Jennie Carr from the Silver Travel Show talked to Mark Renshaw of Abercrombie & Kent about a country with real east meets west appeal.
Jennie Carr: Where exactly is Lebanon?
Mark Renshaw: It’s at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean, with Syria to the north and east, and to the south, Israel. (And it is about half the size of Wales).
JC: Is it a Mediterranean country or Middle Eastern?
MR: It is actually classified as a Middle Eastern country, although it is really the perfect blend of the two cultures.
JC: Beirut was known as the Paris of the Orient before the civil war in the 70s/80s. And it’s now returning to popularity with tourists, in fact it has been listed as one of the top ten cities to visit, ‘captivatingly cool’ is how Lonely Planet describes it!
MR: Sure, it has had its problems, but it has so very much to offer. It is very important to check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice wherever you travel in this region.
JC: So what are Beirut’s major attractions?
MR: Beirut is right in middle of the country and offers a whole host of options. The city is absolutely fascinating, a real rough diamond, with so much to see. The mixed culture, with ancient citadels, mosques, souks and Christian churches, are all wrapped round by a really interesting seafront and the Corniche or promenade runs along the city’s seafront for over 4 kilometres. Because of the war there are some bits that are rough round the edges, however that possibly enhances the Beirut experience as you can see how the city has evolved and lived. There is still the elegant grandeur that it was once famous for and this is definitely coming back.
Beirut has a perhaps surprising side, a reputation for extraordinarily good nightlife, with open air festivals, a brilliant art scene and ultra-cool clubs.
Back in the heyday of 1960s, Beirut was the place for the jetset to see and be seen in. It seems to have a real pull for visitors, comprising a very cosmopolitan mix of Europeans and those from around the Middle East, perhaps due to its very friendly attitude, everyone wants you to have a great time.
JC: Is it safe in Lebanon and Beirut these days? After all, the diverse population which perhaps contributed to the war, are still there.
MR: Beirut is safe and easy to get around. Baalbek, with its wonderful Roman ruins, is stunning, however it is off limits at the moment due to the war in Syria, although this may change. Follow FCO advice. And do keep an open mind as the country has many exciting places to visit and as time goes on more locations are opening up
JC: What is there to enjoy outside Beirut?
MR: What I like about Lebanon is that Beirut is slap bang in the middle, 4 hours north to Syria and 4 hours to Israel in the south. So this means you can stay in Beirut and do day trips, or maybe try some touring. Byblos on the Mediterranean is a beautiful town, with a wonderful historic port, one of the most ancient citadels in Lebanon and it’s one of oldest continually inhabited cities in world. The World Tourist Organisation named it as the best Arab tourist city 2013. It’s a great combination of east and west, so you can be eating lamb with dates in true Lebanese style, whilst watching bobbing boats on the sea just like in Portugal. Driving through the countryside is delightful, with interesting rural views and of course the fabulous forests of Cedars, which are now protected by UNESCO.
Amazingly it is also possible to ski an hour outside Beirut, at a maximum of 2,500 metres. So bizarrely, you can lunch in the Mediterranean haven of Byblos then 45 minutes later be skiing in Mzaar, which is a stunning Alpine style resort, with pitched roofs, fabulous snow and has a real chocolate box feel.
JC: Are most of the tourists from Europe or are visitors a complete mix?
MR: It really is a complete mix, it’s very well known for Europeans, as it’s liberal, open minded, attracts people for the social side of life, alcohol is fine, society is very open. It is also very popular with the Middle Eastern market too, so a lovely mix.
JC: What about food & wine? Is what’s eaten in the UK as Lebanese food, what you actually get in Lebanon?
MR: It’s a similar type of food. However the food in Lebanon is outstanding. The smells make you feel fantastic, it is flavourful, immense food; meze that come out to the table at speed and make you feel full. There are also fresh, delicious salads and tasty, well-cooked lamb. It is superb Middle Eastern cuisine.
JC: Another aspect that may be unknown about Lebanon is its wine and one of my favourites, Chateau Musar is from the Bekaa Valley. Can you get to the vineyards easily?
MR: Yes, they are about an hour and a half from Beirut, and there are lots of vineyards, all along the valleys floor, where vines grow up the sides of valleys. Kasara Valley is another great example. The vineyards open up, just as they do in Bordeaux, they have their own vintages too. I was very shocked, it simply wasn’t what I’d been expecting at all! The surprise is even greater when you think you can have lunch in Mediterranean Byblos, ski in the afternoon in Mzaar and then visit the vineyards. Lebanon is a country full of surprises
JC: And did you know the country exports 6 million bottles of wine a year? So if you had a week in Lebanon, bearing in mind our Silver Travellers, what would you do?
MR: I would base myself in Beirut, where the standard of hotels is fantastic, you wouldn’t want for anything and there is a huge array to choose from. I’d probably stay on the Corniche or in Central Beirut. I would organise day trips out of the city but also leave enough time to wander round and explore Beirut as it’s incredible. I’d suggest the Kasara Valley, which you drive through to get to Baalbek, which is great to visit if it is open. You must go to Byblos, go up to see the Cedars and take a trip to Mzaar, it’s so beautiful particularly during the ski season, mid December to March/April. Jeita Grotto is amazing, with extraordinary underground caverns and good to see on the way to the Kasara Valley.
There is just so much to do in Lebanon, and it is only 4 hours 40 minutes from London, so it lends itself to a long weekend break. It’s a great place to visit time and time again.
• For travel advice to Lebanon, visit Foreign Travel Advice
Silver Travel Radio Show
• Mark’s radio interview on The Silver Travel Show can be heard here.
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