Rest and recuperate

Traveller writers review seven stopover cities where you can strech your legs and beat the humdrum of a long-haul flight.

Doha, Qatar

Last time I wrote about having my beard trimmed, it was because my ears were attacked with a cigarette lighter (eastern Turkey, 2005). In Doha, there is nothing so dramatic: it's luxury all the way, involving aftershave, another four oils, a short scalp massage and astonishing precision.

Before the Qatar barber begins, I ask how much it will cost. "Fifteen riyals [$3.90]," he tells me, before shamelessly sitting me in front of a price list that spells out in English: "Beard trim, 10 riyals." But the experience is so sybaritic I can't object - there's always a toll for tourists. The relaxed indulgence aptly summarises the tourists' Qatar.

Because so many people now fly Qatar Airways, which always goes through Doha, I thought I would try a one-day stopover. With all the expertise that 30 hours confer, I find Doha the Singapore of the Middle East: a safe and pleasant introduction, without the squalor, smells or risks.

Doha has two outstanding attractions: the new Museum of Islamic Art and the souks (markets). You can do dune and inland sea tours, or visit ancient forts but you need more time .

Another attraction is the odd architecture in the new city section, where for every completed building, another one is going up, each odder than the last. There's a 40-storey pepper grinder, an iron, even (apparently) a condom.

Hotel prices vary widely. I stay at the new Gloria Hotel in a palatial space into which any self-respecting Rome hotelier would squeeze at least four rooms. Free internet, free drinks (non-alcoholic) in the minibar, sumptuous free breakfast and an excellent location minutes from the museum and the main souk make it ideal.

I was advised to walk the Corniche - the six-kilometre stretch around the bay from the museum to the financial centre - but this is a mistake. Even at a relatively low 35 degrees (it often tops 50 degrees), this is not a city for walking and no one else is on foot, except the foreign cleaners and labourers. And they look at me as though I am insane.

There are almost no pedestrian crossings and entry to the towers and shopping centres is from the car parks. Footpaths seem an afterthought.

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The leading souk is Souq Waqif, a tastefully restored former Bedouin market. It is a tourist site and a local shopping centre, with restaurants, shisha lounges for smoking tobacco mixed with fruit and spices, antiques, souvenirs, carpets, spices, groceries, clothes, perfume and sweets. Stall holders are polite, unpushy and rather better at haggling than the tourists.

One of the best reasons to visit Qatar is illustrated on my second evening, with a light meal of Arabic bread with honey and lemon. When I go to pay, the boy points at a Qatari at a nearby table who has already paid.

Hospitality is praised in all three monotheistic religions but in Qatar it's practised.

Flight time 14hr 15min from Melbourne.

Who stops over? Qatar Airways.

Taxi from airport to city 30 riyals ($8).

Where to stay Gloria Hotel, 540 riyals a night See gloriahotel-doha.com.

Visa Australian passport holders receive a visitors permit on arrival for a stay up to one month, provided they have onward tickets, sufficient funds (minimum $US150 a day of stay) and proof of accommodation.

- Barney Zwartz

Singapore

Why I love Changi airport: simply because I can get my luggage trolley into the loo - a bonus for solo travellers with no mate to stand guard.

The beauty of stopping in transit in countries as tiny as Singapore is that you're smack in the city in the flutter of a fake eyelash; it's just half an hour from the airport to whatever nirvana you're looking for: theme park junkies head to Universal Studios, nostalgia buffs grab Singapore Slings at Raffles Hotel and label freaks gravitate to Orchard Road.

Want a bowl of steaming laksa? Head to Katong, where a battalion of Nonyas (Malay mammas) fight it out in a long-standing battle for the best laksa in town. There are mosques for Muslims and boutiques for Indo-fashionistas in Kampong Glam and in chaotic Little India, I watch an old fortune teller use a green parrot to pull numbers from a deck of cards. It's $S5 ($3.80) a number for a series that might win you the lottery. The parrot is working like a demon as punters stop by the little table on the footpath to try their luck.

In the waterside bar quarter of Clark Quay, tiny Singaporean princesses totter into Shanghai Dolly, a Mando-pop bar. We say: avoid if you've just staggered off a long-haul flight with shiny skin and less-than-luscious locks.

Singapore caters to all comers. And come they do, to a country masquerading as one of the world's great transit lounges, open 24/7/365.

