Dec 09 – Dailymail.co.uk – Travel – Ski Holidays – by Rob Freeman
When ski journalist Rob Freeman found his later father’s diary documenting his time in North Africa and Lebanon during the Second World War he was gripped by tales of a three-day skiing adventure high above Beirut. Armed with detailed letters sent back home, and a handful of grainy black and white photographs, Rob set out to the far end of the Mediterranean to retrace his father’s ski tracks.
‘We were up early for breakfast on the day we planned to go skiing, then round to the sports shop – luckily in the same street as our hotel – to pick up our ski gear.
‘We soon found the right fit for the skiing boots and, grabbing our equipment, unwieldy skis and all, paid our cash and made for the tram stop. After leaving the tram at the end of the line, outside the city, we were lucky to get picked up by a three-ton truck just a few minutes after we started thumbing a lift. It was full of sailors, also going skiing.’
This wasn’t my recent trip to Beirut for my first taste of Lebanese skiing. This was my father’s detailed description of his ski holiday in Lebanon 66 years ago in 1944 during the Second World War. He was in the Royal Engineers in the North Africa campaign, and Lebanon was the spot that the Army sent the troops for rest and relaxation.
Like father like son: Rob on the slopes in Lebanon and his dad on the same piste back in 1944
Armed with his detailed letters back home to my mother, and black and white pictures of him learning to ski on the towering slopes above the cedars, I set out to the far end of the Mediterranean to retrace his steps – or ski tracks.
‘It turned out that the sailors, part of the crew of a Royal Navy Mosquito Motor Launch helping to guard Beirut Harbour, were also novices at this skiing lark too, so we felt ourselves in the right company. The lorry toiled on up the road and the views were wonderful as we went higher and higher. Not pretty scenery, but rugged grandeur.
‘We began to see snow at the sides of the road – and we felt quite a tingle when we soon saw the slopes were covered with snow as we climbed higher.
‘In fact we began to whoop a bit, like schoolboys.’
For my father and his comrades, that was the start of a three-day skiing adventure high above Beirut. They had reached the city after a 36-hour train journey up the coast from Cairo.
Home during their stay was the Salvation Army hostel ‘where we had a room with a view and a balcony overlooking the harbour’.
The cost of ski hire for three days was ‘three pounds Syrian, or six shillings English’ (until 1943, when it gained independence, Lebanon had been an enclave within Syria).
The ski-hire shop and the ski lift at The Cedars. The Lebanese ski industry has flourished even though the country has been blighted by conflict for decades
‘We clambered out of the truck and, grabbing our skis, sorted out our boots and put the things on. Then the fun began. We started to try our luck, our legs would slide apart, skid, smack and down we would go. Just over six feet of wood on our feet felt as if they would like to take control of us.
‘I tried some speed down the slope, too much speed – and found I could not turn. I tried to stop myself, going through all the motions of a ballet dancer minus feet, then did the most useful thing – hit the ground and winded myself for a minute.
Nothing daunted, we went slipping and sliding and gradually started to get the hang of it. When we tried the steeper hill we found ourselves tearing down it at about 30mph or thereabouts – then we would discover our skill at turning was not what we thought it was and end up on our head or behind.’
My 2010 Lebanon skiing experience had more luxuries. I arrived in Beirut after a very comfortable five and a half hour flight from Heathrow with bmi, who operate a daily service there, rather than rattling up on a troop train for a day and a half from Cairo. After a night in the city, my first destination in the mountains was the ski resort of Mzaar, which had thankfully acquired ski lifts since my father’s stay in 1944.
I was astonished to hear at the base area that most of the skiers around me were talking English. It sounded more like Meribel than the Middle East. ‘Oh, most people who ski here, apart from those coming up from Beirut, are ex-pats from the Gulf,’ said the first skier I questioned. ‘It’s the nearest skiing we have – apart from the snow dome in Dubai – and it’s only a three and a half hour plane ride.
Off duty: Arthur Freeman (second left) at The Cedars in 1944 with Army colleagues
‘You’ll find that the majority here are working in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Bahrain – a lot of English, but Dutch, Germans and Scandinavians too, and they all speak English to the Lebanese here.’
There were also many French ex-pat families, and they were able to use their own language – French is the second language of the Arabic-speaking Lebanese, and most speak it well.
The big chill: Sixty six years on, the blizzards can still whip up a storm atop the Mzaar resort
Lebanon has six ski resorts, of which Mzaar is the biggest with 13 chairlifts and a handful of drag-lifts including baby lifts on the beginner slopes. The first lift was installed here in 1960 and development continued gradually – and astonishingly, new ski lifts were installed even as the civil war raged in Lebanon between 1975 and 1991. They were transported to Mzaar from the coast with great effort and at great risk, even though the main hotel at the time, the Faraya-Mzaar, was pillaged and occupied by various militia forces for several years.
The Lebanese are nothing if not enterprising, and as soon as the war ended new development plans were laid, resulting in the opening of the impressive Intercontinental Mzaar Mountain Resort hotel.
