Following in My Father’s Footsteps on a Skiing Trip in Lebanon

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.

Skiing in Lebanon
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).

Cedars Ski Lebanon
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.

Ski Lebanon
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.

Mzaar Ski Lebanon
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.

Road to the Cedars Lebanon
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.

Foiur Seasons Hotel Beirut
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.

Beirut City Lebanon
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.

Travel Facts

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.

Hit the Slopes in Lebanon

Dec 03 – TheNational.AE – Lifestyle – Travel – By Minty Clinch

As the Lebanese ski mostly at weekends, the agenda makes a lot of sense. From Sunday to Thursday, visitors have the slopes to themselves. On Fridays and Saturdays, they can watch the locals flaunt their cutting-edge designer clothes on the slopes. Frequent direct flights from Abu Dhabi take just two-and-a-half hours, and Beirut’s city-centre airport makes for short transfers, so Lebanon is a highly practical alternative to a short break in the Alps.

Although it’s a tiny country, Lebanon punches way above its weight in many areas, not least the spectacular Roman ruins at Baalbek, the ancient port at Byblos and the impressive grottos at Jeita. Geographically, it has parallel mountain ranges with the fertile Bekaa Valley – home to what it claims are the world’s oldest vineyards – in between. The Cedars and Mzaar, the two resorts with international appeal, and half a dozen local hills are scattered along the western coastal range overlooking the Mediterranean.

The French introduced skiing in Cedars, in the north of the country towards the Syrian border, during the mandate years in the last century. From the mid-1920s, they rode up the mountain on donkeys, accompanied by villagers carrying their skis. During the Second World War, British soldiers on leave from North Africa headed to Beirut by train, rented leather boots and long hickory skis and hitch-hiked the 130 kilometres to Cedars to flounder up and down the hillside as best they could.

The base station is at 2,000m and the pioneering chairlifts which were installed in 1953 are still running today, backed up in 2005 by some triple chairs that only operate when there are enough customers to justify the expenditure on electricity. The iconic cedar trees, the emblem on the national flag, are conspicuously absent in the large bowl that makes up the ski zone. I’d imagined from old photographs that I’d be weaving my way among them in knee-deep powder. Wrong on both counts.

There is a small plantation of mini cedars at the bottom of the resort next to a longish street of stalls selling cedar memorabilia. The trees are supposedly protected, but their slow growth combined with an increasing commercial imperative don’t stack up too well for the future. In a bad snow year, with no skiing until the beginning of February and rapid melt down by the end of it, the powder was also conspicuously absent.

There weren’t many snow users either on a quiet Wednesday, so the upper slopes were routinely closed. The only way to reach the top of skiing at 3,088m was an ancient one-man chair owned by the army. “Shut,” said its guardian firmly, but a crisp note changed that and soon I was airborne, my skis cradled awkwardly in my arms. How to get off a lift designed for fit young soldiers that doesn’t slow down at a landing platform high above the piste? The resulting bruises were still there several weeks later but they were worth it for high traverses, big rocks and untracked spring snow.

Mzaar, formerly called Faraya for the larger village immediately below it, is Beirut’s playground, a 45-minute, 42km drive from the downtown area. In the edgy peace that has taken over from the bitter civil war of the 1970s and 1980s and the years of regional strife that followed, Mzaar is growing fast, with newly built chalets for sale and hotels that encourage locals to make a weekend of it.

Unlike Cedars, where what you see is all you get, Mzaar is Lebanon’s answer to France’s Three Valleys, with a gratifying feeling of going places. Some 18 chair and drag lifts serve 80km of groomed pistes, predominantly blue and red runs, with a couple of short but not very sharp blacks, terrain well suited to intermediates looking to improve. With no barriers to wide-ranging exploration on rounded sand dune-style hills, experts can be squealing in powder – when it is available. Mzaar’s starting point, simply called Junction, is a car park with lifts fanning out in different directions. Dome Jabal El Dib opens up a rolling descent to the hamlet of Warde, a good place for beginners to take lessons in the dedicated Jardin des Neiges. More experienced skiers head for La Cabane at the edge of the resort. The restaurant is famous for its Iraqi mezze, but it is only open on sunny days.

In the opposite direction, the 2,465m Dome du Mzaar is the top of the lift system, with impressive views over the Bekaa and the Mediterranean. As the beaches are only 20 minutes away, skiing in the morning and swimming in the sea in the afternoon is a viable option, though not a sensible one when winter storms lash the coast. Runs lead down to the ski-in, ski-out hotel zone, dominated by the InterContinental Mzaar Mountain Resort and Spa, the first international chain in Mzaar. Beirut’s flashy rich book it out at weekends, creating a buzz, but with the emphasis on family life: masses of kids drink Coca-Cola, while their proud parents smoke shisha pipes.

Alternative accommodation includes Eleven, a minimalist boutique hotel, and the family-run Merab, which has rooms on one side of the street and apartments on the other, all of them decorated in traditional Lebanese style. However my favourite is the simple, newly refurbished San Antonio guest house, 10 minutes down the hill and operated in a very generous spirit by the irrepressible Sharbel.

