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Lebanon: Paris of the Middle East

By Elinor Garely

There is something wonderfully familiar (and yet striking) about Lebanon. Maybe it is the beach front, with the blue green water gently bumping against the sandy shore, and the multimillion dollar yachts bobbing in the gentle sea. Maybe the rows of restaurants, cafes, and fast food restaurants dotted along the streets, luring passerby’s to indulge in a café latte and sweet roll. Maybe the warmth of the sun, and the sparkle on the sand. It could even be the blasting of car horns from the Lebanese taxi driver’s, growing inpatient with the snarled traffic. Maybe the banging of carpenters’ hammers as they rush to complete the hanging of a sign on a new hotel. Maybe Beirut seems familiar because it reminds me more of Miami Beach then it does of a “foreign destination.”

Five star, luxury resort hotels cluster along the coastal road and beachfront, while commercial and residential properties can easily be spotted on side-streets, and near the very modern and functional BIEL Convention Center. International jetsetters will find comfort with the hotel brands they know – from Accor and Marriott to Sheraton, Radisson, and Intercontinental. The major league players have built (or are building) trophy properties (look for Hilton) in Beirut, and they are being managed by experienced hoteliers drawn from major city centers in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.

English is spoken (as is French and Arabic), women are dressed in the latest of fashions (think Max Mara), belly buttons are exposed, and tattoos decorate the delicate ankles of beautiful women. Businessmen are in suits, while joggers make their fashion statements in cutoffs and Nikes. Without a map telling me I was in the Middle East, I could be at any coastal city in the world.

There is no need to worry about fast food withdrawal, for scores of McDonald’s, Pizza Huts, TGIF Friday’s, Chili’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Starbucks populate the landscape. Shopping is at the very high end with Hugo Boss and Massimo Dutti making the fashion statements. An abundance of retailers can be found in the Dunes Mall on Verdun Street, and on Kasleek Street, with lower prices (and quality) on Mar-Elias Street. For the home, family and personal needs, visit the ABC mall in Achrafieh and Dbaieh. For up-market antiques and fashion, the Solidaire in Beirut City Center requires at least one trip. Wine and liquors are available at Haddad near the Mayflower Hotel on Harma Street.
*Handmade painting of flowers on ceramic.
*Handmade painting of flowers on ceramic.

The best shopping in Beirut is for diamonds and other high-end jewelry. With stones the size of jumbo olives, and heavy gold bracelets, these designer accessories are so gorgeous, and so unique that even those who shun conspicuous consumption will covet the necklaces, brooches, and watches. Look at the selection in Zoughaib, Nsouli, and Andre Marcha (in the Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel).

All self-respecting executives are driving current model BMWs, Mercedes’ and Porsches. Everyone, from teenagers through senior citizens, are talking on cell phones. Even the women, who are closeted from head to toe in black, are busy taking digital photos of their children jumping on park benches, running after balloons, and knee deep in ice cream cones.

Beirut is, as many Lebanese are happy to tell you, an anomaly; different from their Syrian, Iranian, Saudi, and UAE neighbors and trading partners. The French influence is very evident in the culture and the Lebanese are proud to talk about their French heritage, Christian beliefs, the beauty of their wives and daughters, their pleasure in seeing women wear bikinis. The women are delighted to discuss their handsome husbands and sons. Parents are anxious to bring attention to the excellent education of their children, highly recommending the American University and similar top quality academic institutions.

It does not matter if you are selecting a destination for sun, fun, good food (with French, Lebanese and International panache), or a place for incredible business opportunities, Lebanon is destination that should definitely be at top of everyone’s list of places to go.
Getting There on MEA

Middle East Airlines flies from all the European gateway cities, and travelers from New York can break up the long flight time with a European city visit, creating the perfect itinerary. The direct MEA flight from London to Beirut takes only four hours and the Business Class section is the ideal was to transition from Europe to the Middle East. The seats are incredibly comfortable, allowing lots of leg room, sleeping space, and even room to stand up for conversations with neighbors in the adjacent aisles.

MEA executives know that food is important (perhaps it is cultural). With this realization in mind they have created a “dining” experience for their business class passengers, bringing “flight food” to the gourmet level. Add free flowing, top shelf liquors and wines to professional service, and it becomes obvious that MEA has set a benchmark for all other airlines to follow.

Beirut Airport is modern and personnel are efficient in moving both people and luggage through the terminal and onto the street for a quick getaway. Passport control can be a little uneven for security personnel are not quite able to separate the visitors who require the $45 visa stamp and from those that do not. Given the hassles at most international airports, this slight bump in the security process can almost be ignored.
Where to Stay

The hotel choices are bountiful. The Sheraton Coral Beach and Movenpick are luxurious, set against a blue sea backdrop – making the sight almost theatrical. Dotted with swimming pools, cabanas, restaurants and bars, these properties make an excellent choice for leisure interludes. For commercial requirements, the Marriot, and Radisson will more than meet the needs of the most demanding executive.
*Movenpick Hotel and Resort
*Movenpick Hotel and Resort

For slender budgets, executives can stay at the same hotel as the Lebanese military. Themed after the beloved Marilyn Monroe, the Monroe Hotel is a serious contender for your business requirements.

