What you’d rather the postcard told you, as well as “wish you were here.”
Yes, Lebanon has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons over the years, and the current situation in neighbouring Syria has to be considered in any travel plans. So, with rather mixed emotions I landed at Beirut Airport.
I was expecting heavy security but found nothing out of the ordinary compared to others around the world. Certainly Customs and Immigration in New Zealand and Australia have a lot more rigorous checks than in Beirut…. No questions about life-threatening bananas in your hand luggage.
While there was a 90-minute wait – three flights had landed at the same time – before I actually got to the immigration desk, the attendant simply looked at my passport, asked if I was a resident of Beirut and, if not so, where was I staying.
REST YOUR HEAD
I was at the Mayflower, a “boutique hotel” in the central shopping, eating and drinking precinct of Beirut – Hamra.
While the hotel was fairly cheap and cheerful, it was in a great spot, two streets away from the main shopping thoroughfare and one block from an area thick with bars and restaurants. Shops which had all your usual western lines, and a lot of French-themed cafes.
On my first night out, I discovered a nearby bar called Main Street. It was bright, modern with football on the TV screens and draught beer at about NZ $8 a throw….my kind of place. It attracted an after-work crowd and I never met a single tourist. Like much of this area, it was a “dress-up” place, so no shorts and tee-shirts. But, very cool and very relaxed. While the bar was open to the street, every person in the place appeared to be smoking cigarettes…tables, leaners and at the bar.
Nearby drinking establishments appeared to cater for the expat residents and/or less adventurous tourists, while the bar at my hotel was called the Duke of Wellington and apparently rather famous - but not my idea of a night out in Beirut.
BEST DAY TRIPS
I organised a day trip out of town (NZ $100) which took me to the fantastic Jeita Grotto Cave System (think Waitomo), one of the Middle East’s greatest natural wonders. Next stop was Harissa, where you catch a cable car to view the renowned Our Lady of Lebanon statue (think Corcavado, AKA Christ the Redeemer in Rio) and admire panoramic views across the bay.
Our last stop was Byblos, an archaeological site well worth exploring. It’s claimed that Byblos is the oldest inhabited town in the world, dating back 7000 years. The actual town has some very upmarket shops and restaurants, and hosts an international festival; American pop duo The Chainsmokers were this year’s headline act.
SAFETY IN THE CITY
Beirut itself is on the coast, with a wide pedestrian walkway (Corniche) running around the waterfront. Despite its troubled history, I went to Beirut with an open mind. I travelled on my own and with nothing more organised than my hotel and flights. There was no visible heavy police or military presence, I had no safety issues, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Obviously, check with our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade before you go, as the situation can change rapidly. At the time of writing, Syria remains a “no-go” zone for travellers.
My impression of Beirut is that it has a fantastic east meets west blend, with a chic edge, at realistic prices. The only “safety issue” I faced was crossing the street in Hamra. Pedestrian crossings appear to be for purely ornamental purposes, with the traffic constantly heavy. I was particularly impressed with one fashionable young woman driving a late model Mercedes while talking on her mobile phone and smoking a cigarette. However, I thoroughly felt that the capital of Lebanon lives up to its billing as the “Paris of the Middle East”…and then some.
If Lebanon's on your bucket-list but you have concerns, pop in-store and speak to your HOT consultant. If you’re based in Waikato, come in and see me - I’d be more than happy to book you a holiday to this fantastic country.