Myth confirmed: Ski and swim in a day

By Alex Taylor – The Daily Star
Photos: Mahmoud Kheir

KFARDEBIAN/JBEIL, Lebanon: The “ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon” slogan has long been touted in top 10 destinations lists featuring Lebanon. The country promises extremes unmatched by any other touristic experience – snow and the sea in the same day, women in hijabs and miniskirts walking down the same street.

Ski and swim in Lebanon
Mzaar ski resort

Lebanon, the phoenix, rises from the dust (or maybe the melting snow) to return to her legendary, travel glory. Unlike walking wardrobe contradictions, which are readily observable year round, there are only a few magical days when the weather cooperates and the ski/swim attraction is possible to attempt. With the slopes reportedly still open and the temperature sliding higher, I decided to test the cliché, planning a trip to Mzaar ski resort in the morning and finishing at the beach in Jbeil.

Beginning my journey early on a traffic-less Good Friday, I hit the road around 8 a.m. to get to Mzaar for the best snow. Winding up the mountain streets, a few roadside vendors hawk mittens, gloves and cheap sunglasses, taking advantage of one of the last weekends of the year to move their merchandise.

In February, snow covered the ground at the roundabout in Jeita, but today, the first snow sighting is in Mayrouba at about 1,250 meters. Glimpses of the peaks in the distance show that there is plenty of snow. But as I get closer I wonder if I’m about to be confronted by a giant pile of slush.

I enter the town of Faraya greeted by a waving Pierre Gemayel and a throng of cars and people. I worry at first they are all headed to the slopes like me, but it turns out (thank God) they are headed to Good Friday mass. It strikes me that the national holiday may be more important to enabling the completion of the ski-and-swim challenge than weather conditions as we arrive to the relatively empty Mzaar parking lot in record time.

Mzaar ski resort Lebanon
Mzaar ski resort

In the equipment rental shop I inquire if any of my fellow skiers are as intrepid as I in their ambitions for the day, joining me on the snow-to-sea trek. None volunteer but, fortuitously, one man tells me that he accomplished the feat once before, five years ago.

“Everyone says you can do it, but not many people who tell you to do it can say they’ve done it,” my new friend Georges says as I seek advice about the best place to swim. I ask him what it was like, to realize the ultimate Lebanon experience.

“We felt like rock stars,” he replied. Enough said. Excited and wanting to feel like a rock star myself, I eye the 1980s-era, hot-pink ski suits hanging in the shop.

Soon though, in my normal fleece, I hit “la piste.” Unlike my earlier trips to Mzaar, the chairlift waits are short and there are no children zooming around me, yelling in French as they slide over my skis and push through the “line.” The snow up top is surprisingly light and enjoyable but gets stickier the lower you go, like skiing through a snow cone. The estimation by the Mzaar ski patroller that the season will last another weekend, and possibly two if we’re lucky, seems a bit of a stretch. But today, conditions couldn’t be better – breezy and sunny, making the temperature seem much warmer than the 15 degrees the monitor in town shows.

After a few runs, I’m feeling exhilarated, but a bit overheated and in need of a swim. It might be the booming tunes by Stereo Love and the Black Eyed Peas blaring from the lodge speakers or maybe subliminal messaging from all the billboards advertising vodka, but I’m feeling ready for another, world-renowned Lebanese pastime – to party. I take off my skis, intent on joining the snow bunnies drinking white wine at the lodge in their furry, Prada boots, but remember that I have a mission.

Mzaar ski resort Lebanon
Mzaar ski resort Lebanon

I’m off to Jbeil, following flashy Hummers driving down the mountain. As I descend, the temperature rises, as do the glorious smokestacks of the Zouk power plant just ahead. Beach, here I come.

I slip onto the beach in front of Eddé Sands in Jbeil from the public entrance, navigating rocks and last summer’s empty bottles of Ksara Sunset. Once I reach the water, I kick off my shoes to feel the baked, orange sand between my toes. To my surprise, the beachgoers abound, lounging and playing in the water. Ready with my swimsuit donned under my ski gear, it’s now or never. I pick the least slimy looking bit of beach and run in, hoping the thin, green film on the water’s surface isn’t something contagious. The temperature is shockingly cold but I’m in to win it and dunk my head. Mission accomplished.

Swimming in Byblos Edde Sands
Swimming in Byblos Edde Sands

After a brief swim curtailed by chattering teeth, I rest on my towel at the edge of a row of plush, pink beach beds newly laid out by Eddé Sands for the start of the summer season. The local patrons appear just as worn out as me, lounging and sleeping, slathered in tanning oil – so exhausted it seems that a few need their maids to build sandcastles with the children and refill their water cups. Oh, what a day we’ve had.

