Saturday, March 29, 2014

Doha Hotels -- Where to Stay in Doha/Qatar

As an extension to my posts “What to Do in Qatar" and “Where to Eat in Qatar” I figured I'd do a post about trying to figure out a hotel to stay in. If you're not familiar with the city it can be a tough decision as you don't really have a sense of where things are or how close they might be.

Before we begin I will note that I have never actually stayed in almost any of these hotels (why would I stay in any of them -- I live here). These recommendations are based on whether the hotels might be suitable for what you need. Before you book you should also look at a review website like tripadvisor or to see what travelers had to say about their stays at individual hotels.

With that out of the way, let’s begin with a key consideration when choosing a hotel:

Location, location, location.

As the city Doha is pretty spread out, and with no metro or significant public transport system, the traffic can be pretty bad throughout the day. If you're coming to Doha on business it could save you a lot of hassle to book a hotel that would be close to your meetings. If your meetings are in the West Bay neighborhood stay at a hotel in West Bay, if they’re elsewhere in the city then book a hotel close to there. It can save you a lot of grief in the long run. Otherwise you could be looking at up to an hour or more commuting to your meetings depending on how far away you are.

And don't think you can just step out of the hotel onto the street and flag down a taxi, if it's rush hour you’re really taking your chances that you'll get one quickly. It could take more than an hour depending on where you are, no I’m not kidding. Both the morning and afternoon rush hours are the busiest time for taxis and I've known some people to book them two days in advance. Thus you'll be stuck having to use a hotel car at an exorbitant price. You may want to consider renting a car when you arrive at the airport, a small car could cost as little as 130-170 QAR a day, at some five-star hotels you could be charged that much for just one trip from their “limousine” services.

During the months of May to October the weather will likely be incredibly hot and humid, making even a 10-minute walk outside an ordeal. Having transportation lined up during these months will be especially crucial.

Another solution would be before you arrive in Doha to ask the company(-ies) that you are meeting if they have a driver who could pick you up from your hotel. Most companies do so maybe you could get transportation to your meetings that way.

By the way, not every hotel has alcohol

Only some of the hotels are licensed to serve alcohol, mostly five-star hotels. If having a drink is important to you then do some research in advance to see if the hotel is licensed to serve alcohol. There are a few four-star hotels with a license (but not many) and not all five-star hotels are licensed, so don't assume a five-star hotel will automatically have alcohol.

By law all hotel bars must scan your passport for you to be allowed entry (or Qatar ID if you live here). No passport, no entry, even if you are staying at the hotel. Picture ID like a driver’s license is not good enough, it has to be your passport. Some hotels might be stricter about this than others but that's the law.

So it turns out my meetings are in an area called West Bay, any recommendations?

There are plenty of hotels in that neighborhood, mostly five-star. The Four-Seasons, Hilton, Intercontinental (the City), W, Moevenpick, and Mariott Marquis are just some of them. You shouldn't have trouble finding something. Just a word of caution there are two Intercontinentals, two Mariotts and two Moevenpicks in Doha so just make sure you've got the right one.

What about if my meetings are in an area called Lusail / the Pearl / Katara?

Those are a bit north of West Bay and while staying in West Bay might be all right you could also stay at some hotels closer to the area: Ritz-Carleton, Intercontinental (the other one), St. Regis or the Grand Hyatt are all closer.

What about if my meetings are in an area called Aspire / Education City?

I think there's only two realistic options for hotels near those areas: the Torch or the Grand Heritage.

What about if my meetings are in an area called Ras Laffan / Al Khor / Wakra / Mesaieed?

Those places are not in Doha. Get hotel recommendations from whomever you are meeting with and ask if they can pick you up from the hotel. You still might be staying in a hotel in Doha, just with a bit more of a commute to your meetings.

I'm going to be in Doha on business for more than a week so I wouldn't mind staying somewhere with some variety for dining.

First see above about “location, location, location”

Otherwise a good hotel would be the Radisson Blu, which has something like nine different restaurants and five bars, and is on a busy intersection by what many here call “Cholesterol Alley” where there are tons of nearby fast food places, cafés and other restaurants.

