Feb 2000 – Skiing from the Inside
“You’re going to Lebanon on vacation! Isn’t it dangerous there?” or “Beirut would be last on my list of holiday destinations” were the typical kind of responses I received from friends on announcing my travel plans.
Skiing to me is the most fun you can have with your clothes on, but due to various reasons I had suffered a 5 year sabbatical from my favourite pastime. I was in need of a short break, working in Saudi Arabia and having recently discovered that skiing was available a lot closer than the Alps, I decided to take a look. Most Europeans image of Lebanon (including mine) is of a war ravaged country with political instability, unwelcoming to westerners and certainly not a skiing destination. It’s in the Middle East after all – how much snow can there be?
Having made my decision to go I booked a hotel through skileb.com (an easy straightforward process), then spent the next couple of weeks researching the resort of Mzaar (ex Faraya-Mzaar) on the internet, it looked promising…
Peering out the windows as we landed in Beirut revealed the ocean on one side, with the city seemingly built on the side of a hill on the other, the snow capped mountains clearly visible rising in the distance. Our taxi driver was waiting in the arrivals hall (a free service for those who book 6 night’s accommodation or more), and not more than one hour later having risen more than a mile above sea level we were checking into the Merab hotel.
The Merab turned out to be a good choice. It’s listed as a 3 star which is probably about right. Competitively priced and with clean comfortable rooms, they have a small bar and also a restaurant serving a varied international menu. Attached to the side is a small shop for your day to day needs. We opted for a twin room in the main hotel as we were trying to keep costs down, however the hotel also has apartments available across the road which sleep up to four with a separate living area. For those with money to burn there is also a 5 star Intercontinental nearby with all the amenities one would expect from a five star, including direct access to the chair lift of a couple of private blue runs.
Over the course of the week we became friendly with the owner of our hotel, Mansour, who was friendly and helpful, as were all the people working there, and indeed for that matter as was everyone we met during our stay. So there goes the first preconception that westerners might not be made to feel welcome!
Breakfast the following morning was large enough to provide the energy required for hitting the slopes, and consisted of quasonts, ham, cheese and some Lebanese style food as well as the mandatory coffee and juice. A free shuttle to the slopes is provided at 09.00am, or for a small charge at any other time you require. The chair lifts are not to far away but as its all uphill I’d recommend taking the transport provided (We found out to our cost the first day that walking wasn’t such a good idea!)
My wife is Asian and had never seen ice or snow before (apart from ice cubes in our freezer), so was understandably apprehensive about learning to ski and also concerned about the cold, but at the same time excited about seeing and doing something different. She need not have worried. We stopped off at one of the ski shops on the way to hire some ski gear (very cheap), and at the same time arranged an instructor for her. As luck would have it he turned out to be one of the top instructors (and skiers) in Lebanon, and was tall dark and handsome to boot. This kept the wife happy, and I also as I was now free to go off and explore the more difficult slopes rather than hang around on the beginner slope all day!
Having been not sure what to expect I was more than pleasantly surprised once we arrived at the slopes. The ski area was larger than I expected, there was enough to keep me happy all week. An advanced skier would probably cover the whole resort in two days, but it wasn’t until the fifth day that I managed to see all the slopes. There are plenty of blue, red and green runs as well as a couple of (short) black runs. Plenty of off piste skiing too. I consider myself an average skier, capable of green and blue runs and previously getting comfortable with the reds – but somewhat rusty after a lengthy layoff. I spent the rest of the week gradually working my way through the blue and red runs before finally plucking up the courage to tackle one of the short black runs on the last day. A bit scary but the few blacks there are are relatively short and in fact only form mid sections of red runs.
Being late in the season we had the benefit of glorious warm days and at least during the week almost empty pistes. A bit like having your own private ski resort! A word of warning if you go – use plenty of sun block. Not realizing the suns intensity I didn’t bother on the first day and spent the remainder of the holiday looking like an overripe tomato. This time of year it is also possible to spend the day at the beach in Beirut where the temperature was hitting 30°, I didn’t bother as I was enjoying the slopes too much, maybe next time though. I also managed to pick up a couple of real bargains for next year as the shops had reduced most of their stock with the season drawing to a close. All of the big names such as Spyder, Killy, Salomon, etc. are available.
The only downside of going so late in the season was that the snow became a bit slushy in the afternoon, and a pretty quiet nightlife. I’m told by the locals that January/February is the best time for skiing (the snow holds up better), and the resort becomes quite lively. The downside of course is longer lift queues – though nothing like the peak season queues in Europe.
Aside from the skiing what else bought a smile to my face? Well the food is excellent, be it a sheesh Tawouk or burger at one of the cafes on the slopes, or a meal at one of the restaurants in the evening. The local Lebanese beer is very good. The Lebanese people are very friendly and make you feel very welcome. More than once a member of the “ski staff” went out of the way to assist. An example: Seeing me scouring my piste map trying to work out where I was and wondering if I was capable of tackling the red run in front of me, one of the staff put me on the right track then offered to ski with me. After watching me safely ski down he then pointed me in the direction of the next one I should have a go at.
On another occasion I was standing at the top of a clearly more difficult red, a member of the piste patrol appeared and after pointing out that the slope was in fact closed (which I kind of knew) asked if I was a good skier. Not bad I replied, and with that he yelled “follow me” and shot off down the mountain. When I arrived at the bottom a minute or so later he was waiting with a big grin on his face and a high five – presumably to congratulate me on making it down in one piece! Try getting that kind of service in Europe.
To sum up, Lebanon has very good skiing, friendly people, a beautiful country and cheap everything. Will I go again – hell yes! But for a bit longer next time so I can sample the Beirut beaches and nightlife and maybe take in some of the historical sights as well. Having had more than my fair share of holidays over the years in various parts of the world, this one ranks right up there with the best of them. Skiing in Lebanon is a well kept secret.