Dec 03 – TheNational.AE – Lifestyle – Travel – By Minty Clinch
As the Lebanese ski mostly at weekends, the agenda makes a lot of sense. From Sunday to Thursday, visitors have the slopes to themselves. On Fridays and Saturdays, they can watch the locals flaunt their cutting-edge designer clothes on the slopes. Frequent direct flights from Abu Dhabi take just two-and-a-half hours, and Beirut’s city-centre airport makes for short transfers, so Lebanon is a highly practical alternative to a short break in the Alps.
Although it’s a tiny country, Lebanon punches way above its weight in many areas, not least the spectacular Roman ruins at Baalbek, the ancient port at Byblos and the impressive grottos at Jeita. Geographically, it has parallel mountain ranges with the fertile Bekaa Valley – home to what it claims are the world’s oldest vineyards – in between. The Cedars and Mzaar, the two resorts with international appeal, and half a dozen local hills are scattered along the western coastal range overlooking the Mediterranean.
The French introduced skiing in Cedars, in the north of the country towards the Syrian border, during the mandate years in the last century. From the mid-1920s, they rode up the mountain on donkeys, accompanied by villagers carrying their skis. During the Second World War, British soldiers on leave from North Africa headed to Beirut by train, rented leather boots and long hickory skis and hitch-hiked the 130 kilometres to Cedars to flounder up and down the hillside as best they could.
The base station is at 2,000m and the pioneering chairlifts which were installed in 1953 are still running today, backed up in 2005 by some triple chairs that only operate when there are enough customers to justify the expenditure on electricity. The iconic cedar trees, the emblem on the national flag, are conspicuously absent in the large bowl that makes up the ski zone. I’d imagined from old photographs that I’d be weaving my way among them in knee-deep powder. Wrong on both counts.
There is a small plantation of mini cedars at the bottom of the resort next to a longish street of stalls selling cedar memorabilia. The trees are supposedly protected, but their slow growth combined with an increasing commercial imperative don’t stack up too well for the future. In a bad snow year, with no skiing until the beginning of February and rapid melt down by the end of it, the powder was also conspicuously absent.
There weren’t many snow users either on a quiet Wednesday, so the upper slopes were routinely closed. The only way to reach the top of skiing at 3,088m was an ancient one-man chair owned by the army. “Shut,” said its guardian firmly, but a crisp note changed that and soon I was airborne, my skis cradled awkwardly in my arms. How to get off a lift designed for fit young soldiers that doesn’t slow down at a landing platform high above the piste? The resulting bruises were still there several weeks later but they were worth it for high traverses, big rocks and untracked spring snow.
Mzaar, formerly called Faraya for the larger village immediately below it, is Beirut’s playground, a 45-minute, 42km drive from the downtown area. In the edgy peace that has taken over from the bitter civil war of the 1970s and 1980s and the years of regional strife that followed, Mzaar is growing fast, with newly built chalets for sale and hotels that encourage locals to make a weekend of it.
Unlike Cedars, where what you see is all you get, Mzaar is Lebanon’s answer to France’s Three Valleys, with a gratifying feeling of going places. Some 18 chair and drag lifts serve 80km of groomed pistes, predominantly blue and red runs, with a couple of short but not very sharp blacks, terrain well suited to intermediates looking to improve. With no barriers to wide-ranging exploration on rounded sand dune-style hills, experts can be squealing in powder – when it is available. Mzaar’s starting point, simply called Junction, is a car park with lifts fanning out in different directions. Dome Jabal El Dib opens up a rolling descent to the hamlet of Warde, a good place for beginners to take lessons in the dedicated Jardin des Neiges. More experienced skiers head for La Cabane at the edge of the resort. The restaurant is famous for its Iraqi mezze, but it is only open on sunny days.
In the opposite direction, the 2,465m Dome du Mzaar is the top of the lift system, with impressive views over the Bekaa and the Mediterranean. As the beaches are only 20 minutes away, skiing in the morning and swimming in the sea in the afternoon is a viable option, though not a sensible one when winter storms lash the coast. Runs lead down to the ski-in, ski-out hotel zone, dominated by the InterContinental Mzaar Mountain Resort and Spa, the first international chain in Mzaar. Beirut’s flashy rich book it out at weekends, creating a buzz, but with the emphasis on family life: masses of kids drink Coca-Cola, while their proud parents smoke shisha pipes.
Alternative accommodation includes Eleven, a minimalist boutique hotel, and the family-run Merab, which has rooms on one side of the street and apartments on the other, all of them decorated in traditional Lebanese style. However my favourite is the simple, newly refurbished San Antonio guest house, 10 minutes down the hill and operated in a very generous spirit by the irrepressible Sharbel.
Only the most blinkered Lebanon first timers would want to ski every day in a country with so many rival attractions – which leaves many visitors with the dilemma of where best to stay. Relaxed snow riders can base themselves in Beirut and book day trips to Mzaar on Ron Sayegh’s Skileb website when the weather forecast is promising.
I stayed very luxuriously in the Four Seasons that overlooks the Marina and some newly landscaped gardens that stretch down to the sea. Fully opened in April, its roof-top swimming pool and cafe-bar are popular, both with residents and wealthy Beirutis who come to watch the sunset.There might not be any snow, but you’ll make new friends.