Staying at the hotels in or near Souq Waqif would also provide you with dozens of dining options, but there are no bars in the Souq and I think only a couple of hotels nearby have them.

West Bay hotels might also be an option if they are close to City Centre Mall as there are plenty of places to eat there. The W is close and the Mariott Marquis is attached to the mall.

Also consider the Torch hotel as it is attached to Villagio Mall, but it also has no options for bars.

The Grand Hyatt has, I think, four restaurants and is across the street from a moderate sized mall called Lagoona where you can go for cheaper options.

I'm traveling with my spouse/family and they prefer sitting by a pool and/or beach.

Only the resort hotels on the shore have beaches but there are many to choose from: Ritz, Grand Hyatt, St. Regis, Intercontinental, Hilton, Four Seasons, the Sharq and the Marriot resort. They tend to also have the best pools (but it varies, view pictures from their websites before booking).

Be warned, chances are you will not be served alcohol at the pool or beach:

I'm traveling with my spouse/family and they prefer exploring.

A hotel in or near Souq Waqif would be my choice. The Souq has a number of boutique hotels that you can book through a shared website.

If those are too expensive there is also a small hotel (I think 9 rooms) in the Souq most people don't know about called Hotel Khariss but I think you’ll need to Google a travel website to make a booking as it doesn’t have its own site.

Otherwise there are a lot of three and four-star hotels about a 10 minute walk from the Souq, such as Kingsgate, Mercure, Best Western, Horizon Manor, and others.

I'm traveling with my spouse/family and they prefer shopping.

Souq Waqif is an option if they want something more traditional (see above for recommendations near the Souq) otherwise a hotel close to or attached to a mall would be best. The two largest malls are City Centre and Villagio. For City Centre the W is close and the Mariott Marquis is attached to the mall. For Villagio the Torch is attached to the mall.

I'm traveling in the summer.

See the above sections “Location, location, location” and “I'm traveling with my spouse/family and they prefer shopping.” In the summer you will either need to drive everywhere or be in a hotel that is very close to amenities. Malls are where everyone goes in the summer as it is generally too hot for outside activities, being close to a mall will make it easy for you to get out and about without going through the hassle of getting taxis or driving. Some people even find lounging by a pool in July or August to be a chore (unless the hotel chills the pool, ask in advance) and in those months the water in the Gulf is too hot for a comfortable swim.

I've never been to the Middle East before so wouldn't mind staying in a hotel that has a lot of Arabic character.

Souq Waqif boutique hotels are a good bet, as would the Sharq Resort. Honorable mentions -- the Grand Hyatt and the Four Seasons.

I think that's about it, if I can think of any other categories I'll update the post.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Qatari Military Service

Sometime last year an announcement was made by the Government that it was going to institute mandatory military service for all Qatari men aged 18 to 35. His Highness the Emir wasn't kidding and earlier this month he signed the decree regarding the military service. In the meantime the military hadn't been sitting around -- everything was already prepared, the first batch of recruits report to camp on 1 April!

Some of my Qatari friends will be in that first group. They decided that it would be better to volunteer and complete the service now, and it would even be better to go with a bunch of friends so they could support each other, so a lot of them signed up. Meanwhile the military also called hundreds of Qataris aged 33 and 34 to inform them that they would be starting their military service. The medical tests were conducted in the last few weeks.

So what is going to happen? Well this is what I've been told by my friends based on what they know and from information given to them at a recent meeting:

1. Service is for three months, and they believe it will be at a military base somewhere north of Doha.
2. For the first four weeks (though I've also heard it might be six weeks) they will be at the Camp seven days a week. After that time, if the commanding officer lets them, they'll be allowed to go home on the weekends.
3. For bringing mobile phones I’m hearing mixed information with some saying that they aren’t allowed and others saying you can bring it but can only use it with permission of a superior officer. I'm assuming if they can bring them everyone will have to keep their phones in lockers or something.
4. The daily schedule will be something like this:
wake up early
go to fajr prayer
training (I assume mostly exercise)
break for breakfast
more training
break for showering etc.
zuhr prayer
class and/or training
asr prayer

In some ways it's almost like a fitness camp, with some weapons training thrown in. No information as to whether the training would include sea or air training. It would be cool to hear that my friends were parachuting out of planes or something like that.

