A Qatar holiday with the family whisks travellers big and small away to a unique desert land offering everything from water sports and museums to camel rides and fancy restaurants on a real Middle Eastern taster experience, as Harriet Mallinson found out.
I have a strong suspicion I’m fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker. The pale sand, soft beneath my feet, stretches on and on, undulating towards the horizon where the giant egg yolk of a sun is slipping downwards as I look across the vast expanse of nothingness.
Admittedly, there are neither two moons nor am I soulfully contemplating my trapped existence, but Khor Al Adaid in southeast Qatar has many similarities to Luke’s fictional desert planet of Tatooine. The oil and gas refineries we drove past earlier, with flames burning atop tall towers, lend a dystopian feel to the landscape – if you squint it could almost be the Star Wars town of Mos Eisley.
Qatar activities: Uncover the thrills of the desert on a Qatar holiday
What’s more, the desert (an hour and a half drive south of capital Doha) has become our playground for the day after we joined a dune-bashing tour, soaking up the stunning scenery from the comfort of an air-conditioned car, tipping over the edge of dunes at seemingly improbable angles and driving down alarmingly vertiginous slopes. We even stop for a spot of sandboarding, which, while thrilling if you manage to master zooming downhill, requires Herculean efforts to climb back up. If only I could use the force.
The sense of existing in a science fiction universe continues after night falls and we cool off in the Arabian Sea. Not only is it marvellous to wade into water without fear of freezing, but the bioluminescence blooming around my swirling limbs is quite magical.
Best child-friendly activities on a Qatar holiday
To keep the kids’ happy with, shall we say, more modern pursuits, a Qatar family holiday has lots to offer – there’s Angry Birds World (with more than 20 elaborate rides based on the addictive game), trampolining hub BOUNCE, the vast and impressive amusement centre Doha Quest (boasting the world’s tallest indoor drop tower), Desert Falls Water & Adventure Parks (one of the biggest theme parks in the Middle East) plus gaming and virtual reality hotspots Hangout, Zero Latency and Virtuosity.
For an actual yet bizarre reality experience, there’s Snow Dunes – incredibly the theme park maintains a chilly temp of -4C complete with a winter wonderland of snow dunes, slides and rides (mercifully nothing like the Star Wars planet of Hoth).
Qatar watersports: Tackle the high seas at high speed
Cooling off is undeniably a sensation you regularly long for when staying in Qatar, especially when you’re pale, pasty and unused to temperatures above 30° like me. Luckily the water sport scene is enormous here, whether you fancy a high-speed adrenaline rush or a tranquil day out on the blue.
InterContinental Doha, the Diplomatic Club, Katara Beach and the Blue Pearl Experience all offer a range of sports, from windsurfing to waterskiing to parasailing. We base ourselves at the Grand Hyatt on the shoreline of Doha’s West Bay Lagoon district and opt for a thrilling doughnut ride (nothing like eating one and every bit like being repeatedly splashed in the face with salt water as you’re bumped up and down as the mercy of your speedboat driver – but actually surprisingly fun).
Hop on a jet ski here to really take in the coastline – you’ll see the metropolis of Lusail just north of Doha, home to the 80,000-seat Lusail Stadium (the largest of the purpose-built stadiums for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022). The waters are calm and open – perfect for zooming around at full tilt to the majestic backdrop of gleaming skyscrapers and the iconic crescent-shaped Katara Towers. Fun fact, the lobby at the luxury property, which represents intertwined scimitar swords, houses one of the world’s biggest chandeliers!
Explore the beauty of Qatar’s mangroves from a kayak
For something more low-key, and lower level, on your Qatar family holiday, try your hand at kayaking amid Qatar’s mangroves – one of the few plants endemic to the country. Drive just over an hour’s north of Doha and paddle along Al Thakhira’s waterways – the mangrove forest here is among Qatar’s oldest and largest.
Accompanied by a guide, you’ll learn about the ecology and environmental benefits of mangroves, plus you might spot herons, terns, egrets and colourful flamingos standing one-legged among the foliage. There’s also a stop at the Martian-like Purple Island – so-called due to its erstwhile role as the main site of the thriving purple dye industry from the 16th to the 11th century BC.
