Long haul flights are always taxing but taking one with three children ages five and under is a different challenge. The experiences of a family of five exploring Doha as a break on the ultra-long haul from Miami/Orlando to the United Arab Emirates suggests possibilities for surviving – and enjoying – flights from one continent to another distant one.
There’s no denying that the Middle East airlines are dominating the international airline world at present with multiple industry and customer awards. With their growing modern fleets and extensive new routes, it’s hard not to take a long-haul flight between Europe and Asia Pacific that doesn’t involve some sort of stop with the big three Middle East airports in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha.
Despite living in the United Arab Emirates – home to Etihad and Emirates Airlines – it is frequently cheaper for us to fly with Qatar Airways via Doha to our onward destinations. This is exactly what we did earlier this year when taking on our first ultra long-haul flight with three kids under five to visit Miami and Orlando
Having never visited our closest neighbor Doha, the capital of Qatar before, we took the opportunity to do a city stopover and explore what there is for kids to do.
The Airport in Doha
Doha itself is a city of huge contrasts where tradition and modern culture meet.
Starting with your entrance from Hamad International Airport, it is brand spanking new, utterly stunning and an amazingly family-friendly airport. Everything is very clearly signposted in English and Arabic, there are complimentary strollers (yes, actually available!), play park areas, free Wi-Fi and computer use and there are family bathrooms (yes, change tables dad can use too; a very rare feature in the Middle East!)
It’s an easy ride in to town but then it doesn’t take long to be snared up in traffic, crazy trucks crossing multiple lanes with complete disregard for road markings, sitting on your horn is standard practice. Expats in the Middle East might be all too familiar with this behavior but it could come as a bit of a culture shock to the visitor used to sense and order on the roads. Seat belt laws, what are they?
Accommodations in Doha
We stayed in the Al Souq area, mostly for its proximity to the airport and a number of the key tourist attractions we wanted to visit were in this area. The accommodation we stayed in, the Swiss-Belhotel is definitely dated but practical and well located (and our room easily fit five of us – despite advertising a maximum room occupancy of four). If you want something more modern, look to the West Bay side of town – everything is only a short taxi ride away in theory but be prepared for traffic, a lot of it, with your heart in your mouth a lot of the time.
Our only inconvenience was not having any of our strollers with us. We had planned to take at least one off the plane with us, however, as we have now learned, booking a ticket with a layover is different with a stopover. Our continuous ticket meant all our big bulky suitcases could be checked all the way from Abu Dhabi to Miami – but you cannot exclude items and take some off during your layover – leaving five of us packed into one tiny suitcase overnight and me carrying my 8- month-old in a sling, between hubby and me intermittently carrying a two and four- year-old! We were exhausted!! But it may have also been a blessing in disguise as many footpaths were impassable for strollers, or non-existent.
A highlight for us was the very newly built Museum of Islamic Art (MIA). Built in traditional Islamic architecture, it dominates the Doha shore front with the modern new Doha as its back drop. It’s fair to say the concept of walking quietly through the museum was a little lost on our junior tribe for the most part, we were worried we might be spoiling the peace in such a beautiful place but we were quite happy to see its was full of families and a small café inside allowed us to fill little bellies before walking around.
I found it fascinating, as there is currently very little by the way of traditional Islamic culture on display in the UAE, and it was good practice for kids learning to use their inside voices and what ‘don’t touch’ means!! We were, however, delighted at the end to discover a special display, “Marvelous Creatures”, where there were interactive displays with mythical creatures from the Islamic world. There were video showings (in English and Arabic) which were a bit over our children’s heads, but the grand finale was a mythical creatures coloring and drawing room – a great reward for our kid’s patience, and it was very hands-on.
Another mustn’t miss destination is the Souq Waqif. Largely renovated and rebuilt within the last 10 years it still stands today as it has for many decades as a functioning and bustling market place, not just a tourist attraction. A wonderful place for coffee or dinner (or smoking shisha if you are so inclined), you can pick yourself up some traditional Islamic trinkets, and watch traditional dancing displays and street artists. Kids might also get to spot a camel here and there’s a falcon souq for photo opportunities.
One word of warning is about the pet souq. We visited during the cooler months but I’d dread visiting here during the hot months, not just the noise and smell but the condition animals are kept in may shock your little ones so proceed with caution to this area.
After the Souq we headed back along the very green Corniche Promenade which curves around the Doha shoreline, past the traditional dhow harbor (where boats can be rented) to the MIA Park. We were fortunate to be visiting during the week the inaugural Qatar International Food Festival (QIFF) was held, which offers an extensive selection of foods to choice from, live cooking shows and live entertainment. Even getting there early evening finding tables was a struggle but another family kindly offered their table up to us – otherwise you would need to sit on the grass (fine if you happen to be traveling long-haul with a picnic rug! Though airline blankets have been brilliant in the past to use during long layovers…)
So should you make a stop in Doha?
We loved our Doha stop over and would happily do one again to explore further around the newer more modern parts of the city and the beach resorts which still stand in stark contrast to many areas that are so under developed they don’t even have footpaths.
Those new to the Middle East completely may prefer a longer stop to include an evening desert safari, but one day will be enough to capture the highlights and keep the junior audience entertained if you are simply flying to Doha with Qatar Airways.
Things to know before you go to Doha
When visiting the Middle East, bear in mind time of year and religious occasions. The summer months – particularly from late May to October can be very hot, walking from point to point and outdoor activities are almost out of the question and you will find life is very nocturnal, attractions may not open until late in the day. Shopping malls always provide some reprieve from the heat.
Religious holidays also run on the lunar year, so they change each year. The main one to be aware of is Ramadan, in 2016 this will fall in early June and lasts 30 days. During this time there are certain restrictions on eating and drinking in public as well as tighter restrictions on behaviors and dress to mark this holy occasion.
This post was written by Keri Hedrick, an Australian expatriate mum of three under 6 currently living in the UAE.