hamad Al Attiyah Arena, Katara Cultural Village, as well as malls and hotels have been transformed into fan zones, seeking to evoke an atmosphere of the sporting event.
According to official information, right up to the final day of the FIFA World Cup, Qatar will be abuzz with activities to accompany the live screenings such as football freestylers, football jugglers and impromptu football matches.
Comfort meets elegance
Checking into St Regis Doha after an early morning Qatar Airways flight, we were led directly for breakfast. A sumptuous spread met us and we were spoilt for choice. Catering to different tastes, from a “picky” eater to those who enjoyed a hearty breakfast, we took a couple of rounds of the buffet spread before settling for whatever each of us felt like having.
Moving into our rooms we found a welcome tray made up completely of chocolates. Though they were meant to be eaten, I did not have the heart to move even a single piece. The rooms were comfortable and well-equipped. A luxury hotel, St Regis presents an amazing view of the Arabian Gulf or Pearl Island. Housing 338 rooms, including 58 suites, the sprawling property oozed luxury.
Taking a tour of the hotel, we were fascinated by the spa complex and promised ourselves a visit. We did keep our promise the next day and splashed around in the huge Jacuzzi pool. The outdoor swimming pool was the other attraction, its cool blue waters inviting us from the warm sun.
The Katara Cultural Village, which was first on our itinerary, was a pleasant getaway that showcased traditional architecture. Built along the lines of heritage buildings, the place gave a glimpse of what a traditional village or township, including a functional mosque, looked like. With a waterfront area, an impressive amphitheatre, museum and convention centre along with shops and top class restaurants, visitors have much to enjoy here.
We headed to The Mamig restaurant for lunch and had our first taste of Qatari hospitality. Offering authentic Lebanese and Armenian cuisine, the charming restaurant had a unique décor. Greeted by cheering members of the staff, we were escorted upstairs to the restaurant that was literally open to nature. With huge picture windows on two sides, the interior also sported exotic plants and birds.
After a leisurely lunch that left us spoilt for choice we headed for a desert safari. Enroute, we stopped for “karak chai”. Run by Indians, the drive-in eatery served the familiar sweet strong chai accompanied by “roti”, which was more like the layered Malabar parantha.
We were picked by a set of 4×4 SUVs and driven to the fascinating sand dunes. Air was let out of the tyres before we embarked on a fun-filled evening of dune bashing. Our driver, who was well conversant with Hindi and was fond of Bollywood music, kept us entertained as he scaled the dunes at impossible angles and gradients.
It was a tired but merry group that wended its way back to the hotel. The next day took us on a leisure tour of The Pearl-Qatar. One of Doha’s premier shopping districts, The Pearl-Qatar’s Mediterranean-style marinas are lined with stylish cafes, restaurants and elegant boutiques featuring many of the world’s top luxury brands. The place, with its relaxed atmosphere, is also a waterfront project of residential apartments and villas.
Later, we left for the Al Thakira mangroves for a thrilling spell of kayaking. Moving through some strong currents, we ventured into a network of waterways created by the lush mangroves.
Dinner that night was a royal affair at the Ritz Carlton. A tour of the hotel revealed a luxury that took care of every need of its guests. Set on its own private island, the Ritz Carlton towers over the Persian Gulf, with some amazing views all around. The opulant suites nevertheless left our group with a warm feeling of welcome. Dinner was a relaxed affair as a mix of Continental and Arabic food left us feeling satiated yet craving for more.
Back in time
The next day, after a quick tour of the Educational City, where all the international universities had set up study centres, and the Mathaf Museum, we were in for a fascinating time at the Souq Waqif. Translating to “standing market” this is Doha’s oldest souq, with an array of shops selling a variety of goods. The place has nine hotels. We were conducted through the labyrinth of old architecture, moving from perfume store to pearl shop and clothes retailer. We ended up at the Falcon Hospital, the largest in the world, and later at a falconry, where buyers come from countries as far away as China, Russia and Kazhakistan. The high point of the visit was being allowed to hold a falcon on one’s forearm.
Dinner at the Souq was hosted by Tivoli, where we were treated to a multicuisine, though largely comprising Arabic food.
On the final day we visited the Museum of Islamic Art before leaving for Banana Island. This resort is set over a crescent of golden beach and over water villas. Accessible by a private catamaran, the resort is a family getaway, catering to all ages. A luxurious lunch later, we stopped at a golf course run by an Australian couple. Anticipating a rush before the 2022 World Cup, the golf course is gearing itself to offer the best there is.
All too soon it was time to make our way to the airport. As the plane took off, a huge part of us was left behind in the Gulf nation that is truly a pearl in the ocean.