17-March-2013 – Daily Mail by Neil English
After making my first turns on Lebanese snow seven years ago, I made a pledge to myself to return one day. After all, the chance to ski at the Middle East’s largest resort, Faraya-Mzaar, in the morning before swimming in the Mediterranean near Beirut in the afternoon is difficult to resist.
My second visit to this warm and friendly country was just as wonderful as the first. Despite the current troubles blighting neighbouring Syria, Lebanon is still considered a safe tourist destination by the Government.
This time around, I opted for a properly planned city/ski twin destination holiday, rather than just snatching a few hours on the coast.
Mzaar sits in a wind-protected section of Mount Lebanon, and the ski terrain altitude ranges from 6,069ft to 8,087ft.
There are nearly 50 miles of groomed pistes here, and the terrain, with far-reaching views over the Bekaa Valley, is mainly suited to beginners and intermediate skiers.
At the sushi bar inside my base, the Intercontinental Hotel at Faraya-Mzaar, I met Georges Salemeh, who has represented Lebanon at the Winter Olympics. I had first spotted him practising slalom turns on a steep pitch just behind the hotel.
‘You’re welcome to come and train with me if you’d like but my own track is hard and icy so you might want to sharpen your edges first,’ said Georges. I politely declined and instead asked what he thought of Mzaar’s slopes for locals and tourists.
‘They provide not just the best skiing in Lebanon, but the best in the Middle East,’ he replied.
While there are no shortage of good hotels in the Middle East, there simply cannot be many boasting private ski lift access from a sun-deck to the slopes. I would also recommend the Intercontinental for its spa and fine restaurants but, due to regular power cuts caused by fluctuating energy supplies from the government, I refused to use the hotel lifts. Anyway, using the stairs helps strengthen your ski legs.
One night I opted out of the hotel’s very good Lebanese buffet and headed to the nearby Le Montagnou restaurant, which specialises in… fondue. I suppose this must be a throwback to the days when the French occupied these parts and introduced some of their preferred mountain dishes.
I have to admit the four-cheese fondue and house specialty of fried eggs on halloumi cheese were up to Alpine standard.
After three days, which is plenty of time for an experienced skier, I moved on to the second phase of my adventure. I took the Intercontinental’s shuttle bus (it costs £30 for the 75-minutes journey) along pot-holed roads to Beirut.
My destination was the handsome Phoenicia Hotel, which is also part of the Intercontinental Group. The hotel, which has recently undergone a multi-million-pound refurbishment to mark its 50th anniversary, overlooks the city’s famous boardwalk, the Beirut Corniche. The nearby harbour was full of the type of huge yachts more often seen moored in Cannes during the film festival season.
The Phoenicia’s suites and banqueting rooms have long played host to heads of state (both good and infamous), along with celebrities and discerning tourists from all corners of the globe. The opulent, ground-floor lounge is still one of Beirut’s most popular meeting places – it is always busy with locals gossiping over a late-morning coffee, businessmen cutting deals over lunch and tourists enjoying an aperitif.
I could have happily whiled away my two days and nights exploring the Phoenicia’s world-class spa, choice of superb restaurants and shops, not to mention the finest collection of rare whiskies from all over the world that I have ever seen. However, I was here to savour the whole city, so I hired a guide who organised a lightning tour.
The itinerary included visits to the National Museum of Lebanon, which houses the sarcophagus of the ancient Phoenician king Ahiram; a shopping area dubbed ‘the Greenwich Village of Beirut’ due to its wealth of chic boutiques; and places of worship, including the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque.
At lunchtime, we headed for the superb organic restaurant Al Tawleh, where fresh mezze dishes such as white and green bean salads, houmous with cress, onion, rocket and beetroot, and sausages stuffed with de-thorned thistles from the Lebanese mountains delighted our tastebuds. All these were washed down with some heavenly Bekaa Valley wines.
Beirut is packed with romanticlooking streets adorned with enticing pavement cafes, food markets, high-end boutiques and art galleries.
At night, the city comes alive once more, as live music is played in a host of bars and clubs.
The highlight of my trip, however, was having dinner at the Al Falamanki restaurant. This is where a real cross-section of Lebanese society convenes for games of cards, and to listen to gentle music while drinking delicious Lebanese wine and eating a stream of Mediterranean delicacies. Simply brilliant. Until the mid-Seventies when Lebanon was plunged into civil war, Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East. I’m glad to say it has deservedly reclaimed its title.