I've spoken to a lot of Qataris about the mandatory military service and have yet to find one who didn't think it was a good idea. While some are reluctant that they will have to do it all agreed that in the end it's probably for the best that this was instituted in Qatar. Some have spoken about the benefits of the younger generation getting some exercise, learning some responsibility, and getting away from things like video games for a while.

Fine thing to say before you start, we'll see what my friends have to say about it when they return in July.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Qatari Etiquette Videos

I forgot to mention -- the Qatari who runs has been creating short YouTube videos explaining Qatari etiquette. They’re actually pretty amusing, you can check them out at his YouTube channel “Mr. Q –”.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

New York City

As I was saying a few blog posts ago I was also in New York City for my vacation. It's a great city to visit but as this was my third time I had already seen almost all of the touristy things.

One exception was the 9/11 Memorial site. While it is free to visit you need to get a ticket either online or from the ticket distribution office (which is not near the main entrance, it's actually a few blocks away on a different street). The ticket will state what time you’re allowed to visit the site. Because it was February the city was not packed with tourists so I managed to get a ticket with a time of about an hour later. Security is tight there and there are inspections and x-ray machines, similar to going through an US airport.

The site is a park dominated by two huge square holes where the towers once stood. In one of them water cascades down the walls to another square hole in the center, at the other one the water was still. The names of the thousands who died are inscribed all the way around the memorials.

It was a stark and effective memorial. You cannot see the bottom of the square holes in the center, which for me evoked an image of the water flowing down into an endless chasm. I’m not sure if that was what the architect intended but it was what I felt.

As for the rest of my trip it was mostly spent wandering around. Here is typically what I do when exploring a city like NYC when I have already seen the main tourist attractions:

1) go online and look up things like “best . . . in ”, or look up other things that interest you my list was things like
a. best pizza in NYC
b. best cheesecake in NYC
c. best bagel in NYC
d. best Ukrainian food in NYC (I love perogies)
e. cool cap store in NYC
f. hockey bar in Manhattan (the Olympics were still on so I wanted to watch the hockey)

2) write down the list of addresses

3) take the subway to the nearest location. Don’t take a taxi, it’ll take you right there. By taking the subway to get to wander around the neighborhood a bit as you get to your destination.

This doesn't always guarantee an adventure, you won't know how interesting a neighborhood is until you get there, but sometimes you wind up having a great time. For example:

a. One of the “cool cap stores” was in Soho. I went there but they did not have anything I liked
b. however next-door was a café that advertised pumpkin-flavored treats (I love pumpkin desserts)
c. in the café was a handout map of Soho showing all the stores, which I used to find another hat store
d. on the way to the store I saw what looked like an old neighbourhood bar, so after going to the store (and buying a hat) I went back to the bar
e. The bar was busy with lots of locals. The bartender was a native New Yorker who happily pointed out where “definately the best pizza in New York City” was
f. so then I walked a few blocks to that pizzeria for dinner. A guy stopped me to ask for directions so I gave him my Soho map. (“No, I don’t know where that is but I have a map you can have -- here!”)
g. after dinner, on my way back to the subway station, there was a place that, rather than ice cream, served flavoured rice puddings. I tried a Rocky Road rice pudding. Actually it was pretty good.

All that from going to a store to buy a cap.

Watching the Olympic hockey was another adventure. I had brought a Team Canada shirt with me and thanks to the internet found a place near Madison Square Garden called the Flying Puck. I figured that would be a great place to watch the US versus Canada men's semifinals.

I got to the bar early and managed to get the space at the bar, soon the place was packed.

It was a very raucous American crowd, lots of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chanting and so forth. As far as I know there was only one other Canadian in the crowd (he was wearing a toque with “Canada” on it). One of the waitresses saw my shirt and said,

Her: “You’re Canadian?”
Me: “Yep.”
Her: (looks at the crowd in the bar) “You’re brave.”
Me: “ummmm . . .”

In the end Canada won and you could faintly hear two guys go “yay” before I grabbed my coat and got out of there ASAP.

