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A funny thing happened on the way home from a vacation with friends in amazing Armenia: We stopped over in Doha, Qatar’s burgeoning capital and hub city for Qatar Airways. We chose the airline because it was cost-friendly ($852 roundtrip) and offered fairly reasonable connecting times to Yerevan, our final destination.

When booking, we discovered Stopover Qatar, a program welcoming passengers to stay for one to four nights with accommodations in a mostly international brands choice of a dozen four-star properties, another dozen in five-star. The lead price for a single night is $23 for one or two persons staying in a four-star hotel; we booked three nights in a five-star hotel at a total cost of $160 per room.

Discover Qatar, the airline’s DMC partner, can make this stopover really happen, adding on request and at additional cost: airport transfers and city tours; sunset cruises or desert safaris; and reservations for dinner or the camel-races. Take a look at the highlights of our surprisingly fascinating stay in a very small, very rich, quite conservative country, isolated by its neighbors while warmly welcoming the world, working creatively and nonstop to build a viable, secure nation.

The Cultural Hotspot
Souq Waqif, a 100-year-old marketplace, is a vast emporium of commerce and tradition. Its labyrinth of well-lit alleyways is lined with shops and stalls trading in spices, incense, traditional clothes, jewelry, handicrafts and pet stores. Near the live-bird quarter, pearls are sold by Pahlwan, the country’s oldest pearl diver; treasured falcons are looked after in a hotel-like hospital; and camels graze around the base of the Doha Fort. In a newly upscaled Gold Souk, all that glitters in dozens of shops is indeed pure gold, while nearby the big buys are carpets and kilims gathered from Turkey to the Orient. And liberally scattered about Souq Waqif are restaurants serving Iranian and Turkish cuisine, as well as shisha cafes where locals gather for sweet Karak tea and a fragrant shisha-pipe smoke.

Doha
Nouvel Museum (photo by Abby Hunt).

A Serious Art Scene
Our stopover coincided with the opening of the truly remarkable—inside and out—National Museum of Qatar, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel. Shaped like a desert rose, this totally engaging, $435 million state-of-the-art museum explores Qatari heritage from pre-historic to present day. Equally compelling and sited right over the Persian Gulf is the Museum of Islamic Art, an architectural landmark created by I.M. Pei, with three floors of marvelously curated displays of ceramics, glass, textiles, carpets, and antique manuscripts. The museum restaurant IDAM by Alain Ducasse stars some of Doha’s finest dining, And then there’s the 15,000-artifact collection in Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassin Al Thani Museum…well next time.

A Desert Dash and a Dhow Cruise
Hire a 4×4 vehicle for a day-long dash to the desert. We drove west to Zekreet, a desert peninsula, where: Richard Serra’s famous East-West, West-East sculpture stands majestic and alone among the dunes; a nature reserve shelters such wildlife as oryx and ostriches; and an abandoned film set of a Qatari village is a blast to explore. Going south from Doha, we did a bit of dune-bashing, camel riding and dined deliciously on the sand by the sea at Regency Sealine Camp, offering overnight guests luxury accommodations in handsomely furnished, air-conditioned safari tents.

The cool way to enjoy Doha is to board a dhow, a traditional wooden Arabic sailing boat, cruising the harbor after sunset, breaking for dinner at a waterside restaurant, and never out of sight of the sparkling illuminated skyline.

Doha
Room at Najd Boutique Hotel (photo by Carla Hunt).

Staying in the Souq
Tradition meets luxury in the collection of Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels by Tivoli, nine of them, occupying restored mansions in which to treat travelers to a stay in the old town’s historic heart. We drew the newest hotel, the 14-room/3-suite Najd Boutique Hotel, whose grand public spaces, bathed in natural sunlight, are superbly appointed with majestic arches and chandeliers, sitting areas adorned in traditional textiles and carpets covering tiled floors, and wondrous installations of colored glass and ceramic artworks. Rooms are large, comfortable, with an appealing modernism decor, good lounge areas, and all luxury amenities; suites have both shower and jacuzzi-style tub. Always at the ready is a golf cart that buzzes through the alleyways, delivering guests to the 17-room/15-suite Al Bidda Hotel for lavish buffet breakfast, or to dine royally and rooftop at the Al Matbakh restaurant at the 13-room/6-suite Arumaila Boutique Hotel.

Clients who haven’t the time for a stopover stay in visa-free Qatar, but have a half-day layover, can at least say hello on a Doha City Tour, compliments of the airline. And of course, you can just hang out at Hamad International, one of those airports that is a destination unto itself, with a choice of more than 100 restaurants and shops spread about a handsome art-filled setting. Qatar Airways’ economy passengers can purchase entry to its Al Mourjan business lounge, a 2.47-acre marble oasis, embracing a garden resort area, a variety of dining options, free WiFi everywhere, showers with luxury amenities, quick-nap enclosures, and a children’s nursery. Reserved for first class passengers only is the Al Safina lounge, embellished with a cinematic media room, the Qspa with nine treatment rooms and jacuzzi, a grand waterfall, and art installations on loan from the Museum of Islamic Art.

For more information on the destination, visit visitqatar.qa. For more information on Qatar Airways, visit qatarairways.com. For information on the local DMC, e-mail dqinfo@qatarairways.com.qa. For more information on Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels by Tivoli, visit tivolihotels.com/en.