Adrenalin capital of the Middle East, Lebanon, Lonely Planet
If legendary British army officer and adventurer Lawrence of Arabia had been born in the 1990s rather than in the late 19th century, he may have made his way across the Middle East on a pair of skis rather than on the back of a camel.
This is no more evident than when flying into the Lebanese capital Beirut in the depths of winter. With a bird’s eye view from the plane, you can see a spine of glistening white-mountain tops that stretches from north to south and shelters the capital from the borders with Syria, only 40km away. Lebanon may be more famous as the land of milk and honey, but it is also the land of snow and ice: the word Lebanon, comes from “Lebnana”, meaning white in Aramaic and the highest peaks of the Lebanon Mountains have powdery tops all year round. As the locals are keen to point out, “Did you seriously think there was just desert here? The only sand you’ll find is down at the beach.”
The proximity of the mountains to Beirut has given rise to a nascent winter and summer sports industry, and where there are summits and peaks there are those who are willing to climb them, hurtle down them and throw themselves off the top. Combine this with a love of the outdoors not found anywhere else in the Middle East, and it’s no surprise to learn that the area around Ouyoun El Simane and Kfardebian, now simply known as Mzaar, is the up-and-coming adrenaline sports capital of the region.
The best skiing and snowboarding can be found here and with 19 ski lifts – including several four-seater chairlifts and a brand new express chair that opened last year – Mzaar easily rivals a number of smaller Alpine resorts in terms of scope and spectacle. It has a four-month long season to match, shorter lift queues and, thanks to an increasing number of budget flights, is now a viable option for an alternative weekend away from Europe or the Gulf States.
There are 42 slopes and 80 kilometres of piste spread across three distinct valleys, including Wardeh, Jonction and Le Refuge, a number of ski schools and a wide variety of options for snowboarding, snow-shoeing, ski-touring, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. To get the best out of the wilderness, local ski fanatic Ronald Sayegh knows the mountains better than anyone and can organise all manner of trips and excursions through Skileb.com. With all this activity on the slopes, it’s near impossible to imagine that the village was pillaged and the nearby hills were occupied by militia and Hezbollah soldiers for several years during the 1980s civil war.
Get your bearings at the top of Mzaar mountain, the resort’s highest point at 2,465m. From here you can peer down into the historic Bekaa Valley, famous for the ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek and more than a dozen wineries, or look across to the small ski resort of Zaarour and Mount Hermon, the highest point in Syria. On a clear day the glistening shoreline of Beirut and its satellite beachfront towns of Jouneih and Byblos feel tantalisingly close. If you’re feeling brave enough during winter, you can ski down its treeless, rolling slopes in the morning and swim in the chilly Mediterranean in the afternoon.
For something more extreme, follow the crest of the ridge, a short traverse past the old stone church and the remains of the Roman temple, to the ski area’s best off-piste and trickier descents, including the Grande Coulée, a narrow ribbon of near-vertical piste that should only be tackled by those with a serious head for heights. The descent finishes up at the lemon orchards and olive groves on the lower reaches of Mount Sannine.
Looking for even more of an adrenalin buzz? The most extreme fun to be had is to hop upon a snowmobile, rev up its engine, and, with a twist of your wrist, rocket at speed out onto the empty snow fields beyond the ski slopes, faster than you can say ‘where are the brakes?’ That the snowmobiles can hit 80kmph if you’re crazy enough (some of the Lebanese guides definitely are) only adds to the visceral thrill of it all. On a 30-minute tour (costing from $60 per person), you’ll find yourself surrounded by more than 40 glistening peaks without another soul in sight.
Come summer, hiking, paragliding, hang-gliding, quad biking and mountain biking take over and, at only 53km away from Beirut, the resort becomes a welcome escape from the humidity of the Lebanese coast. It’s easy enough to take a chairlift up the 2,296m Jabal Dib or 2,347m Wardeh and find your own way back down by foot, parachute or bike. If you have plenty of time on your hands, the newly-formed 440km Lebanon Mountain Trail the Middle East’s best long distance mountain trekking route, also passes right past Mzaar’s front-door. Extending from Al-Qbaiyat in the north to Marjaayoun in the south, it transects around 75 villages and is peppered with Roman ruins, temples and remote villages that few are ever lucky enough to see.
Mzaar itself centres on the Intercontinental Mzaar Mountain Resort and Spa, styled on a traditional Swiss wooden chalet. It has its own cinema, bowling alley, spa, three restaurants and an expansive outdoor terrace. During winter, clubbers and partygoers regularly make the switch from the downtown clubs of Beirut to check out the nightlife at altitude and eat copious amounts of mountain cheese fondue, washed down with Almaza beer and local arak. On the hotel’s outside terrace, or at the highly recommended Frost Pub, DJs spin records and après skiers eat fresh mezze and share fruit-scented sheeshas and hookah pipes. Now, you don’t get that in Austria or Switzerland, do you?