A Mideast Melting Pot, With Snow by Lee Smith

Mideast Melting PotFeb 2005The New York Times

Just an hour’s drive from downtown Beirut, winter visitors to Lebanon will encounter a natural element they may not associate with a region of the world best known for daunting heat and desert sand: snow. But that’s exactly what they will find at the Mzaar resort (ex Faraya-Mzaar) – where the recent sound of raised voices was not an argument over politics but instead an American and an Arab exchanging harsh words (in French) after one’s skis had bumped into the other’s snowboard.

There are ski resorts in Turkey, Israel and Cyprus as well, but some skiers consider Lebanon’s slopes the best in the Middle East, and maybe the most convenient.

“I’ve lived in the Arab world for 10 years,” says Andrew Tabler, an American journalist living in Damascus, about two hours away. “To know I can go skiing anytime is like a breath of fresh air that draws me here every winter weekend.”

Though it wasn’t until the InterContinental Mountain Resort and Spa Mzaar opened in 2000 that Mzaar begin to gain a reputation as a top ski destination, the mountains were a central part of Lebanon’s identity hundreds of years before independence in 1946. The steep coastal topography afforded refuge to religious minorities, including Druze and Christians, whose persecutors were reluctant to follow them into the mountains. Mount Lebanon became the country’s Christian heartland, so during the civil war, skiing was virtually off-limits to everyone else.

But after 15 years of peace, the mountain is open again to all. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Arabs have tended to travel in the Arab world, where they do not fear being harassed over politics and where visas are easier to obtain. So in winter, Saudis, Emiratis and Kuwaitis are seen on the slopes layered in the latest cold-weather fashions from New York and Milan – making them among the best-dressed skiers, if not the most experienced.

The resort’s 5 tows and 13 chairlifts carry skiers up 18 runs that are short, intense and often taxing, dropping 141 to 1,335 feet from a top elevation of 8,087 feet. Depending on which of the slopes you choose, a full day of skiing runs from $30 to $48 on the weekends, and $18 to $25 on the weekdays.

With the mountain range jutting out of the Mediterranean, the climate is something like California’s, where the Pacific determines the texture of the snow. As the temperatures climb into the 70’s come April, locals and visitors alike find themselves spending mornings on the slopes and afternoons by the sea in their swimsuits.

For nonathletes, there is plenty to do besides sitting by the fire in the InterContinental’s lobby sipping Turkish coffee and brandy. Holidays are especially lively, exemplifying the diverse, polymorphously playful nature of contemporary Lebanon: from a Valentine’s Day outdoor fashion show with models in silk lingerie and thick snow boots to snowball fights among visitors on the feast of Eid al-Adha.
For resort information, see www.skileb.com

During high season, until March 15, deluxe doubles at the InterContinental Mountain Resort and Spa are $275 a night on weekends and $225 weekdays, with breakfast. It has indoor and outdoor pools.

At www.skileb.com packages at the less luxurious Merab, San Antonio and Auberge Suisse start at $60 a person with ski rental and pass.

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