The recent fire at the Villagio shopping centre in Doha, Qatar has shocked and saddened people the world over. There's no making sense of tragedies such as this. Having just recently returned home from an unforgettable trip to this wonderful city, I was left speechless when I heard the news.
While I was visiting, I was told I simply had to visit the shopping mall, the city's largest, full of designer stores, a theme park and two ice hockey rinks. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit and now, seeing photos of the devastation following the fire on all the major news sites, I'm taken back in my mind to this city from which I knew not what to expect. My thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by this terrible tragedy.
Arriving in Doha, Qatar
I recently flew Qatar Airways to Doha, Qatar. My fiancé John (aka Johnny Jet) and I were on our way to India, but flying Qatar Airways gave us an excuse to stop in a city neither one of us had visited before. Sitting at the front of the bus as it were, in business class seats 1A and 1B, we settled in for the 12-hour flight from New York to Doha. I was jittery with excitement.
Established in 1993, Qatar Airways now has a fleet of more than 100 aircraft and services more than 100 international destinations from its headquarters in Doha. I had never flown with them before and was eager to check out their product and service. Business class passengers are treated to drinks and an amenity kit as soon as you take your seat. Warm towels to freshen up with, blankets and pillows all help to get you settled as you prepare for the long flight.
Landing at Doha International Airport, my blood really started pumping. Arriving in a new city always enthralls me. The airport is currently undergoing construction, so arriving passengers are shuttled from plane to gate. Inside the terminal, it's vast, bright and I saw countless employees available, at the ready to assist those arriving.
The lounge at Doha International Airport
John and I were connecting through Doha to Mumbai so we killed time in the enormous lounge. It's modern and impeccably clean, enveloped in floor-to-ceiling windows. There are two large food areas, offering both local and international dishes and the bathrooms, complete with shower facilities, are clean and modern. But my favourite part? The free WiFi.
After 12 hours without it, I was eager to get online and check in with friends and family to let them know I'd arrived safely. Since John and I were on our way to Mumbai, we didn't have a chance to leave the airport and explore Doha but on our return flight, we stayed for two nights before heading back home to North America.
Doha is the capital city of the state of Qatar and is also the state's largest city. Knowing very little about the city upon my arrival, I was blown away as we drove from the airport to our hotel, the W Doha. It's uber-modern. I guess I wasn't expecting that. The buildings comprising the skyline are unique and original and unlike anything I've ever seen before.
I felt like I'd just arrived in a city of the future. And that's just what Doha is destined to be. As the city prepares to host the World Cup in 2022, it's evident that they're preparing to make an impression. Skyscrapers soar to the heavens amidst the sand dunes of surrounding deserts. It's truly something to see. If you're planning to visit and are worried about the extreme temperatures -- which I was told could reach between 50 and 60 degrees Celsius in extreme conditions -- know that they generally average at about 38 degrees Celsius, if that's any consolation! The good news is that everywhere is air-conditioned -- even the outdoor bus shelters!
We checked into the W Doha and again, I was surprised by the ultra-modern design. The hotel has 441 rooms and restaurants by the famed Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The Bliss Spa is, well, blissful (and guests get Bliss bath and body products in their room), and the hotel is home to an active and exciting nightlife. There's a Teuscher Chocolates of Switzerland shop just off the marble lobby that's impossible to resist, and limousines are waiting out front to take guests wherever they want to go. But despite all the five-star service, my favorite "amenity" was probably Bertrand, our W Insider, or what I'd call a super concierge.
Dune bashing in Qatar
The next must-do, according to Bertrand: Dune bashing! I'd seen videos of dune bashing before and while I was intrigued, I was a little nervous. Once again, Bertrand to the rescue. Once he offered to accompany us, it turned into an excursion with friends ... and when his colleague Nadeche joined at the last minute, it turned into even more fun.
The tamer name for dune bashing is "desert safari" but make no mistake, to explore desert sand dunes, you must bash your way through them. Be prepared for a white-knuckled experience. Dune bashing is essentially off-roading through the desert in a jeep driven by a professional. Imagine yourself in a jeep at the top of a sand dune that's as high as a modest mountain peak. Your skilled driver revs into high gear (or whatever he does) and before you know it, you're sliding and swerving down the side of the dune, holding on for dear life in the back seat, laughing and screaming and ignoring the small voice in the back of your mind that's telling you that this is CRA-ZY. The experience is exhilarating and one you'll only be able to experience in few parts of the world.
Overall, my experience in Doha was unforgettable. The city's population, made up largely of ex-pats from all over the globe rather than locals, makes it an immensely international city. I'll never forget having lunch at the chic Jean-Georges restaurant Market, inside the W Doha. John and I were surrounded by groups of local Qatari women, wearing the customary abbayah, though none of the women had their faces covered, just their heads and bodies, down to their toes.
The women were lunching at the stylish restaurant with groups of girlfriends. While they were dressed in traditional clothing, what I could see, made me smile. All the women, without exception, had their faces done up with full makeup, making them look stunningly beautiful, like supermodels. Peeking out from beneath their long, black abbayahs, were designer shoes (Jimmy Choos, Manolo Blahniks and the tell-tale red soles of Louboutins). On their arms were oversized designer bags and as they laughed and ate lunch with their girlfriends, stopping to text (or tweet?) on their iPhones between bites, I marveled at how different and yet how very much the same we all are.