Only the most blinkered Lebanon first timers would want to ski every day in a country with so many rival attractions – which leaves many visitors with the dilemma of where best to stay. Relaxed snow riders can base themselves in Beirut and book day trips to Mzaar on Ron Sayegh’s Skileb website when the weather forecast is promising.

I stayed very luxuriously in the Four Seasons that overlooks the Marina and some newly landscaped gardens that stretch down to the sea. Fully opened in April, its roof-top swimming pool and cafe-bar are popular, both with residents and wealthy Beirutis who come to watch the sunset.There might not be any snow, but you’ll make new friends.

Look. You can almost see Beirut

Nov 28 – The Independent – Travel – Skiing – by Minty Clintch

Just two hours from the capital of Lebanon, you can enjoy some good-quality skiing. Minty Clinch reports.

“Ah, GSQ,” said Sharbel, my host at the San Antonio guesthouse in Mzaar, the closest ski resort to Beirut.

Enthusiasm is Lebanon’s default reaction to strangers, but God Save Queens – for that is what GSQ stands for – are not often singled out for such a heart-warming welcome. Or so I thought, but this was early in my long weekend in a holiday playground with myths to explode.

Lebanon is no stranger to explosions or to glamour. The French Mandate in the early part of the 20th century left a second language and added to an existing heritage of great cooking and quality wines from the Beqaa Valley. More recently, a country that has been a melting pot for religions and cultures for at least 5,000 years has endured a bitter civil war (1975-1990), followed by further decades of repercussions as neighbours failed to come to terms with Israel. Lebanon is edgily peaceful nowadays and keen to show its commercial acumen and taste for high living to visitors who are arriving in rapidly increasing numbers.

Mzaar Ski Resort Lebanon

The country is no stranger to skiing either, again with a Gallic connection because it was popular with the French from the mid-1920s. They accessed the slopes by donkey, with villagers carrying their skis. Today, there are half a dozen resorts in the Lebanon Range, which runs parallel to the coast, but only Cedars and Mzaar have the scope to attract international skiers. The season runs from December to April, but the southerly latitude can shorten it at either end in poor snow years.

In GSQ terms, the sport goes back to the Second World War, when soldiers on leave from North Africa headed to Beirut by train. Some went to Cedars of Lebanon on trips organised by the Army, with tuition by such 1936 Winter Olympians as Jimmy Riddell. Others rented leather boots and hickory skis in town for six shillings a day, hitched to the resort almost 80 miles to the north and hacked up and down as best they could.

Today, Cedars is disappointingly short of the iconic trees that are cunningly used in promotional material. Replanting is a national priority – the cedar appears on the Lebanese flag – but they grow painfully slowly. The new plantations at the Cedars resort stretch down into the valley, but massed cedar wood souvenirs in the shops suggest its future, too, is in jeopardy.

In a ski area that rises from 2,000m to 3,088m, what you see is what you get. The lifts fan out from the base station into the upper reaches of a wide open bowl. The first T-bars, installed in 1953, still work, supplemented in 2005 by triple chairs. Comfort aside, it doesn’t matter which you use. They all lead to the same evenly pitched slopes, perfect rip-it-up terrain for skiers and boarders of all standards.

With the regular lifts to the upper slopes closed on the quiet February weekday when I visited, I approached the ancient one-man chair controlled by the army. “It’s shut,” the guard said firmly, but a £5 supplement to the £20 day pass persuaded him otherwise. As you approach the landing area, the lift plunges round at high speed, making it near impossible for those lacking military agility to download on to a slippery platform. However, the white-knuckle moment was worth it for high traverses, impressive rock-scapes and untracked spring snow.

Mzaar, above the village of Faraya and 25 miles from Beirut, is Lebanon’s modest answer to the Three Valleys. With the main village at Junction as the focus, a chairlift goes up to Dome Jabal El Dib for the sweeping descent to Warde, a hamlet with its own nursery lifts. Another chair accesses red and black runs to La Cabane. In the other direction from Junction, there are lifts to the hotel zone, including the ski-in, ski-out Intercontinental.

Eleven, a contemporary boutique hotel, is another chic choice, whereas the San Antonio is more affordable than luxurious. Ron Sayegh, website designer and ski fanatic, has made it his mission to spread the Skileb word, especially in the Gulf States, but also in Saudi Arabia and Russia. Largely due to his efforts, Mzaar is now pleasingly international. It is also an easy day trip from Beirut, which now has convenient flights from Heathrow with BMI, glitzy hotels and mouth-watering restaurants.

My weekend in the new Four Seasons, overlooking the marina and landscaped gardens that stretch down to the sea, ticked all the boxes. On top of skiing, I visited the Roman ruins at Baalbek, the Ksara winery in the Beqaa, the crusader castle at Byblos, grottos at Jeita and Lebanon’s only golf course. I worked up an appetite and revelled in dinners at Al Dente, an Aladdin’s cave Italian in the Relais & Chateaux Albergo, Eau de Vie; top-notch French food at the Phoenicia; and Sydney’s, named after a legendary bartender and open 24/7, at the Vendôme.

On a ski trip to Lebanon, don’t bank on losing weight.