Written by William Dobson
Say you’re going to Lebanon and people, certainly in this country, still often look at you with wide-eyed incredulity, viewing you as some intrepid explorer throwing yourself into the midst of civil wars, bombs and turmoil. Of course, the reality is completely different and, as has been widely reported, Beirut is quickly becoming a viable destination, not just for those looking to ‘rough’ it but for the more discerning visitor, in need of their creature comforts and a bit of luxury.
Top of the class has to be the wonderful boutique hotel Le Gray. Located on historic Martyrs’ Square, with sublime 360 degree panoramic views from the dining terrace across the city, the magnifcent Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, in particular, dominating the skyline. The hotel’s mantra is ‘attention to detail’ and it’s a philosophy that they adhere to the limit, from check-in to check-out. The staff are knowledgeable, attentive and eager to help while the hotel itself encapsulates a new side of Beirut; modern, chic and understated. Childhood fantasies about living in a hotel were reawakened upon entering our amply sized room, replete with magnificent vista of the Mediterranean in the foreground and, in the distance, snow-capped mountains. Comfort and convenience are perfectly balanced and it’s the little touches which add so much; a complimentary coffee machine, making espressos, lattes, etc. from fresh beans; an assortment of international plugs for travellers, like ourselves, who failed to pack an adapter; and, surely everyone’s dream, a flat screen television above the bath.
The hotel is also home to surely one of the coolest bars in Beirut, ThreeSixty, with a mouthwatering selection of cocktails perched high above the city (the passion fruit Martini comes highly recommended) and is worth a visit itself. The restaurant, Indigo on the Roof, just next door serves a well thought out mix of international fare. Kelly Jackson, the executive chef and formerly number two at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, puts the emphasis on great produce almost all of which, with the exception of the beef, is sourced locally. The risotto nero was the highlight, although you can’t really go wrong with Australian wagyu beef, cooked perfectly, soft and full of flavour, served with a side of creamy truffle potato dauphinoise. However, it was the wine list that really caught the eye with 23 different offerings from Lebanon, ranging from the more widely known Ksara to Massaya, a boutique vineyard which opened in 1998 and whose rose was sublime. With a cigar lounge next door to the restaurant and a infinity pool on the same floor, which appears to merge into the sea behind, Le Gray is certainly hard to beat.
The nearby Pheonicia, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, isn’t far behind. Having reopened in 2000 in all its former glory, you’re welcomed by a huge marble staircase and a lobby which screams luxury. Run by the Intercontinental Hotel Group, it lacks the personal charm of Le Gray, as would be expected from a large chain, but makes up for that with friendly and helpful staff, seamless comfort and its range of restaurants, bars and clubs are unrivalled by any other hotel in the city. With renowned steak house Gaucho recently opened just below, it’s also home to Wok Wok, an Asian fusion restaurant which reputedly does some of the best sushi in town, while Eau de Vie, situated on the top of the main tower of the hotel, serves modern French cuisine in an elegant setting with sea views. Also on site is the Beirut branch of the uber-trendy Mayfair club, Whisky Mist, with the staff keen to point out that they’ve secured the services of former Playboy model, Sophie Lin, as their resident Saturday DJ!
For a more resort-type location, then the Moevenpick in Raouche, a stone’s throw from the famous Pigeon Rocks, and walking distance from both the Corniche and Hamra is another great option. While Dom Jolly might have described it as ‘big and plush and totally lacking in any ambience whatsoever’ and the service sometimes borders on the lackadaisical, this monolith from the ice cream company turned international hotel chain is certainly not devoid of any charm. The Hemmingway Bar is on the sleazy side and the restaurants are all a bit generic, but the recently opened Square, an open air terrace bar overlooking the sea, promises to be one of the slickest venues in town. Moreover, with three swimming pools, tennis and squash courts, spa facilities and a private beach (with soft white sand imported from Egypt!), the amenities more than make up for any other shortcomings.
Of course, not everyone is looking for five star comfort and, for those on more of a budget, there are a host of cheaper hotels, most located in Hamra itself, and tend to be of a pretty similar standard. The Mayflower, generally filled with international journalists who congregate each evening in the Duke of Wellington bar downstairs, is always a good option. As well as being comfortable and good value for money, it has a rich and vivid history as the oldest privately owned hotel in the city. During the Civil War, it became the favourite home and operational base for most of the international media correspondents and world leading reporters that were covering the Lebanese conflict while previous noted guests include Graham Greene, Kim Philby and Graham Hill.
So while Dubai may have a reputation for being the luxury destination in the region, Beirut is starting to challenge. Not only that, but the process has been much more organic and still reflects the culture and the ambiance of this bewitching Mediterranean country, home to one of the most vibrant, buzzing and extrovert populations in the world. The hotels, by and large, manage to reflect that, providing charm and comfort for travellers who aren’t merely looking for a few days of winter sun.