Mar 19, 2011 – The Daily Star – by Simona Sikimic
FARAYA: The scent of spring is finally in the air and with temperatures firmly in the mid-20s, the winter blues, long-detectable on people’s faces, are visibly dissipating. Nowhere is this change more evident than the slopes of the country’s ski resorts, which have been overwhelmed by visitors in recent days, keen to exploit the ideal conditions.
The storms that pelted Lebanon last weekend dumped over a meter of snow on the leading destinations of the Cedars and Mzaar Kfardebian, extending the season well into March, with nearly 100 percent of lifts and runs reportedly open.
While slightly icy in the mornings and unavoidably slushy after lunch, when even the most diligent of snow maintenance work proves unable to ward off temperatures of above 10° Celcius, the snow is in an unusually good state for this time of year. Lebanon is experiencing better conditions than most European ski resorts, which are suffering from a notable lack of snow.
The situation is a real change from the 2009-2010 season, when poor snowfall shortened the ski period to a mere four of five weeks.
“We have been incredibly fortunate this year, and this was much better than expected,” said Andrea Wrba, general manager of Faraya’s biggest hotel, the Hotel Intercontinental Mzaar. “The season opened very early on Dec. 11 and provided the temperatures do not get too high we expect to be skiing until April and indeed perhaps into April as well.”
Turbulent weather that has plagued the country has allowed the ski season to be constant this year, with no ski days lost due to lack of snow, although lifts were forced to close during the worst of the storms.
“This has been one of the best seasons ever and it is not over yet,” said Charbel Salameh, operations manager of Lebanon’s Ski Society, which boasts some 4,000 members from the country’s universities. “Every time it looked like the snow was melting, we would get a new dump.”
Conditions have been so good that normally rare “off-piste days,” where true enthusiasts venture off the designated routes to battle the powder, have been common, allowing many to brush up on this rarely used skill.
“Because the season was so bad last year, we had real difficulty recruiting at the start and lots of people backed out saying that the snow was going to be worse than 2010,” said Salameh.
“But, as soon as the snow fell, and then fell again, people absolutely flooded to join.”
Restaurants and cafes are busy, with hotels still reporting high occupancy and promoting special deals to lure in patrons. Big events, such as night skiing, which took place in the Cedars Friday and is scheduled in Faraya on Saturday, are also being held to boost visitor numbers.
“The weather is just beautiful,” said architect Stephanie Najjar, 28, who visited the slopes mid-week with a group of friends. “I just couldn’t sit in the office when I knew I could be out skiing in the sunshine and having a good time.
“Everyone in the office is trying to take a day or two off to enjoy this. I’m going to have so much work tomorrow but it is totally worth it,” she added.
Another visitor, Jean Hoayek, 74, has driven from Beirut every day since Monday to enjoy the snow.
“I’m lucky that at my age I can still ski so I try and come out whenever the snow is good,” said Hoayek. “The last few years have been disappointing to say the least and I was worried that this year would be even worse but it has been very good.
“There is nothing like having a glass of wine in the snow and sunshine after a hard day skiing.”
While the weekdays may be a reserve of the retired or the young and fashionable, the weekends are very much a time for families, with large swarms of schoolchildren heading to the slopes to take lessons, go sledding or build snowmen.
“I take my children skiing most weekends, provided that it is relatively sunny” said Sabine Daou, a mother of three in her 40s. “It’s a good way to keep them occupied and they absolutely love being out here. There is lots of fresh air and I can sit and have some time to myself while [my boys] go off with their instructor.”
Luckily, the hotels, resorts and travel operators have all thought of a host of other activities alongside skiing to maximize the season’s potential and compensate for the lost business.
Even once the snow begins to retreat, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, trekking and mountain hiking will all be available, while the more adventurous will be able to try their hand at hot air ballooning or paragliding. For the less brave, spas, restaurants and bars will also stay open well into the summer ensuring fun continues year-round in Lebanon’s mountains.