Flight time About 8hr from Melbourne and Sydney.

Who stops over? Singapore Airlines, Qantas, British Airways, Jetstar and Emirates are among the major airlines to go there.

Taxi from airport to city Metered taxis from $S18 ($14), double from midnight to 6am plus a surcharge of $S3 to $S5. The journey takes about 30 minutes. Singapore Airlines has a free service between the airport, city centre and Sentosa Island for transit passengers, from $S6 for Singapore Airlines/SilkAir passengers and $S12 for others. See siahopon.com.

Where to stay The Crowne Plaza Changi Airport is linked to the airport terminals via walkways and people movers, from $S320. See cpchangiairport.com. The Ambassador Transit Hotel in the airport's transit lounge (therefore no need to clear immigration) sells rooms in six-hour blocks from $S76/double or has single-person rooms with shared bathrooms from $S41. See athmg.com.

Visa Not required for Australian passport holders for a stay of up to 30 days.

- Belinda Jackson

Hong Kong

If overdosing on foot massages is a crime, mea culpa. I'm in Hong Kong for a week and twice already I've surrendered my feet to reflexology. For the Chinese, this traditional massage technique - a regular activity for many - is as much medicinal as it is recuperative. For me, it's pure relaxation. The chair reclines, the feet go up and the city din fades away (about $HK150 [$18] for50 minutes).

Foot pampering is not the only reason to stop over in this Asian metropolis. Hong Kong is roughly halfway between Australia's southern cities and Europe, making it the ideal place to break a long-haul flight. Once you've landed, the city and its cultural intrigues are accessible even on the shortest stay.

The Airport Express train departs every 12 minutes, whisking passengers into the city centre in 23 minutes. The city is compact enough to explore in a few hours, whether in a dinky antique tram, iconic red Toyota taxi or on foot.

There are two musts: The Peak tram (thepeak .com.hk), a funicular built in 1888 that accesses the best views on the island, and the colonial Star Ferry (www.starferry.com.hk), which criss-crosses Victoria Harbour.

Close to the ferry terminal, the International Finance Centre, which includes one of the world's tallest buildings, has as many designer stores as Bruce Lee has martial arts moves. On a budget, the markets of Peel and Graham streets are a slice of old Hong Kong: fresh fish flap in bubbling tanks, unrecognisable cuts of meat hang from butcher's hooks in the open air.

The food scene is a similar lesson in extremes. Dine at two- and three-starred Michelin restaurants or, for a tenth of the price, pull up a stool in a bustling dim sum venue where dumplings are served in bamboo steamers amid the cacophonic sounds of Cantonese chatter.

Departing is easy. You can check in at the Airport Express terminal in the city centre up to 90 minutes before departure.

Flight time About 9hr from Melbourne and Sydney.

Who stops over? Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic are among the major airlines to go there.

Taxi from airport to city Red taxis (not green or blue) go to Hong Kong Central for about $HK300 ($36). The Airport Express train adjoins the arrivals hall. Tickets cost $HK100 one-way to HK Central.

Where to stay East is a groovy business hotel at Taikoo, eight stops from HK Central on the Island MTR line. Rooms start at $HK1088. See east-hongkong.com. Boutique hotel Luxe Manor is a short taxi ride from Kowloon station on the Airport Express line. Rooms start at $HK1350. See theluxemanor.com.

Visa Not required for Australian passport holders for a stay of up to 30 days.

- Penny Watson

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok is halfway to everywhere from anywhere and it's a city with everything. A day is never going to be enough to get across a metropolis of 12 million people but, energised by the thought of another 12 hours sitting in economy before we hit Europe, we're going to give it a red-hot go.

First impressions count and those running Bangkok realised the Soviet-inspired gulag that was Don Muang Airport was doing the Thai capital no favours. For those who have not visited in the past few years, its three-year-old replacement, Suvarnabhumi Airport is a huge improvement, functional in the way all new major airports are.

In the interests of squeezing all that we can out of our 24 hours in Bangkok, we're checking in to the city's nicest airport hotel, the Novotel. It's comfortable and roomy and it's just 10 minutes from door to check-in desk.

It's a taxi into town. Insist the driver puts the meter on and be similarly forthright he or she takes the tollway to avoid traffic jams.

