Kiwis are an adventurous bunch and few will want to miss one of the great features of Doha – dune-bashing their way to the jaw-dropping, beautiful contrast of sand and sea that appears out of the desert like a mirage: Qatar's Inland Sea or Khor Al Adaid.
It is one of the few places in the world where desert meets the sea and has a unique history and appearance, accessed easily by first flying Qatar Airways to Doha.
Attractions like the Inland Sea, desert safaris, the magical Souq Waqif market plus iconic museums and shopping malls are helping Doha become a destination in its own right as well as a stepping stone to Europe, even ahead of its hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Qatar Airways has expanded its Mediterranean network, now operating new direct flights to places like Dubrovnik and Santorini from its hub at Hamad International Airport in Doha – and is also seeing Doha grow as a place to stay as well as pass through.
The Inland Sea is one reason – and the best way to experience it is with a tour (they start at about $130) and an experienced driver who has conquered the art of dashing through the desert in a 4WD vehicle. The skill of these drivers has to be seen to be believed – belting up huge dunes, skirting across the ridge tops and a thrilling descent down steep dune sides.
It takes about an hour to get to the Inland Sea from downtown Doha – and the contrast between the city's sleek skyscrapers, glittering cityscape and the starkness of the desert's ocean of sand is a must-see. Once in the desert, the drivers make a 4WD adventure on New Zealand's Ninety Mile Beach, for example, seem like a picnic – with some passengers reporting rides that seem like sand is up to the windows.
Visitors constantly relate the Inland Sea as a place of stark beauty and solitude, with little evidence of humans in a desolate landscape lit up by the blue of the sky and the unexpected splash of colour from the water. At 180 sq km, it is a mostly shallow basin connected to the Persian Gulf by a 10km channel which fills the 15kmx12km waterway with sea water.
It was once used by pirates to hide out from any pursuers from the Persian Gulf and is now an important UNESCO-recognised ecological zone. The wildlife includes Arabian gazelles, Arabian oryx, camels and birds like flamingos, cormorants, seagulls, terns, ospreys and waterfowl.
The marine life includes marine reptiles, crustaceans, molluscs, finless porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, humpback dolphins, Bryde's whales, fish, turtles and the endangered dugong species.
You can also find some archaeological and heritage sites – like small islands used in prehistoric times for fishing and farming, along with a rocky desert once inhabited by the Bedouins and their grazing animals.
If shopping is more your speed than shifting sands, Doha boasts some of the best malls in the world – like the established Villaggio and City Centre malls, to the newer Festival City and Mall of Qatar, plus the luxury on show in The Pearl-Qatar shopping district.
However, one attraction that almost every visitor to Doha instinctively heads for is the famed Souq Waqif. Its name means "standing market", so called because in its origins about 250 years ago, the traders would stand at the entrance to display their wares to potential customers.
There's a lot there of interest to kids, including donkey and other amusement rides, but many visitors simply lose themselves in the bustling alleys with vendors displaying art, handicrafts, heritage jewellery, clothing, incense and perfumes and food – with streets dedicated to dry fruits, spices and sweets like fresh Omani Halwa, as well as a range of restaurants and cafes with cuisines from all around the world.
Also check out the Falcon Souq, dedicated to the ancient art of falconry, where live birds and associated equipment are commonplace. The Souq Waqif is also the site of many festivals throughout the year like the Spring Festival, Flower Festival (February), Dates Festival and more*. It has become a cultural and entertainment hub in Qatar and, with the opening of Doha Metro, it is very easy to reach the Souq from any part of Qatar.
Other must-sees include the brand new National Museum of Qatar, modelled after the 'desert rose' crystal by French architect Jean Nouvel. It is the newest and most dramatic addition to the Doha landscape, dedicated to bringing to life the unique story of Qatar and its people.
The iconic Museum of Islamic Art, displaying both ancient and modern displays of artwork connected by Islam is also an essential visit. Designed by Pritzker prize-winning architect I. M. Pei, it contains an extensive collection of Islamic art spanning 1400 years of history across 3 continents.
It's all part of a trip to Doha where, in spite of the glamour, the city is extremely affordable. Qatar Airways can turn a transit into a wonderful stopover in Doha, where you can enjoy a luxurious holiday of up to four nights in a five-star hotel from just US$23 if you book by December 28 2020.
*Other festivals in Doha: Doha Jewellery & Watches Exhibition (February); Qatar International Food Festival (March) and Doha Design Week (March).
Experience Doha as a stepping stone to Europe and as an up-and-coming destination. Find out more at qatarairways.com.