Enough of my tales, here’s some more pictures of the sights of Manhattan. Enjoy.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Map of Souq Waqif

So months ago I noticed that there was no map of the maze that is Souq Waqif. That was unfortunate, I think a lot of tourists just hang out on the main road where the restaurants are and don't venture into the labyrinth of stalls and shops. You can find all sorts of interesting things in the narrow alleyways and I think it’s part of the Souq experience to explore the area.

To resolve this I decided to map the Souq myself, slowly going through the corridors and mapping the areas. It took a number of trips – it’s a more complicated place than I originally thought -- but I did find some places I hadn't known of before (did you know there was a Yemeni coffee stall near the Gold Souq?). Once I finished my rough sketches I intended to put it all together and finish it up with some color, but then life happened and I never got around to finishing things.

Well it turns out I don't have to anymore, Souq Waqif now has a map available, and I think it looks better than what I would've done. A friend of mine got a copy last night and gave it to me, so I scanned it and put it up here.

I'm sure the map is available at the Information Desk at the Souq but if you want to have a copy beforehand here you go. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

What to Do If You Have a Car Accident in Qatar

Well more specifically, what do you do if you have a minor car accident and it wasn't your fault.

It's minor so you don't need to wait around for a police officer to show up. Assuming you and the other driver have both exchanged phone numbers, and you probably have taken down their name and the license plate number of their car, here’s my advice for the next steps.

1) Get a friend to come with you who knows Arabic (this is crucial)

2) Make an arrangement with the other driver to meet at the police station. There are a number of Traffic Police Stations in the city (Google for locations, this site might help), you should meet at the one closest to the site of the accident. Bring the following:

your Arabic-speaking friend
your car of course so the officer can see the damage
driver’s license
Qatar ID
vehicle registration
a copy of your insurance (they didn't ask me for it but just in case)

3) After explaining to the officer in Arabic what happened he will inspect the cars. If the other driver speaks Arabic and you do not then you will have a difficult time understanding what is going on. But that's okay because you have your Arabic-speaking friend with you, right?

4) Then the officer will do up a report explaining what happened and which driver is at fault. This report is entirely in Arabic so you will need your Arabic-speaking friend to review it to see that it is accurate. Both you and the other driver will be given a copy.

5) If you are not at fault then find out from the other driver which insurance company his car is insured with. You will probably need to go to their offices but you can call your insurance company to see if you can file the claim with them instead. Who knows, maybe you can.

6) Photocopy the police report in case something happens to your original. While I was driving I had the windows partially opened and the report nearly flew out the window! I almost had a heart attack. I doubt the insurance company will accept a photocopy but at least you can then go back to the police station and show them your photocopy to get another original.

7) If your car is relatively new or maybe a couple years old and you want it to be repaired at garages certified by your car dealership I suggest contacting the dealership to explain the situation and see which garages they recommend and if they have an arrangement with the insurance company [you might need to have this information handy for step 9].

8) Go online to check to see where the motor claims office for the insurance company is (sometimes the claims office might be in a different location from where they sell policies). Bring your car to the claims office of the insurance company with the police report, registration, Qatar ID, etc. You can then file a claim. They will then send someone out to inspect your car and take photos for their file. I still recommend having your Arabic-speaking friend with you as you will likely be dealing with Arab staff but most people at the insurance companies can also discuss things in English.

9) The insurance company will then likely tell you which garage you can take the car to. This is where you may get into a debate as they might want you to take it to some tiny garage that you have never heard of in the Industrial Area rather than to garages certified by your car dealership. I didn't debate this because my car is inexpensive and 8 years old but you might have a problem with this -- at which point you may need your Arabic-speaking friend to help you. The insurance company will give you a piece of paper to give to the garage so that you will not have to pay for the repairs.

10) If your garage is some small operator in the Industrial Area they might only speak Arabic. You brought your Arabic-speaking friend with you, right? Hopefully they're driving their car so that you can drop your car off at the garage and then hop in their car so you can leave the Industrial Area. Of course you should bring your friend with you as well when you go to pick up your newly-fixed car in case there is anything to discuss.

11) Treat that Arabic-speaking friend to a nice dinner for all of their help.

Feel free to leave any other advice in the comments.