For high-end stores, name brands and fashion, Siam Paragon, Gaysorn and CentralWorld, all within a couple of kilometres of each other in the middle of the city, will not disappoint..

For the real bargain hunters, MBK is eight levels and 2000 stores of sensory overload. This place is noisy, colourful and relentless.

There are knockoffs galore but also plenty of authentic outlets and if you're after phones, watches, bags or shoes, here they be.

Across the road and up a narrow soi from MBK is Jim Thompson's famous house. The enigmatic silk trader is long gone (he disappeared in the Malaysian jungle in 1967) but lunch at his beautifully maintained, self-designed residence-turned-museum is the perfect restorative for the mania of the morning.

Another great food option (of thousands) in this city is high tea at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, by the Chao Praya River.

For the late afternoon, we're back in a cab for the short hop across to Lumpini Park, Bangkok's biggest green space. If you're here for a weekend, you'll see Bangkok out to play, with thousands of people jogging, playing sepak takraw (think volleyball played with no hands and a cane ball), doing weights, or taking part in hundreds-strong mass aerobics sessions.

As the sun sets, we're going to sneak a quick drink in at the nearby rooftop bar at the Banyan Tree Hotel. The drinks aren't cheap but the service is lovely and the view glorious.

Flight time About 9hr from Melbourne and Sydney.

Who stops over? Thai Airways, Qantas and Jetstar are among the major airlines to fly there.

Taxi from airport to city Between 250 baht ($7.70) and 350 baht, including tolls. Taxis hired from the designated rank (they can be hailed outside this) incur a 50-baht surcharge.

Where to stay Hotel Novotel Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport, from 5746 baht a night for a standard room. See novotelsuvarnabhumi.com.

Visa Not required for Australian passport holders for a stay of up to 30 days providing they have an onward ticket.

- Ben Doherty

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

After 25 years of dropping in every five or 10 years to Hong Kong or Singapore on long-haul trips to Europe, there's a comfort about staying at familiar hotels and navigating the metros like a local. But my stopover destination is likely to change, courtesy of the arrival of budget airlines in the region.

The big-growth stopover city is Kuala Lumpur, home of low-cost Malaysian airline AirAsia X. The airline's hub is the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT), about an hour on the frequent shuttle buses from the city centre.

My stopover plan in KL - Western shopping - is hardly cultural. And I'm not disappointed. There are malls, and more malls, centred on the Bukit Bintang area.

Malaysia is a Muslim country, notable for thin young women wearing jeans, scarves and bone-hugging long sleeves. We shed clothes and continue to swelter (another plus for the airconditioned malls). Newish mosques spring up in a city that is undergoing a construction boom.

It's a delicious decision to seek out the Nyonya food, which has its roots in the country's Chinese-Malay history. On the culture and nature front, the attractions include the Islamic Arts Museum (iamm.org.my) and the KL Bird Park (klbirdpark .com). A trip to Selangor Pewter (now Royal Selangor) is also worthwhile.

We go in search of "old" KL and find ourselves in Chinatown in Petaling Street. Maybe, at night, it is enticing but since it awakes late in the morning, it is a dingy array of stalls and shops of counterfeit bags, handbags, shirts and T-shirts (another plus for the malls).

As we sit on the hotel balcony, sipping cocktails and watching the sun on the Petronas Twin Towers send shards of the colour spectrum into the twilight, I think this is a city skyline with which I can get familiar.

Flight time About 8hr from Melbourne and Sydney.

Who stops over? Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia X and Emirates are among the major airlines to go there.

Taxi from airport to city From the main airport (KLIA) about 70 ringgit ($22) and from the LCCT about 105 ringgit.

Where to stay Ritz Carlton deluxe rooms from 650 ringgit. See ritzcarlton.com/en.

Visa Not required for Australian passport holders for a stay of up to 90 days.

- Leonie Lamont

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

With Emirates Airlines serving more than 20 European cities from Australia, Dubai has become my regular stopover. I'm never sure I really like it but I am drawn back to its brilliant awfulness and grandiose projects. Dubai is mindless, mind-boggling and strangely seductive.