However, I stayed at the simpler but very friendly Hotel San Antonio – a real ski hotel and full of character if slightly but charmingly down-at-heel.
The drive to bring in more international skiers is be led by the enthusiastic Ron Sayegh, who runs the booking agency skileb.com.
‘It might not be like Europe, but we often get some great snow here and people are surprised at how good the skiing can be,’ he said.
‘And it’s a completely different skiing adventure here – people can experience a different culture entirely.
And of course there are few places where you can ski in the morning and then swim in the Mediterranean in the afternoon.’
While no one would think of comparing the skiing here with a top European resort – the runs are not long and the snow conditions are very dependent on Mediterranean weather patterns – there is undeniable cachet in Ron’s morning ski/afternoon dip in the Med scenario.
And when we were there a sudden blizzard cloaked the top of the mountain and it felt very much like winter in the Alps.
The Mzaar base is at 1850-metres, with skiing up to 2,465-metres and, with all lifts open, there are 80 kilometres of runs.
From Mzaar I headed to The Cedars ski resort, the country’s iconic destination. The route to The Cedars is dramatic, winding through villages precariously built on the sides of plunging chasms – with goatherds tending flocks on precipitous slopes just yards from sheer drops. Ibex, with their scimitar-shaped horns, can often be seen.
Eventually the stark white ski slopes suddenly appear as glittering ramparts forming the spine of Lebanon. The slopes of The Cedars are the country’s highest, going up to more than 3,000-metres and the season is longer.
Dramatic: Plunging gorges beside the road from Beirut to The Cedars, with villages clinging to the clifftops
But there are disappointingly few cedars – I had looked forward to some spectacular tree-skiing through them.
We did seek out a bit of extra excitement here though – by slipping the army a few notes so we could use their own private chairlift to access some otherwise private training slopes.
The lift, it turned out, was on the primitive side and leaving it at the ramshackle top station – with a sheer drop to the piste rather than a gentle ramp – was the scariest part of the whole trip.
Eating out in the resorts is a delight – Lebanon is rightly highly-regarded for its cuisine. Lebanese hors d’ouvres, or mezzes, are the savoury beginning to any traditional meal. Masses of hot pitta bread, small bowls of olive oil, and fresh thyme accompany the dips and salads.
Thriving: The view of Beirut’s marina and seafront from the Four Seasons Hotel
Main dishes typically included stuffed vine leaves, triangular pastries filled with meat or spinach, kibbeh (minced lamb) and kebabs served with a choice of tahini (a paste made of sesame seeds and olive oil) or garlic sauce.
‘We had brought figs with nuts and oranges for our lunch, and that was supplemented with bully sandwiches from the Navy blokes. We had a few drinks from a spring by the Gendarmerie, ice cold and bubbling up from deep in the mountain. We started to plan a holiday to Switzerland when we got back home after the war. We mean to have it too!’
My trip mirrored that of my father’s in 1944 in other ways – including a trip through the Bekaa Valley to see the fabulous Roman ruins at Baalbeck and some vineyards.
But my father’s holiday from the North Africa campaign was to end in drama and tragedy. Returning to Beirut they visited their new-found Navy mates on their boat for dinner ‘with a tot or two of rum’.
‘The next day we were in our room in the hotel on the Beirut waterfront when a hell of an explosion blew in the French windows to the balcony – we dived under the beds as the room was showered with glass.’
They dashed down to the harbour to find that their friends’ boat, which had been full of explosives, had blown up and they were told that all aboard had been killed. A search of the city’s hospitals revealed, to their relief, that most in fact had survived and were being treated for their injuries.
Thankfully nothing so traumatic for me when we returned from the mountains to Beirut. Just an unabashed luxury stay at the newly-opened five-star Four Seasons Hotel – where you can swim in its rooftop pool looking out over the Med – and tours of the city in the company of our hugely-knowledgeable guide Sylvia Tatarian.
Capital adventure: The stunning new Al-Amin mosque in downtown Beirut
This once Pearl of the Middle East has been rapidly and exquisitely renovated since the civil war at a cost of ten billion dollars and, with a city centre that is a living museum going back several thousand years, is a destination to savour.
In this part of the world, no period of relative peace and stability is taken for granted. But every second is treasured and made use of.
And another big difference to that trip of 66 years ago was that I was whisked back to the UK in hours by way of bmi. My father on the other hand had a day and half by train back to Cairo – then another 18 months of desert war until he could go back home.
A one-day ski pass for Mzaar in the week is $27, or $40 a day at weekends. For The Cedars it is $23 on week days and $30 at weekends, visit www.skileb.com. A double room, with breakfast for two, at the Hotel San Antonio in Mzaar is $150 a night.
A double room at the Intercontinental Mzaar Mountain Resort Hotel costs around $300 a night. A double room at the Cedrus Hotel at Cedars (which has the highly-rated Le Pichet restaurant) starts from $155 a night.
Staying in Beirut: The Four Seasons Hotel, on the ocean front, has double rooms from $468 a night.