the legendary British army officer and adventurer Lawrence of Arabia had been
born in the 1990s instead of the 1880s, he might have made his way across the
Middle East on a snowboard rather than on the back of a camel.
the depths of winter, the area surrounding Beirut is home to a spine of glistening
white mountains that stretches from the north of Lebanon to the south, sheltering
the capital from the Syrian border, just 40km away. The word Lebanon comes from
lebnana, meaning white in Aramaic,
and the highest peaks of the Lebanon Mountains have powdery tops all year round.
proximity to the mountains has given rise to a nascent winter and summer sports
industry, where people are willing to climb, hurtle down and throw themselves
off the area’s many summits and peaks. Combine this with the region’s most
liberal locals and a love of the outdoors not found anywhere else in the Middle
East, and it is no surprise to learn that Mzaar, the mountain valley 50km
northeast of Beirut, is the up-and-coming adrenaline sports capital of the
skiing and snowboarding can be found here, and with 19 ski lifts – including
several four-seater chairlifts and a new express chair that opened in December
2012 – Mzaar easily rivals many Alpine resorts in terms of scope and spectacle.
It has a four month-long season from January to April, shorter lift queues than
many other international ski resorts and, thanks to an increasing number of
budget airlines such as FlyDubai and Air Arabia, Beirut is now a viable option
for a weekend trip from Europe or the Gulf States.
There are 42 slopes and 80km of piste spread across three distinct valleys – named
Wardeh, Jonction and Le Refuge – plus a number of ski schools and a wide
variety of options for snowboarding, snow-shoeing, ski-touring, cross-country skiing
and snowmobiling. With so much activity on the slopes, it is near impossible to
imagine that from 1982 to 1990, Mzaar village was pillaged and the nearby hills
were often occupied by militia and Hezbollah soldiers during the nation’s civil
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 Lebanese ski resort
of Zaarour as well
as Mount Hermon, the highest point in Syria at 2,814m. On a clear day, Beirut’s
glistening shoreline and its satellite beachfront towns of Jouneih and Byblos feel
you feel brave enough, you can ski down Mzaar’s treeless, rolling slopes in the
morning and swim in the Mediterranean in the afternoon. To get the most out of
the wilderness, local ski fanatic Ronald Sayegh can organise all manner of
excursions through Skileb.com.
something more extreme, follow the crest of the ridge from the top of the Mzaar
Peak chairlift– a short hike past an old
stone church and the remains of the Roman temple – to the ski area’s most
tricky off-piste 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 at the seasonally
barren lemon orchards and olive groves
on the lower reaches of Mount Sannine.
for even more of an adrenaline buzz? Hop upon a snowmobile, rev its engine,
and, with a twist of your wrist, rocket out onto the empty snow fields beyond
the ski slopes; the snowmobiles can hit 80kph if you are wild enough. On a 30-minute trip
from Mzaar’s Wardeh base station, you will find yourself surrounded by more
than 40 glistening peaks without another soul in sight.
summer, hiking, paragliding, hang-gliding, quad biking and mountain biking take
over, and the resort becomes a welcome escape from the humidity of the Lebanese
coast; take a chairlift up 2,296m-high Jabal Dib or 2,347m Wardeh mountain and find your way back down by foot, parachute
or bike. As the extreme sports industry is in its early days, you will need to bring
all your own equipment or hire it in advance from Beirut.
you have plenty of time on your hands, the recently formed 440km Lebanon Mountain Trail, the Middle
East’s most far-reaching long distance mountain trekking route, also passes
Mzaar’s front door. Extending from the village of Al-Qbaiyat in the north of
the country to the village of Marjaayoun in the south, it passes around 75 small
settlements and is peppered with Roman ruins and temples that few are intrepid enough
itself centres on the Intercontinental
Mzaar Mountain Resort and Spa, styled on a traditional Swiss wooden chalet,
with its own cinema, bowling alley, spa, three
restaurants and an expansive outdoor terrace. 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 fondue, washed down with the
local Almaza beer and arak. On the hotel’s outside terrace or at the highly recommended
Frost pub in the centre of
Mzaar village, DJs spin records and après skiers eat fresh mezze and share
fruit-scented sheeshas and hookah pipes. You don’t get that in Austria or
Switzerland, do you?