25-minutes off the coast of mainland Qatar, in the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf, lies an idyllic private paradise that’s a complete departure from the country’s capital. Nicholas Chrisostomou makes the crossing from Doha to Banana Island for a thoroughly unique barefoot luxury experience in one of the Middle East’s few overwater villas.
First-time visitors to Doha, the capital of supposedly the world’s richest country, would be forgiven for thinking the city to be a little detached and aloof. For while its regional metropolitan peers have a clear semblance of what they are all about (just take one look at Dubai – positively oozing glitz, glamour and wealth and heading with vigour to its 2020 expo), the Qatari capital is, to some extent, still searching for its footing as both a credible tourist destination and a respected international power. Some would say that it hasn’t entirely succeeded in achieving either to date.
Since a June 2017 blockade and trade embargo against the tiny Gulf state was imposed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, U.A.E and Egypt, which accused it of supporting terrorism and hence severed diplomatic and transport ties, Qatar has been attempting to carve out a regional identity amidst a geopolitical climate that remains tense. Qatar, which used to have many of its imports trans-shipped from the U.A.E. and received the bulk of its fresh food across the Saudi border, vehemently denies the accusations made against it. But while its solitary land border with Saudi remains closed (one year on), Qatar remains isolated and is, for all intents and purposes, currently an island-state at loggerheads with its neighbours.
Despite the blockade, there is enough to keep cultured travellers occupied for a couple of days in Doha. Wander through Souq Waqif and you’d be fooled into thinking that you’re in the middle of an authentic Arabic bazaar, complete with a riot of sounds, sights, smells and even camels. Whilst the souq is not original it is indeed an atmospheric place to spend an evening. For those with an arty lean, the city’s iconic I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) stands slap-bang across the street from the souq, located at one end of Doha’s graceful seven-kilometre waterfront corniche. Like something straight out of one of Europe’s great cities of art, the MIA is a beautifully-designed, fastidiously-executed and lovingly maintained piece of modern architecture. Sitting on its own island close to the traditional dhow harbour, the MIA is currently Doha’s greatest artistic magnet – though the stunning, new soon-to-be-completed Jean Nouvel-designed Qatar National Museum, slated to open at the end of this year just down the road, which takes the tumbling shape of a desert rose, is likely to steal its cultural crown. Meanwhile, at Katara Cultural Village, the city’s planners have cleverly executed a snapshot of Qatari life, interspersed with Arabic history and a touch of ancient Rome.
With the 2022 FIFA World Cup looming, hospitality expansion and development continue at warp speed, although, with few exceptions, the city falls somewhat short when it comes to premium hospitality, since most of Doha’s five-star hotels lack personality and European service standards. And it has to be said that were it not for Banana Island, visiting Doha would really only be worthy of a 48-hour stopover.
Banana Island by Anantara is unlike anything else on offer in Qatar. The prospect of spending time on the island is alone worthy of visiting Doha. Yes, it really is that special. OK, it’s a dry island, but alcohol isn’t everything, and the absence of tipsy holidaymakers makes for a pleasant and welcome change, also adding to the feeling of being on a remote, idyllic paradise.
There are eight restaurants, three pools, a stunning natural beach (yes, natural) and 141 villas, rooms and suites scattered along the 13-hectare 2-kilometre island, including the Middle East’s first overwater villas. On my visit to Banana Island it was apparently running at full occupancy but felt almost deserted. This is the beauty of the place and why it has proved to be so popular, especially with the locals.
Since Banana Island opened in 2015, Qataris have eagerly made the 11-kilometre crossing from the mainland like it’s the most exciting thing ever to have ever happened to the nation’s hospitality and entertainment scene. To a great extent, it is. Two years down the line, Banana Island’s room rates are some of the highest in Qatar, and the demand for its villas is so great (especially at weekends), that at one stage a limit had to be placed on the length of time guests could stay. When they couldn’t buy them outright, sheikhs tried to book the villas for six months at a time. Once you have stayed in one of the island’s overwater villas you will understand what all the fuss is about.
Visiting Banana Island begins with a 25-minute ride aboard one of the resort’s fleet of twelve luxury catamarans, which run every hour 24/7 from Al Shyoukh Terminal, located in the city’s downtown area. The terminal has a VIP lounge for overwater villa guests. Or you can take a 10-minute private helicopter ride from Hamad International Airport directly to the resort and completely bypass Doha.
Banana Island is home to the Arabian Gulf’s own unique interpretation of overwater extravagance – namely eleven Maldivian-inspired bungalows with a twist. Clustered at one end of the island in their own enclave, with one way in and one way out of the exclusive complex, and their own 24-hour security and private jetty for direct speedboat access, the two and three-bedroom villas (beginning at 200sqm) are overly spacious, accented with ornate contemporary-Arabian design and equipped with every modern-day convenience imaginable. Each has its own 62-square-metre cantilevered private swimming pool and self-contained en-suite staff accommodation detached from the villa. The lounge, dining area, terraces and outdoor decks combine to create one sprawling indoor/outdoor living and relaxation space, complete with huge day beds and both al fresco and inside dining areas. I have to say that I rattled around somewhat in my capacious and luxurious lodgings, although I much enjoyed the warm space. Two or three master bedroom suites per villa boast vaulted ceilings, walls of foldback floor-to-ceiling glass doors and massive bathrooms. Bose sound systems and huge screens in every room more than take care of guests’ AV needs.
Linked to each other and the island via wooden boardwalks barely wide enough to accommodate buggies, I was more than happy to leave my shoes behind in the villa and stroll barefoot to get something to eat – the warm wood underfoot and fine sand between my toes a tonic to being in dusty soulless Doha, and instilling in me a carefree holiday spirit. Some days I jogged the 1.5km to the well-equipped yet deserted gym. The walk back was the perfect warm-down.
If truth be known I’ve never been one to spend hours in a spa, switch-off and forget about the world. On the contrary, a 60-minute treatment is usually about it for me. Any longer and I get twitchy and tire of the attention. But this wasn’t the case on Banana Island. Literally like someone had flicked a holiday switch in me, I was game for pretty-much anything relaxation-related, and started each day with a one-on-one 8am yoga session on the terrace of my villa with the delightful Dana. Perfectly setting me up every morning, my days were then spent in the gym, spa, resting in my room, feasting on delicious food, catching some rays on the beach, swimming in the glassy turquoise waters or ambling barefoot along the sand, picking up shells. Yes, me, collecting shells. What I was going to do with them all I had no idea at the time, but it felt like the apt thing to do on Banana Island and I enjoyed every minute.
Because the bulk of Banana Island’s guests are locals and the dress code for Qatari women is generally a full abaya, the resort’s sweeping 800-metre-long private beach was virtually empty every day of my stay. I encountered maybe half a dozen expats. Almost certainly one of the best beaches in the Middle East, the serene waters ever-so-gently lapped the crescent-shaped shoreline and tiny fish darted in-and-out of small rocks while uniformed beach boys periodically delivered chilled water to my sun lounger. I couldn’t have wanted for more – the scene was perfect.
From unique cultural traditions to stunning natural beauty, the Anantara brand strives to provide its patrons with unforgettable holidays in unique locations, drawing strength from rich local cultural traditions and the natural beauty of each destination to deliver a special experience. Anantara achieves all this and much more on Banana Island, providing guests with an indulgent Middle Eastern barefoot luxury experience in inimitable surroundings, complete with superb service, attention to detail and excellent food, with the island’s peaceful booze-free environment contributing a different yet welcome perspective to the overall experience. Don’t visit Doha but do visit Banana Island – it’s like nowhere else in the Middle East.