Edde Sands beach in Jbeil Lebanon
Edde Sands beach in Jbeil Lebanon

Gazing down the coast to where I assume Beirut sits behind a cloud of smog, I feel exuberant and consider my accomplishment. Do I feel like a rock star, though? Not quite. But I hear that you really haven’t seen Lebanon until you’ve been seen at another Beirut institution – SKYBAR. Cue bass.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Lifestyle/2012/Apr-07/169528-myth-confirmed-ski-and-swim-in-a-day.ashx
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)

Winter forecast in Lebanon: sunny, with 100% chance of snow

Yes, it’s true. Lebanon is a wintertime ski destination. Tell your friends, but not too many of them. The fact that there’s great skiing in Lebanon is one of the best kept snow-lover secrets out there.

How can you find out more about ski conditions in Lebanon? Skileb.com is the best source of ski weather, conditions, images, and ski chat in Lebanon. We’re always thinking of new ways to keep you informed about what’s up on our mountaintops. Here are three place to go for the latest, most accurate real-time information about skiing in Lebanon:

weather forecast in Lebanon

1) Weather Page on Skileb.com

On the skileb.com weather page, powered by Snow Forecast, you can find all sorts of useful details. Get the specifics about the Mzaar (formerly Faraya Mzaar) ski resort. We also have the weather lowdown on The Cedars, Laqlouq, Zaarour, and the capital city of Beirut. Check out the maximum and minimum temperatures, wind speed, freezing level, and precipitation outlook.

satellite image, snow in lebanon

2) Satellite Images of Lebanon on Skileb.com

Provided by NASA Earth Data, the satellite imagery of Lebanon on our our newest page of Skileb.com is a fascinating big picture of ski conditions in Lebanon. It’s refreshed two times a day. During the wintertime, you can use these satellite images to identify which areas are covered in white. A great way to see Mzaar and the Cedars from way, WAY up!

the cedars in lebanon, webcam

3) Live Web Cams on Skileb.com

The next best thing to being in Lebanon and looking out the window of your chalet in Mzaar, the web cams on skileb.com give you the most updated peek at the slopes in Lebanon. There are four different web cams to choose from. You can spy on the lifts at Mzaar, have a look at Mzaar from MzaarVille Chalets or take a peek at the lifts at The Cedars and downtown Beirut.

Once you see where the fresh powder is falling and when, you can book your chalet in Mzaar or hotel in The Cedars accordingly. And don’t forget to find Skileb.com on Facebook for even more fun and details about all things skiing in Lebanon.

Why Lebanon has rise to Arabian heights by Adam Mynott

Jan 2008 – The Independent

Lebanon has a troubled history, but you wouldn’t know it in its top ski resort. Instead, Adam Mynott found quiet pistes, friendly locals and great cuisine.

Mzaar Lift Base

Risk-averse skiers; surely an oxymoron? But no, they must exist – it’s the only explanation for the fact that on our skiing trip, in high season, we enjoyed tons of snow; brilliant sunshine; wonderful, inexpensive meals; and slopes almost entirely to ourselves.

Skiing in Lebanon is not a closely guarded secret, although more than one of our friends did say, “You’re going there to ski – I thought it was hot?” People have been skiing in the mountains above Beirut since the 1930s. It can only be last year’s war with Israel, on top of car bombings and the murder of former Prime Minsiter Rafik Hariri in February 2005 that is keeping holiday-makers away. It’s true that while we were there, two buses were blown up nearby, but we were blissfully unaware of this until we got home.

Increasingly, I find skiing in Europe unsatisfactory. I like to feel that I’m actually abroad when on holiday, which is difficult when Alpine slopes echo with the sound of loud English voices, and when the ludicrously expensive food comes out of the same ready-meal packages lining the shelves of Tesco. While I do not mind being seen in my archaic skiing gear, my wife does object to being made to feel like a bag lady in the Alps if she’s wearing last year’s sunglasses. Most hateful of all, if you have to travel in school holidays, are the lift queues. So, a week in Mzaar (ex Faraya-Mzaar), one of Lebanon’s top ski resorts, seemed a good idea.

Being truly queue-phobic, the passage through Beirut airport raised my blood pressure. Rigorous scrutiny of every page of every passport for Israeli stamps is not a quick operation. But after the all-clear, the taxi journey through Beirut, where a scattering of soldiers and couple of armoured personnel carriers were the only evidence of recent unrest, was almost too quick; we’d been hoping to have a good look at this “Paris of the Middle East”.

