My friend David and I spent a week in Lebanon over New Year’s, and the trip proved one of the most enlightening of my life. The country offers everything a savvy world traveler might enjoy, including a vibrant, walkable cosmopolitan capital, pristine beaches, archaeological ruins, beautiful mountain ranges, and a delicious national cuisine. And the super-friendly and hospitable people are possibly the most approachable in the Middle East.
Oddly enough, our trip began with a skiing excursion north of Beirut at the Mzaar resort in Faraya. It’s not Aspen or Zermatt, but hitting the ski slopes in the Middle East is a unique experience and the mountain runs were quite good. Mzaar is an easy 1-hour drive from Beirut. Take a taxi (bargain for the best rate; $20 an hour for a private cab ride is reasonable). Skiing season extends from mid-December until early April. During Lebanon’s summer, most visitors head south to the beach resorts around Tyre, a 2-hour drive from Beirut.
When arriving for a visit in Beirut, hire a private guide for a city tour to learn about its neighborhoods and the country’s history. We took a 4-hour tour (part walk, part ride) that covered several mosques and churches (a synagogue was undergoing restoration), the downtown, the Hamra shopping district, and the memorial to Rafi k Hariri, the prime minister slain in 2005 while trying to unify the country. Hotels can arrange for the services of a guide (about $80 for half a day).
We also took several day trips. One included stops at the Jeita Grotto’s amazing stalactites (nominated to be among the world’s new seven wonders), Harissa (the large Virgin Mary statue overlooking Jounieh), and the ancient port city of Byblos. We had a fabulous lunch in Byblos at Locanda a la Granda (prices à la carte; 961/9-944-333), now one of my favorite contemporary Lebanese restaurants. For another worthwhile day trip, visit the beautiful Bekaa Valley to explore its wineries.
Our two guides, Cedra and Elie, gave us a refresher course on Lebanese history; I felt like a sponge absorbing all they had to say. While Lebanon is one of the oldest countries in the world, its history as a unified independent state is relatively short (since the 1940s). A bloody civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990, including Christians (and factions within), Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as Druze and Palestinians. There were also external influencers, including the British, French, Americans, Syrians, Iranians, and Israelis. One can get dizzy trying to keep straight who was fighting whom and the motives. Americans likely remember the hostage-taking of Westerners in the 1980s and the bombing of the U.S. Marine base in 1983. The civil war was a very damaging conflict that scarred the country (many Lebanese prefer to forget it), and it’s impossible to understand the people and culture without reviewing this tragic period. In 2006 Israel attacked Lebanon in response to Hezbollah’s cross-border raid and capture of Israeli soldiers.
More than a century ago, U.S. missionaries started what is now the American University of Beirut, recognized as one of the region’s leading educational institutions. The grounds, just off the Rue de Bliss, resemble a Southern Californian college campus. Be sure to stroll down the hill, along Beirut’s famous Corniche for a splendid coastal view.
For a smart splurge, consider a stay at the Intercontinental Hotel Phoenicia (from $340/night until August 31, then from $235/night). This large property is close to the water and downtown; its helpful concierges can arrange day tours. The hotel is home to many government ministers, and its lobby and bar areas are brimming with the elite set. (Beware, the Lebanese have not adopted cigarette-free zones). Don’t be alarmed by the blast barriers, security checkpoints, or the occasional appearance of a soldier with a gun. The place is well protected.
Hotel Albergo (from $270/night), an intimate boutique property with colonial touches, is in Ashrafi yeh, a charming upscale neighborhood with shops, restaurants, and bars. Finally, the (oddly named) Palm Beach Hotel (from $220/night) is a great value pick.
A Four Seasons property is in the works, signifying a possible revival of Lebanon’s tourism industry (finally) and that Beirut might someday reclaim its role as the Paris of the Middle East. Indeed, while Dubai has received much press, many Gulf residents prefer to visit Lebanon, and own apartments there, because of Beirut’s beautiful seaside setting, (relatively) liberal population that likes to party, and unique mix of European and Middle Eastern cultures.
I observed this interesting blend of backgrounds while spending time with some wonderful Lebanese college students whom David and I met on the slopes: Farah, Nehme, and MJ. Our lunch together was their first social encounter with Americans (initially they thought we were CIA operatives) and ours with local Lebanese. Farah has a sharp mind and wit and plans to pursue law. Nehme and MJ, close friends who often travel together, are studying business. In Beirut, we shared a few evenings, and our conversations turned into fascinating exchanges on culture, politics, and religion.They tended to converse among themselves in the mélange of Lebanese, English, and French used by some young people for virtually all communication: texting, Facebook, and Web chat sites. (Young Lebanese have easy access to most Western movies and TV shows—Oprah is a favorite. Hanging out at the nicely appointed ABC Mall is a popular pastime, like roaming the Beverly Center is for the Beverly Hills set.) MJ has a fondness for liquor and sports cars; Lebanon does not restrict alcohol like some other Arab countries. Nehme and Farah taught us how to smoke a water pipe, or “hubblebubble”as they called it. To avoid a burning sensation, don’t blow the smoke out, just puff, Nehme instructed. My new friends also encouraged me to try a local culinary specialty: fried larks in a sweet dipping sauce (very good!).
Some of my favorite dining spots in Beirut included the Lamb House (entrées from $5; 961/1-741-824) for tasty traditional cuisine; Hotel Albergo’s The Restaurant (entrées from $15); and Julia’s (entrées from $40; 961/1-219-539), a casual, French-Italian spot. Don’t miss the Gemmayzeh Café (entrées from $10; 961/1-580-817); reserve a table for 9:30 p.m. and stay for the entertainment, which includes Lebanese dance.
Today, within Lebanon’s fledgling democracy, the population is optimistic about building a prosperous civil society. Recent elections offer signs of hope. Lebanon’s visitors are slowly returning, and perhaps someday Beirut will be the beacon of sun and fun that it once was. After visiting this region for the fi rst time, I can imagine how magnifi cent it would be to travel from Beirut to Tel Aviv (the Lebanon-Israel border is now closed). This north-south coastal route has wonderful potential, like that of U.S. Highway 1 on the Pacific Coast. As liberal, party-oriented Mediterranean cities, Beirut and Tel Aviv share many common traits. Also, the people and their emotional energies are alike.
Alas, the governments of Lebanon and Israel talk past one another. Passions run high (to say the least), with extremists on all sides making pragmatic solutions more elusive. I strongly encourage Americans to visit Lebanon. It’s entirely safe. It offers adventure, cultural enrichment, and leisure. Both the variety of experiences and the friendly people will leave you wanting more.
From the Summer 2009 issue of Sherman's Travel magazine.