Often I have only a day, so I book a personal tour with Arabian Adventures (arabian-adventures.com). This time my guide is Ola Khalaf, a cheerful Egyptian-Palestinian swathed in a headscarf that barely restrains her bubbly personality. She marvels at her adopted land: dancing fountains ("Bigger than in Las Vegas!"), Burj Khalifa tower ("Very giant and very huge! The tallest worldwide!") and the Atlantis Hotel, which boasts the world's largest suite. "You could spend the whole night searching for your wife!" Khalaf enthuses.

Dubai is no Aleppo or Isfahan but cautious travellers will find it sophisticated, safe and Islamic enough to be intriguing. The latest must-do is the ear-popping ride to the 124th floor of Burj Khalifa (burjkhalifa.ae). Some of the observations platforms are outdoors; hot winds and creaking floors unnerve. Look through clever telescopes and see the view as it was 10 years ago: desert to development in a decade.

Fifty years ago, al-Fahidi Fort was Dubai's tallest building. Today, it's a kid's mud castle. Underground, a fine museum traces the city's supersonic development. I like to hop across the river from here by water taxi to rummage through the perfume and spice markets, where Iranian stallholders lurk.

The nearby gold souk has less character but plenty of bling. As for Dubai's humungous shopping malls, bring a spare suitcase: electronics, clothing, shoes and jewellery are cheaper than back home.

If you care for extravagance, the Dame Edna-esque glitter of Burj al-Arab hotel provides. Adjacent Jumeirah Beach Hotel is a more modest choice, with enormous rooms and complimentary access to Wild Wadi (wildwadidubai.com), where a 80km/h giant water slide is another Dubai attraction that, against my better judgment, always has me screeching in pleasure.

Dubai is one big theme park, really. "We aren't following anybody," Khalaf says proudly. "We are following ourselves to reach the luxury life."

Flight time About 14hr from Melbourne and Sydney.

Who stops over? Emirates.

Taxi from airport to city The taxi stand is clearly signposted at the arrival hall. Fares are about 60 dirham ($15) into the city centre.

Where to stay Jumeirah Beach Hotel is 25 minutes and a 156-dirham taxi ride from the airport. Rooms cost from 1330 dirham a night, see jumeirahbeachhotel.com.

Visa Australian passport holders can obtain a free visa upon arrival for a stay of up to 30 days.

- Brian Johnston

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

The luxurious fifth-floor room at the recently opened five-star Fairmont Bab al-Bahr Hotel looks out across a small, beach-lined causeway to the blindingly white, Arabian Nights fairytale edifice of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It is a stunning sight. And all I can think is: "Abu Dhabi will be nice when it's finished."

Our tour guide boasts a little later in the day, a little spuriously perhaps, that one-third of the world's cranes can be found on building projects in the United Arab Emirates.

True or not, don't let that stop you. It's probably best to go now when the choice of things to do and see is still within the realms of human possibility. When it really gets going, the sun-bathed capital of the UAE will be worth a lot more than a stopover for a couple of nights.

Until then, welcome to the land of the superlative. The mosque, for instance, sports the world's largest carpet and the largest chandelier. The city also boasts the world's most tilted building - the Capital Gate tower, which is 18 degrees out of whack - as well as "the biggest Ikea in the Middle East".

Seriously, though, where to start?

Perhaps at the world's fastest roller-coaster, Formula Rossa, in Ferrari World (the world's largest indoor theme park, naturally), which goes from 0-240km/h in just five leg-wobbling seconds. Or a relaxing stroll along the eight-kilometre waterfront at the Corniche with its views across Lulu Island to the Arabian Gulf.

We take in a quick, unexpected visit to a fruit and vegetable market for some of the freshest, most beautiful-tasting dates I have had, before heading off to Saadiyat Island and the Manarat al-Saadiyat museum.

And this is where Abu Dhabi really comes into its own. The museum is all cool whites and aircon with a cafe serving excellent food but it's the exhibition showing the future of the island as a cultural district that resonates (see saadiyat.ae/en /masterplan.html). In coming years, there will be an Abu Dhabi Louvre, a Guggenheim, a semi-submerged maritime museum and a new national museum of such breathtaking architectural beauty that it will make you think you're back on that roller-coaster.

Flight time About 14hr from Melbourne and Sydney.

Who stops over? Etihad.

Taxi from airport to city About 70 dirham ($17).

Where to stay Fairmont rooms from 646 dirham a night. See fairmont.com.

Visa Australian passport holders can obtain a free visa upon arrival for a stay of up to 30 days.

- Keith Austin

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