Standard advice says it’s best to get to the airport two hours ahead of departure time. Anyone flying via Qatar’s Hamad International might want to double or even triple that. Not because there’s any extra hassle getting through security at this gleaming, ultramodern facility. In fact, if you’ve signed up to its E-passport scheme, you’ll be through in minutes.
Nope, it’s because you’re going to want to spend that extra travel time wallowing in what is probably the most luxurious airport on the planet.
It’s possibly the coolest, too.
Opened in 2014 with the ambition of turning the Arabian Gulf city of Doha into a global aviation hub serviced by Qatar Airways, HIA now handles more than 30 million travelers a year.But passengers walking through its beautiful hallways and lounges outside of peak periods could be forgiven for thinking they were the first to ever set foot in the place.
Silent and spotless
Every gleaming surface of its lavish departure and arrival areas is spotless.The destination is completely quiet, too. Beyond Islamic calls to prayer which are made five times a day, HIA is a silent airport.
There are no jarring announcements to disturb the calm, and at certain times it’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Not that you’d find so much as a dropped pin in this hyper-clean place..
The full HIA experience begins on the approach — currently only possible by road, but a rail link should open in time for Qatar’s 2022 hosting of soccer’s World Cup finals.
It’s a majestic structure.
Built on land reclaimed from the sea, the architecture reflects its coastal location with a rooftop that ripples away from the concourse in swooping peaks and troughs. An adjacent mosque resembles a giant blue droplet of water.
Inside, departing passengers walk into a lofty check-in hall, illuminated in daytime by bright sunlight shafting down from scores of lozenge-shaped skylights.
It’s here they’re likely to have one of their first encounters with the things that make HIA so unexpectedly cool — the artworks.
OK, airport art isn’t exactly a revolutionary idea, but when was the last time anyone actually recalled encountering any?
At HIA, no one’s going to forget it in a hurry.
Some of it is subtle, like the playful fake birds that sit atop the information displays at the front of the airport.
Other pieces stop everyone in their tracks.
Like “Lamp Bear” by subversive Swiss artist Urs Fischer — a giant, surreal, yellow teddy bear sitting under a black lamp. It’s such an arresting sight in the main departure hall that there’s a near-constant knot of people in front of it, grabbing selfie shots.
Deeper in, by the far departure gates is another eye-catching piece of radical modern art. “SMALL LIE” by celebrated New York pop artist KAWS is a new addition, installed in March 2018 in an operation that involved removing an entire wall of the airport.
These are pieces of work that some fanatics might actually travel here to see.An airport on the edge of Arabia seems a surprising place to find groundbreaking pieces of modern art. HIA hopes this element of surprise will help set it apart from rival air hubs.
“What makes HIA special is our innovative exhibition space,” Badr Mohammed Al Meer, the airport’s chief operating officer, tells CNN Travel. “We like to say that our airport is the gateway to arts and culture.”
There are currently more than 20 permanent art installations at the airport. Anyone with a few hours to kill could do a lot worse than hunt them all down.
Surrealistic sculpture not your scene?
That’s OK, HIA has plenty of alternatives up its sleeves.
For standard passengers passing through, there are plenty of the usual airport restaurant and retail options, but also numerous upscale boutiques. Gucci, Burberry, Coach, Rolex, Swarovski are all here.
Want to just flop in a chair? Even the communal area seating is fancy — all Italian-style chrome and leather.
Can’t be bothered to stand on the moving walkways to reach your gate? There’s a futuristic indoor train to speed you there even faster.
There’s a fantastic airport gym too — open to any passengers who want to book themselves in for a session. It has an inviting 25-meter swimming pool, a full range of workout equipment, two squash courts (although these may get turned into a golfing area), plus hydrotherapy and spa treatments.
The sports facility is attached to HIA’s Oryx Hotel, a 100-room transit accommodation that matches the rest of the airport for quality and cleanliness. Guests can check in, for eight hours or longer, to standard rooms or larger family suites with five or six beds.
Passengers lucky enough to be flying business or first class with Qatar Airways are in for the real treats.
The biz class Al Mourjan lounge is the kind of place some weary travelers will probably have to be dragged out of in order to make their flight.
This place is as big as it is luxurious. It measures 10,000 square meters, including Instagrammable water features, and has capacity to handle up to 1,000 passengers at a time.
It’s still quiet though, with the atmosphere of an exclusive club. Guests can sit at individual tables equipped with tablets that offer departure info to ensure they don’t miss their flight.
There’s a full, formal restaurant (with a private room for celebs and minor royalty that don’t get to use the Qatari emir’s private airport), a bar stocked with top-class booze (alcohol is available at the airport and on Qatar Airways flights), and other more casual dining options.
There are showers, sleeping booths, private rooms for families, a games area equipped with X-boxes and a fussball table, facilities for business meetings, Mecca-facing prayer rooms and a nursing area for new moms, complete with milk-warming facilities.
Inbound business class travelers can also make use of a separate arrivals lounge, with it’s own private immigration desk.
Not posh enough? First class Qatar Airways ticket holders can hustle over to the other side of the main lounge and ride the escalator to airport nirvana — the Al Safwa lounge.
Designed to closely resemble Doha’s prestigious Museum of Islamic Art (the work of renowned architect I. M. Pei), this departure lounge feels like hallowed ground. With capacity for 530 people — way more than it usually handles — there’s enough room to escape.
Guests killing a few hours can make themselves comfortable in cubicles equipped with oversized swivel chairs that would suit the most fiendish Bond villains.
They can dine in style with a four-course menu accompanied by fine wines drawn from a wine cellar worthy of a French chateau.
If they want to catch a movie, there’s a private cinema. If they want to sleep, there are private bedrooms that can be booked for four-hour slots.
Best of all, there’s a beautiful spa straight out of a seven-star resort. Those taking advantage of its tranquility may struggle to remember they’re in an airport.
None of these luxurious offerings have escaped the notice of aviation industry reviewers Skytrax.
At its 2018 awards in Stockholm, the UK-based organization named HIA as the best airport in the Middle East for the third year in a row. It also bumped it up its global rankings, based on passenger surveys, from sixth to fifth place.
While recent regional sanctions against Qatar have closed off some air routes, potentially dulling its appeal as an aviation hub, HIA has its sights set on further success.
It expects to welcome 50 million visitors annually by 2022.
“Although being one of the youngest airports in the world, HIA joined the ‘top tier of global airports,’ becoming the sixth airport in the world to receive the ‘5-Star Airport’ designation by Skytrax,” says Al Meer.
“HIA’s ambition in a nutshell is very clear: we aim to become the world’s best airport by providing the best passenger journey and by positioning the airport as a destination on its own.”