Looking for a Mediterranean adventure that is a little off the beaten track? Then look no further than Lebanon, a small but charming country that's been dealt blow after blow by years of military upheavals and civil unrest. It also endured a ten-year ban on travel from the U.S. that was lifted in 1997. Nestled on the eastern Mediterranean coast, Lebanon is a hot spot for archaeology enthusiasts, nature lovers and sun-seekers alike. Even skiers will find the mountains an attractive option.
Winter (December to March) along the coast is mild with warm days and cool evenings but in the mountains, winter sports reign supreme with six ski resorts catering to skiers and snowboarders and miles of backcountry cross-country trails. If you were traveling to Lebanon in late winter or early spring (March, April) you could ski in the morning and then hit the beach for a swim in the afternoon.
Beirut, Lebanon's capital is an ancient seaport dating back to the Phoenicians. It suffered greatly over the past few decades but is experiencing an architectural and cultural resurgence due to massive reconstruction and restoration programs. A cosmopolitan and intellectual city, you are likely to hear as much French and English as Arabic here, especially around Rue Monot where the best bars, clubs and restaurants are located. It is here that Beirut's reputation as the Paris of the Middle East is exemplified. You can stay at stunning hotels like The Albergo (www.albergobeirut.com), a Relais & Châteaux property starting at $350 a night, or go low-key at a smaller chic boutique property like the classic waterfront Munroe Hotel (www.monroebeirut.com) for around $100 a night.
Although Beirut itself has enough attractions to keep you occupied, to see the real Lebanon, you will need to get out of the city and travel along the coastline and venture inland. The ancient cities of Jbeil (Byblos), Şaydâ (Sidon) and Sour (Tyre) offer magnificent architectural remains and the sites are largely free from tourist crowds, especially during the winter months. Byblos, a UNESCO World Heritage site is located about 26 miles north of Beirut. The 7,000 year old settlement includes ruins like fortified perimeter walls, the Temple of Baalat-Gebal, the Temple of the Obelisks and the Phoenician royal necropolis. There is also a Roman amphitheater, a Crusader castle and church.
Sidon, about 27 mile south of Beirut has a picturesque Crusader harbor that lies next to an active industrial port. The remnants of the 13th century Castle of St. Louis sit atop of the Phoenician acropolis, plus there are the medieval vaulted souks, the ancient port, the 13th century Sea Castle fortress that lies on a small island connected to the mainland by a causeway, the Great Mosque and the Necropolis. Tyre, just over 50 miles south of Beirut is an ancient Phoenician port that boasts Roman and Byzantine roads, an extensive Necropolis, a triumphal arch, Roman hippodromes and Roman aqueducts.
Perhaps the most impressive archaeological site in Lebanon is Baalbeck, located in the Bekaa Valley, 55 miles from Beirut. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the former Roman city of Heliopolis features the ruins of the Great Court of Trajan with six of its original colonnade of 128 rose granite columns; the Temple of Baal/Jupiter situated upon the massive pre-Roman stone blocks known as the Trilithon; the Temple of Bacchus; and a circular temple believed to be associated with the goddess Venus. The temples in Baalbeck are not only the largest Roman temples ever built, but also among the best preserved all over the world. Each summer, The Baalbeck Festival (www.baalbeck.org.lb) is held here and is one of Lebanon's most important cultural events. Concerts and theatrical performances take place on the steps of the Temple of Jupiter or inside the Temple of Bacchus for a spectacular backdrop.
Being a small country has its advantages, especially for the traveler. There are dozens of day trips that you can take from Beirut from as little as $30 per person. Lebanon Tourism (tel. +961/70-103-222; www.lebanontourism.com) has the following options:
- Day tour to Ksara, Massaya and Kefraya wineries in the Bekaa Valley, including lunch and wine tastings -- priced from $75
- Day tour to the ancient ruins of Baalbeck and Anjar, including lunch -- priced from $84
- Half-day Cross-country skiing in the Cedars, including lunch, a guide and equipment - priced from $32.50
- Kayaking trip on the Litani River, including lunch and equipment - priced from $30
- Half-day boat fishing trip from the fishing port of Dbayeh, including equipment and bait - priced from $62.50
- Day tour to the Jeita Grotto with its superb stalagmites and stalactites, the Jeita Hall of Fame (a kind of wax museum) and the Roman bridge and temples of Faqra including lunch - priced from $88
All tours are per person based on a minimum of four participants.
Locally based Anastasia Travel (tel. +961/1-498-363; www.lebanon.com/anastasiatravel/tour.htm) offers a wide selection of tours to suit all interests, budgets and lengths of stay. Its seven day adventurous "Camping, Rafting and Caving" tour is priced from $678 per person. The tour includes hotel accommodation for four nights, two nights camping under the stars, airport transfers, transport by private bus, professional guides and instructors and breakfast daily. Highlights are cycling in the Bekaa Valley; wine tasting in Kefraya; a visit to the Roman temple of Baalbeck; trekking to the source of the Orontes river passing two superb troglodyte sites; an astronomy lecture and star gazing; rafting in the Orontes, hiking in the Shouf Cedars reserve, the Jeita grotto, one of the most beautiful caves in the world and sailing.
Anastasia's Skiing or Snowboarding tours are priced from $284 for five days. The price includes airport transfers, transport to the ski resort (Jounieh or Faraya Mzaar Kfardebian), four nights' hotel accommodation on a half-board basis (set menu, without drinks) and three full days skiing including equipment. The seven day "Treasure of Lebanon" tour is priced from $694 per person with airport transfers, six nights hotel accommodation, transportation, English speaking guides, entrance fees and breakfast daily. The tours starts with the Cedars of the Lord, then the Kadisha valley, followed by the St.Gilles Crusader castle and the Ayyoubit castle of Mseilha en route to Tripoli. Visit Shouf mountain; the Beiteddine summer presidential palace; the Emirs capital of Deir El- Kamar; Barouk cedars forest national reserve; the ancient cities of Tyre and Sidon; the Eshmoun temple; Beirut and the National Museum; Byblos; Baalbeck one of the most spectacular Roman temples; the Ommeyade site of Anjar; and the vineyards of Kefraya winery.
Getting to Lebanon is relatively east despite there being no non-stop flights from the U.S. There are however regular flights to Beirut from Europe and other Middle Eastern cities so you will need to make at least one connection. Alitalia (www.alitalia.com), Air France (www.airfrance.com), Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) and Royal Jordanian (www.rja.com.jo/default.aspx) are usually the most reasonably priced options, with airfares ranging from around $1,000 to $1,200 round-trip including taxes from the U.S. east coast. The only glitch may be if you have visited Israel recently. The Government of Lebanon refuses entry to holders of Israeli passports, holders of passports containing an Israeli visa or entry stamps to Israel. If you have been to Israel (but don't hold an Israeli passport), you can always do what I did when I traveled to the Middle East -- conveniently 'lose' your passport and get a new one.
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