Doha

Situated at the point where the Persian Gulf's blue waters meet the desert sands, Qatar's capital Doha offers a holiday alternative that is both surprising and spellbinding.

As our plane is descending to Doha Airport, I try to survey Qatar from on high despite the blinding sun - the Persian Gulf's azure waters, the corniche in the shape of a half crescent, and immediately beyond it the desert, stretching as far as the eye can see. Exhilarated by my arrival in a new country, I disembark immediately to explore Doha, the Middle East's popular new destination.

Meaning 'place where beautiful flowers grow and big trees offer shade' in Arabic, Doha is the capital city of Qatar, a peninsula that extends for 180 kilometers along the western shore of the Persian Gulf. With a small surface area of 11,427 sq km, Qatar is only 88 kilometers wide at its widest point. The country's border with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) totals 56 kilometers and its coastline approximately 560 kilometers.

THE MANHATTAN OF THE DESERT
The transformation of Al-Bida, a tiny town at the start of the 19th century, into the modern and magical city of Doha casts a spell over every visitor who arrives here. The investments in desert safaris, shopping malls, spots of natural beauty, museums and, especially, water and other sports described to me by the taxi driver on our way into the city center are clues that delight my ear. And when all these combine with Doha's stunning and luxurious architecture, it doesn't take me long to realize I am in a very unusual Arab country. Its skyline reminiscent of a Manhattan rising in the desert, Doha represents a cross-section of the future with its many skyscrapers, both existing and under construction. The building projects under way all over the place continue to go up as incontrovertible proof of how fast this city is developing.

HEART OF THE CITY
Even if you are indoors here where air conditioning reigns supreme, you can't forget the scorching heat outside. My first stop in this city the sun never wants to leave is the Corniche esplanade, which follows the Persian Gulf lined with palm trees from beginning to end. For a city so hot also to be so green is the first thing that makes an impression on every visitor to Doha. The Corniche, which attracts even bigger crowds at sunset, is also where the local people spend the most time. Picknickers and joggers, people just out for a chat, natives and tourists alike, in short everybody congregates here at the city's most popular spot.

NATIVE LIFE IN THE CITY
Taking the necessary precautions against the sun, I stroll the next day to the Perfume Bottle Monument. For here on this square stands the country's first National Museum, opened in 1975. Consisting of four separate buildings, the museum is a converted palace which exhibits the finest motifs of Arab architecture. Built in 1901 for Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al-Thani, the palace was opened to the public following a three-year renovation. Boasting a garden one might dub 'an oasis in the desert', the museum has a rather rich collection of everything from Qatar archaeological finds and artifacts of its maritime history to royal military decorations and re-creations of desert life.

I particularly recommend a visit to the section with re-created scenes of desert and Bedouin life prior to the discovery of oil. For the Qataris maintain their ties with their Bedouin traditions, and the men wear the traditional white robe known as the 'tob' while the women wear the black 'abaye'. Closed on Fridays, the museum is an ideal choice for those with time who want to experience the local culture.

RISING HIGHER BY THE DAY
Devoid of settlement up to the early 1800's, Qatar has the world's third largest natural gas reserves. A large fraction of today's population of 500,000 resides in the capital, most of it consisting of migrant workers from the South Asian countries in particular. Many people from Egypt and other North African countries as well as England, Norway and the U.S. have also chosen to live and work in Doha, which like its neighbor, the United Arab Emirate's Dubai, is growing rapidly as a result of oil and natural gas. The real estate sector in particular has now outstripped tourism in Doha, and housing and land prices are rising fast as skyscraper projects continue apace. Such projects pave the way to others like Lusail City, founded on the coast some 15 kilometers from the Doha city center. Another sector growing by leaps and bounds is construction in Doha where the city's skyline seems to change slightly from one day to the next.

MANMADE ISLANDS!
Construction projects in Doha are not confined to land but have spilled over into the sea as well. Taking its name, Pearl, from the topography, whose design has been conceived as a string of pearls, a 4 million-square- meter artificial island is shaping up by the day in the middle of the water. At the same time, the Doha Dubai Towers, Qatar's highest point at 437 meters, soar into the sky at the end of the Corniche. And Quatifya Lagoon, aka West Bay Lagoon, lies in the part of the city known as West Bay or the New District. Luxury hotels, private clubs and a trade center stand on this artificial lagoon, built on a 2-kilometer widening of the natural coastal strip. Immediately adjacent to the lagoon rises West Bay Lagoon Plaza, known as the world's biggest zig-zag tower, while on the north lies Lusail City, built from scratch and boasting marinas, accommodation for 200,000, commercial zones, picnic areas, luxury shopping malls, golf courses and entertainment centers.

SPORT CENTER OF THE MIDEAST
Doha is at the same time a city in demand for world-seale sports activities. A large number of complexes were built in the city during the 2006 run-up to the 15th Asian Games, one of the world's biggest sporting events. And the city, which hosted the 3rd West Asian Games in 2005, is looking forward to hosting the AFC Asian Cup in 2011.

THE MODERN AND THE EXOTIC
Hopping into a luxury, green 'karwa' taxi, on the driver's recommendation I first pay a visit to the open-air animal market, another of Doha's exotic venues and a sprawling expanse where I make the acquaintance of all the animals raised on the peninsula. From here I continue on to the Wind Tower, on the same road, and the Doha Fort, a cubical white structure built by the Ottomans in the 19th century.

Shuttling between the exotic and the modern, I decide to divide my remaining time in the city between its oldest and newest shopping centers. Rebuilt preserving its authentic atmosphere, the Souk Wakif is one of Doha's must-stop's, especially for the locals, a venue that exudes Middle Eastern mysticism in the fragrance of the spices wafting up from its shops. An attraction with tourists in particular, the Irani Souq, which also has restaurants in it; Villagio, with its canals and Venetian architectural elements; and the City Centre, one of the city's biggest and most luxurious shopping malls are a few of my other stops. After spending a couple days in the city, I realize that Doha is a place for which I need to set aside a lot more time. As I board the plane I keep thinking, “I'm going to see you again one day, Doha, and taste you to surfeit.”