Look for Lebanese, French, Italian, Chinese and International restaurants. They can easily be found on small side streets, tucked between commercial and residential buildings and in the lobbies of the Beirut hotels. Luxurious dining opportunities exist in the Solidere city-center section of Beirut, and include such local favorites as Kasr Fakhreddine, located in Broummana. Other restaurants in that area include Mounir and Bjrj el Hamam. The average price per person is US$30. In the Zaarour area, enjoy generous portions of Lebanese cuisine (in a set menu) for $20 per person.
* Mixed Baklava
* Mixed Baklava

The Lebanese life style focuses on food and drink, conversation and family, turning dining into an art form. Two of the best Lebanese wines are Kefraya and Ksara, and the local spirit is Arak. A wide variety of all domestic and international brands can be found in restaurants and liquor shops throughout the country.

The only precautionary note to American visitors – smoking is allowed, everywhere, in restaurants, in hotels, in offices; indoors and outdoors, almost everyone smokes, all the time. Be prepared to be surrounded by people with cigarettes, cigars and water pipes filled with tobacco.
*Modern Hookah
*Modern Hookah

There are no advocates pushing to stop smoking in public spaces, and there is little to no interest in the research that smoking is harmful to the health of both the smoker and others in the same room. The most tactful position to take is to say nothing, and just deal with it as a reality of the venue.
Local Transportation

Don’t even think about public transportation. There are two primary ways to get around the country – taxis and renting a car (with/without a driver). If your destination is within the city limits of Beirut, taxi fares will run from $5 – $10 per ride, depending on the negotiation skills of the driver and distance. Good humor and laughter are part of the taxi fare discussion, and if you look at the conversation as just one more Lebanese treat, you will not feel “ripped off” if you end up having to pay the $10 fare rather than the $5.

The time to start price negotiations with the taxi driver is before you enter the cab. Tell him where you are going, and ask for the price. If you think it is too high you have a few choices, pay the fare and get quickly to your destination, wait and hail another cab, and see if the next driver will accept a $1 or $2 less. The only way to get the cheapest fare is to speak Arabic!
Realities of the Destination

* It is worth remembering that Lebanon Is about half the size of Wales
* Has an indigenous population of about 3.6m but with a Diaspora of about 15m
* Has mountain ski resorts and beaches within a couple of hours drive
* Is at the center of a politically and culturally complex region
* That the war in Lebanon ended 12 years ago
* Beirut is no longer a war devastated city, but is an example of elegant and effective urban re-development

Although the war ended more than a decade ago, there remains a perception in Europe and especially the USA that Beirut and Lebanon are hazardous for tourists and business visitors. In reality Beirut is among the safest cities on the planet. There is almost no crime. Just as in all cities, there are “no go zones” – and as long as everyday precautions are taken, a visit to Lebanon should be trouble free.

The first few times you see the streets filled with armed military personnel you may be disturbed, but their presence ultimately fades into the background and in time you stop noticing them. If you do stop to observe, you will note that they spend very little time guarding anyone or anything; most of the time they are talking with each other, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.

The only potentially hazardous activity to worry about in Lebanon is crossing the street. There are no “rules of the road” and the police do not consider enforcing vehicular violations as part of their job description. A pedestrian standing in a walkway – waiting for cars to stop so they can cross the road, will be waiting for weeks. Take your street crossing cues from the locals – walk boldly into the traffic and pray. Believe it or not, the cars do stop when they see you.

The Lebanese believe in being “on time.” A meeting scheduled for 9AM, starts at 9AM. If you are running late for an appointment, call to let everyone know that you will be delayed. Dress in the same summer business suits you would wear in Bangkok, New York or Mexico City. It is not necessary to change US dollars into Lebanese lira, as US currency is accepted everywhere. Women traveling solo will find this country a comfortable destination for both business and leisure activities. Going to dinner alone, attending a business meeting, or even gambling at the Beirut casino – no one notices (or is concerned) about unescorted women. Beirut is a commercial, banking and leisure, and diversity is a natural part of the landscape.

Don’t be alarmed if the lights go out, and the air conditioning stops. Blackouts are a routine part of almost every day in Beirut, and hotels, commercial buildings and residential homes have back-up generators that kick in (almost instantly), to provide the needed power.
Unique Lebanon

Lebanon has been called the Paris of the Middle East. While the joie de vivre is evident, Lebanon has something that France does not – it has the Lebanese people, who are warm, wonderful, kind, considerate, open to new ideas, intelligent, and generous. Lebanon is a country that welcomes men and women, traveling solo or in groups. From the daytime sunshine and relaxing ambiance, to the clubbing and casinos of Beirut at night, there is absolutely no reason not to schedule a visit to this very special destination… it will not disappoint.

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