Relax on the beach or push yourself outside your comfort zone on your Qatar holiday
To enjoy a beachier vibe outside of the city and to fully immerse yourself in all things water sports, head to Fuwairit Kite Beach Resort near the northern tip of Qatar, an hour’s drive north of Doha.
The kite-surfing resort is super family-friendly and offers something for absolutely everyone. The range of activities is impressive; think stand-up paddleboarding, snorkelling, fishing, lift foiling and of course kite-surfing.
The warm, placid waters are crystal clear and the beach a dazzling white under the bold blue of the sky – in short, the perfect place for beginners and little ones to, forgive me, dip a toe into water sports. You can book one-to-one lessons or family sessions and the staff are all super friendly and fluent in English.
The hotel itself is nailing “cool” with its vibrant graffiti-style artwork, bean bags, an outdoor pool decorated with huge, colourful fish and lurid animal inflatables. Your teenagers won’t be short of social media fodder here, tots can make the most of beach toys or rubber rings and adults can laze on the vivid loungers. The Californian-inspired food is delicious as well.
Qatar food: Tuck into traditional Middle Eastern cuisine
For more traditional food on family holidays to Qatar, don’t miss Souq Wakif – home to some of the city’s best no-fuss local eateries. Positioned on the waterfront, the souq is Doha’s oldest marketplace and used to be a hub for trading goats, sheep and wool. However, the structure you see now is not the original (its theme park-like appearance and surprising cleanliness is the giveaway) but was carefully reconstructed using traditional techniques following disrepair and fire damage. These days the warren of lanes hosts a plethora of shops and stalls plying antiques, spices, jewellery, clothes, live animals (from birds to kittens) and of course, food.
Best restaurants in Doha no matter what your budget
Qatari cuisine is a blend of Middle Eastern, Persian, Indian and Bedouin influences and restaurants here have come on in leaps and bounds in the last 10 years. Mid-budget restaurant Damasca One serves some of Doha’s best Arabic food, offers views over Souq Wakif and comes with some very entertaining Syrian dancing if you time your dinner right. We tuck into the most delicious hummus, flat breads, salads and meats and practically have to be rolled home. Other hidden gems in Souq Wakif include kebab joint Shujaa, Moroccan restaurant Argan, Yemeni eatery Bandar Aden and Iranian diner Parisa Souq Waqif.
Elsewhere in Doha, Boho Social is a trendy, mid-price restaurant in Katara Cutural Village with excellent al fresco views, while holidaymakers after fine dining will relish Doha’s Nobu in the Four Seasons Hotel (it’s the largest in the world and offers divine sashimi) or Chinese restaurant Hakkasan Doha in The St. Regis Doha hotel – both in West Bay.
Qatar culture and history: Visit Doha’s museums for a deep dive into the past
To truly comprehend Qatar I heartily recommend visiting the National Museum of Qatar. Best done at the start of your holiday in Qatar to give you an overall understanding of the country, the museum is just brilliant for adults and children alike. The building itself is stunning; the striking interlocking discs intersecting around the walls of an old palace resemble a desert rose – a crystal formation seen in the Qatari desert indicating the presence of water underneath and a symbol of hope (perhaps a young Luke Skywalker could have done with one).
The architectural masterpiece, which opened in 2019, houses 8,000 objects telling the story of Qatar so make sure you allow yourselves plenty of time to explore! The museum takes you through the country’s history, natural wonders, politics and more through excellently laid out archaeological artefacts, vast immersive multimedia exhibitions and interactive activities.
The latter will undeniably thrill the kids and keep them engaged; use a microscope to inspect bugs, climb aboard a replica dhow, make pledges to the ocean and collect ‘pearls’ on a ‘pearl diving’ mission. Indeed the museum’s greatest highlight is the Pearl Carpet of Baroda which is embroidered with around 1.5 million Basra Pearls plus diamonds, sapphires, emeralds and rubies. High chance that prized John Lewis rug back home will feel pretty dull in comparison.
To get a taste of the pearling industry on Qatar family holidays, board a converted dhow boat and cruise around Doha Bay. You’ll bag all of the benefits of being out on the water – panoramic views, a traditional BBQ rustled up on deck, jumping off for a swim – and none of the dangers the pearl divers endured in times gone by. Imagine the stories these vessels could tell…
Uncover the fascinating secrets of the deadly pearl diving industry on a Qatar holiday
In the 19th century, pearl diving accounted for a huge 95 percent of the Gulf’s income, with roughly 80,000 men working on the pearling boats at the industry’s height in the early 20th century – that’s almost the entire male population of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar.
