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In Lebanon, history is not necessarily pleasantly recounted. For starters, in recorded history, the country has suffered seven natural disasters — including major earthquakes. The country has endured a seemingly lifelong feud with Israel, and the number of political assassinations is mind-numbing. Furthermore, the Lebanese Civil War — which lasted for 15 years and took an estimated 150,000 to 230,000 civilian lives — has left its people with haunting memories.
“At the age of 8, I had to run for my life, racing the bullets of a sniper between my feet as if I were dancing — my last ritual of survival,” said Wafa Kanan, a native of Lebanon and a travel industry executive.
Despite these darker events, history is what has helped put Lebanon back on the travel map, its ancient sites luring millions of tourists every year. In fact, the small country of Lebanon has five UNESCO World Heritage sites and natural wonders, all located about an hour’s drive from the thriving capital of Beirut.
Kanan, who now lives in Los Angeles, runs Unique Images, a media and publishing company specializing in tourism development in the Middle East. She continues to return to Lebanon frequently and — while Beirut thrives with nightlife, award-winning wineries, ski resorts and beaches — it’s the ancient attractions that really anchor the heart of the country, Kanan said.
The ancient city of Byblos, for example, is believed to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. Founded in 5000 B.C., Byblos means “inscription” or “bible” and comprises an ancient port as well as Phoenician, Roman and Crusader ruins. Furthermore, sandy beaches with commanding mountain backdrops make it a scenic, all-day tourist destination. What makes Byblos unique is that the city is still inhabited with a population of 40,000. Visitors will find seafood restaurants, bars, outdoor cafes and various boutiques and shops. Once clients arrive at the ancient city, they will understand why it ranked third in the Top Five Africa & Middle East Cities in Conde Nast Traveler’s 2011 Reader’s Choice Awards. (Beirut was second; Lebanon is the only country with two cities on the list.)
Fifty miles south of Beirut is the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre. There, travelers can wander tourist-free souks and visit the Sidon Soap Museum. The Sidon Sea Castle, built by the Crusaders in 1228 A.D. , was rumored to be one of Alexander the Great’s favorite architectural structures. Ancient Roman ruins seem ubiquitous but, if your client is worn out from all the sightseeing, they can head straight to the Mediterranean coast. Locals claim that the sprawling beaches of Tyre are the best in Lebanon.
Nature enthusiasts may recognize the Jeita Grotto for its recent nomination as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. Located 11 miles from Beirut, these natural, limestone caves were formed millions of years ago. While the upper cave is as high as 1,000 feet and walkable, the lower cave can only be reached by gondola.
Travelers may be concerned when traveling to Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley (home of the Hezbollah militant organization) but, on my recent visit, I felt safe, especially considering the number of security officials and other American tourists present. Formerly known as Heliopolis, this top attraction is one of the best preserved examples of Roman ruins. Dating back approximately 9,000 years, Baalbek is home to six large Corinthian columns and well-preserved temples, pillars and stone relics.
For impressive landscapes, send clients to Ouadi Qadisha, or the Holy Valley, and the Forest of the Cedars of God. Not only is Ouadi Qadisha one of the most important Christian monastic settlements in the world, but the region is considered to be one of the most beautiful areas in all of Lebanon. No wonder the cedar tree is stamped on the Lebanese flag.
Getting there: While there is no direct service to Lebanon from the U.S., Turkish Airways flies directly to Istanbul, where clients connect to the one-hour flight to Beirut. www.turkishairlines.com
Where to stay: Beirut is home to fine luxury hotels. The 230-room Four Seasons Hotel Beirut opened last year on the famed Corniche. Just down the street, InterContinental Phoenicia Beirut celebrated its 50th anniversary with a $83 million renovation. www.fourseasons.com; www.intercontinental.com
Where to Eat: Great restaurants abound in Beirut, but the new Tawlet is contemporary and trendy. Every day, different women from various villages come in to cook their homestyle meals. You won’t find fresher ingredients and dishes anywhere else. www.tawlet.com