‘That was the Holiday Inn,’ explains Ewan pointing to a tower block pockmarked with bullet holes, its floors gauged out by bombs. In its prime the Holiday Inn was on the front line of the Lebanese Civil War (1975 – 1990) and home to the hacks reporting on the action. It is still one of the tallest buildings on the Beirut skyline. Busy new developments crawl at its feet but the skeletal hotel has been left as a reminder of Lebanon’s dark past.
Beirut is having a second renaissance. Last time I visited in 2003, Lebanon was rising out of the ashes of civil war and being rebranded as the party central of the Middle East. This rebirth was short-lived, as Israel attacked in 2006 and the city was buried in conflict again.
Five years on and Beirut is bouncing back. The Guardian voted it the hottest destination of 2010 and Tatler couldn’t contain its excitement when the Four Seasons opened last year. You can see why.
A bustling metropolis, Beirut boasts top-notch nightlife, luxury hotels and designer shopping all on the edge of the Mediterranean. Impossibly well-dressed women sweep down the cobbled streets of Gemmayzeh (the Lebanese love child of the King’s Road and Mayfair) with nannies and children in tow. Teenagers ooze out of sparkling 4WDs on their way to Centrale, Myu or Sky Bar, where Cristal champagne is rumoured to cost $10,000 and dancing on tables is a must. Typically the people here will speak three languages in one sentence, in this order: French, Arabic then English. This is no Dubai.
‘The guys act like rock stars, the girls like models”, explains my Lebanese friend, on a night out at the raunchily named ‘Behind The Green Door’. The city is made for posers and there is no better place to pose than on the slopes. Lebanon is one of few places in the world where you can ski in the morning and beach (and botox) in the afternoon.
The ski slopes are just one hour outside of Beirut. As you crawl up the mountainside, the giant French villas morph into wooden chalets. Snow sidles up to the road, appearing from nowhere. Before you know it, you’re driving through a winter wonderland.
Skiing in Lebanon, like many things here, is a residue of the French mandate. The French introduced the sport in the 1930’s when they set up a makeshift army ski school in the now privately owned Cedars resort. Skiing didn’t take off at first because of the lack of ski lifts. It was snow-joke (apologies): until the ’50s the powder-hungry had to trek up the mountains in leather boots or on a donkey. You could squeeze in just a handful of runs a day.
There are now six resorts with a final one in development (complete with high altitude golf course). The Cedars continues to be the most iconic with breathtaking views and untouched upper-slopes. However, if you’re looking for Lebanese luxury: Mzaar is your destination.
At the heart of Mzaar is the InterContinental resort. An orgy of five star chalet apartments, the InterContinental Mzaar has its own private slope for the true ski-poser. It also houses the Lebanese Al Hor Tent restaurant where food is so authentic they get it from the local Bedouin.
Après-ski is very important. The best night out changes month to month, depending on what the Beirut OC decides is ‘the’ place to be seen. How they co-ordinate I have no idea, but flock mentality is big here. I was assured the igloo-shaped, L’Igoo, and largest wooden construction in the Middle East, Rikky’z, were the latest favourite haunts. No doubt my next month, this will be old hat.
Skiing in Lebanon eerily echoes it’s French ancestry. The ski-slope junction at Mzaar is a boutique version of Les Trois Vallées. You’ll find cheese fondues and Cassoulet Toulousain at the ski-lodge-esque Montagnou restaurant, the local vineyards in the Beqaa valley (an unusual mix of vines and Hezbollah) make excellent fine wines and crews of ski-schools babble away in French.
But it’s the subtle differences that make skiing here fun. You can order a shisha with your chocolat chaud or visit the stunning Roman ruins of Faqra in the afternoon. The slopes aren’t nearly as crowded and make-up on piste is allowed, if not encouraged. Best of all, for the reluctant skier like myself, you can potter up for an afternoon, fall over lots and descend back to cosmopolitan chaos in time for happy hour. Fabulous stuff.
Beirut is a fascinating city because of its contradictions. What other capital endures 31 years of on-off conflict and then becomes party central for the glitterati elite? One of the most glamorous hotels in the city, Le Gray, overlooks Martyrs’ Square and Hariri’s mosque: both stark memorials to recent bloody events. You barely notice the heavily armoured vehicles guarding checkpoints throughout the city, as your eyes are diverted by the sparkly row of designer shops and the Mario-cart driving. BO18, one of the hippest clubs in the city and a definite must-see, was built on the site where they threw the bodies during the civil war. The architect, Bernard Khoury, reflected this by designing the club in the shape of a coffin. The mechanical roof opens like a tombstone.
The question is, will it last? Even this incarnation is not without hiccups: following a Hezbollah walkout, the government collapsed the week we returned home. But the Lebanese are a resilient bunch and right now they’re having a ball. I’m hedging my bets but I’ll venture Beirut is back on track.
Behind the Green Door,Gemmayzeh Beirut
BO18, La Quarantaine, Beirut- b018.com
Centrale restauratSaifi, Beirut – centralerestaurant.com
Myu Rue St. Antoine, Beirut
SkyBar, Biel complex, Beirut – sky-bar.com
For details of all the bars, restaurants and hotels in the ski resorts please visit skileb.com. You can also book your holidays through SkiLeb.