The climb from cedar-clad valleys to the snowy foothills of the Mount Lebanon range is so rapid that your ears pop. Within an hour of meeting him, we were saying goodbye to our taxi driver, at the door of our hotel in Mzaar. Vague unease about our lack of Arabic evaporated immediately. Many people seem to speak a bit of English and almost all – thanks to the French mandate between the wars – speak French.

Hotel Merab is a family-run lodging: clean and friendly, if slightly disorganised. But it shed its modest aspirations for the skier’s most important meal of the day. Breakfast was a sumptuous Franco-Lebanese feast including aromatic, sesame-encrusted, thyme-infused manoushe (unleavened bread), mounds of velvety labne (yoghurt) topped with olive oil, tomatoes, baby cucumbers and olives, plus a delicious legacy of French rule: croissants and pains-au-chocolat to rival anything Paris has to offer.

Kitted out within minutes at the ski-hire shop, and our lift passes issued with breathtaking ease, we were standing on the slopes just half an hour after breakfast. Squinting at the pistes as we smeared on factor 60, we began to wonder where everyone had gone. It was 9.30am on a Saturday, under a cloudless sky, and the slopes were all but deserted.

Abilities in our family of five ranged from absolute novice through cautious to over-confident, and we pored over the piste map, picking out long, green slopes at one end and precipitous reds and blacks at the other. The Mzaar – Kfardebian ski area is spread over three domaines with 80km of marked slopes and unlimited off-piste possibilities.

The base of the resort is 1,850m high and it climbs up another 600m to the Dôme du Mzaar, where you get wonderful views of the Bekaa Valley away to the north-east, and below to the west, Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea.

We stripped off a layer and stamped our boots into the ski-bindings. By now, a handful of Lebanese weekend skiers had begun to arrive. We slithered off towards the first drag lift. There is something exotically heady about skiing these sparkling, pristine white dunes under a Middle Eastern sun to the muted background babble of Arabic.

That sense of having pitched up as new members in an unwelcoming and somewhat elitist club, which puts so many late-starters off skiing, is entirely absent. We met a group of retired teachers from Larnaca in tracksuits and anoraks, a couple of Red Cross Workers who had come up for the weekend from Cairo and three immaculately dressed Greek gods on snowboards, whose Olympian dignity deserted them as soon as they tried to move forward.

The snow was deep and crisp, and brilliantly organised. We must have had more than half a metre of fresh snowfall during the week and most of it fell at night. One of the lift attendants told me that in the evening, warm, wet air blows in off the Mediterranean and is shoved rapidly to icy heights above 1,800m, where it sheds its watery load in large, crisp snowflakes. Off-piste skiing in Mzaar must rival anything else on the planet. From the top of the Dôme, vast fields of undulating powder stretch away into the distance.

When you’re not queuing, it’s amazing how much more you ski and, consequently, improve. While sitting on a chair-lift, I worked out that if you take 12 lifts a day, and queue, typically in the Alps, for 10 minutes each time, that’s two hours of skiing lost every day. There was none of that in Mzaar, and none of the core-numbing chill as the sun drops behind the mountain and sodden gloves, and fingers inside them, start to stiffen.

We fell into the routine of stopping on the way back from the slopes at one of a handful of cafés for chocobas, a blood-sugar restoring concoction of hot baguette filled with melted chocolate and sliced banana. Sometimes we’d succumb to the “nut man” who would stop his old estate-car in front of us and open up his boot crammed with a fragrant, treasure trove of almonds, dates and mint-green and rose pistachios.

It’s possible here to ski in the morning and take a dip in the Med in the afternoon. But we never did. Six hours of solid skiing left us fit for nothing more strenuous than a walk to the nearest restaurant. Eating out was a joy, enhanced by the reckless consumption of one of Lebanon’s principal exports, wine from the Bekaa Valley.

Lebanese food is not, like its ski resorts, a well-kept secret; it is an international flag of honour. Determination to eat Lebanese led us twice to the Xtreme Food café, whose name belied the delicacy of the hummus, manoushe, chicken touk and baklava. One evening we took a taxi in search of authentic Lebanese food and atmosphere to Shekar’s in Fakra, the next village down the valley. After a feast of fatoush, kofta and baba ghanoush our young waiter, Gabrienoush, sat down with us and, with a mournful expression, told us how he was in despair at the state of the country, at the gulf between the rich and the poor, and how, as soon as he’d saved enough money, he would be joining the Lebanese diaspora. Before we left, he insisted on summoning the owner, who wouldn’t let us leave until we’d joined him in a glass of arrack – Lebanon’s answer to pastis. The bill was less than £25 for an exquisite meal for five.