They would work for 30 minutes at a time, free diving for two minutes at intervals to collect as many as 20 oysters per dive. On average, the pearl divers performed 40 dives per day but some completed as many as 100! Unsurprisingly this led to a raft of health complications ranging from aneurysms, lung problems and blindness to deafness and skin cancer, not to mention the marine hazards they were up against – stingrays, jellyfish, sharks, barracuda and sawfish. Thank goodness for the discovery of oil, hey.
Educate all the family about the beauty of Islamic art throughout history
For culture kicks back on dry land and less, well, death, do visit the Museum of Islamic Art. From the outside, the magnificent building could easily serve as a villain’s lair in a James Bond film while inside the lobby is akin to a luxury hotel.
The museum’s contents are fascinating, too, and a great way to learn more about the importance of Islam’s role throughout history during your holiday in Qatar. Expect one of the finest collections of Islamic art in the world, including carpets (alas not magic ones), suits of armour, dazzling diamond necklaces, beautifully painted ceramics and elaborately carved doorways spanning more than a thousand years. A visit here also affords you a spectacular vista of West Bay’s skyscrapers which are fantastically illuminated at night.
Qatar hotels: Go high for glitz or opt for more authentic accommodation
If you want to live the high life amid these glittering towers on a holiday to Qatar then check out aforementioned hotels Four Seasons Hotel Doha and InterContinental Doha, which have private beaches, as well as The St. Regis Doha (there’s an Olympic-sized pool), the Sheraton Grand Doha Resort & Convention Hotel (the oldest hotel on the Doha coast) or The Ritz-Carlton which has five pools including a kids’ pool.
Also family-friendly are Grand Hyatt Doha Hotel and Villas, Kempinski Residences & Suites (both in West Bay), Radisson Blu Hotel Doha, Hilton Salwa Beach Resort & Villas, and Banana Island Resort Doha by Anantara.
Stay in the same hotel as the England World Cup team on your Qatar holiday
To indulge in a more authentic Qatari experience, however, there’s Souq Al Wakra Hotel Qatar by Tivoli, half an hour’s drive south of central Doha. The seafront, traditional hotel is situated in Al Wakrah souq and is made up of little, quiet courtyards, rather reminding me of images from my childhood Dorling Kindersley bible depicting life in the Holy Lands, or, dare I say it, Tatooine.
Fun fact, the England team are staying in this hotel during the World Cup (the WAGS are off on a cruise ship docked in Doha) so there’s every chance you could be in the same room Harry Kane once slept, which could definitely win you Brownie points with the kids.
Souq Al Wakra Hotel and the eateries around it are dry, I’ll warn you now, so there’s no chance of a beer in the sun here or a pre-dinner aperitif but there is an advantage to this that goes beyond the health of mum’s and dad’s livers.
Namely, the seafront row of restaurants adjoining the souq makes for a very family-friendly experience – no inebriated youths leering out of sambuca-soaked bars in the evening and whatnot. Instead, the promenade is filled with locals enjoying the cooler night time temperatures, tucking into food and soft drinks as kids run around, playing in the sand or on the beached boats.
Indeed Qatar as a whole is heavily focused on families and very safe – residents don’t even bother locking their cars or front doors! So if you’re after a more tranquil break, this could well appeal.
What’s more, a trip to Qatar doesn’t have to break the bank and can be perfectly tied in with a holiday further afield to, say, the Maldives or the Seychelles. Qatar Airways currently offers a pretty good stopover deal which sees travellers staying in Doha from £12pp per night for a four-star hotel and £17pp for a five-star hotel for a maximum of four nights – which is pretty much the right amount of time you’ll need here to get your Middle East fix.
I’ve got a good feeling about this.
Planning a family break to Qatar
How to get there
Qatar Airways flies seven times a day from London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports direct to Doha’s Hamad International Airport, and onwards to more than 140 destinations globally. Flight time to Doha is 6 hours 45 minutes. For further information and to book a flight, visit www.qatarairways.com.
Where to Stay
Family Traveller stayed at Souq Al Wakra Hotel Qatar by Tivoli.
For further information and to plan your visit to Qatar, head to www.visitqatar.com.