The “ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon” slogan has long been touted in top 10 destinations lists featuring Lebanon. The country promises extremes unmatched by any other touristic experience – snow and the sea in the same day, women in hijabs and miniskirts walking down the same street.
Lebanon, the phoenix, rises from the dust (or maybe the melting snow) to return to her legendary, travel glory. Unlike walking wardrobe contradictions, which are readily observable year round, there are only a few magical days when the weather cooperates and the ski/swim attraction is possible to attempt. With the slopes reportedly still open and the temperature sliding higher, I decided to test the cliché, planning a trip to Mzaar ski resort in the morning and finishing at the beach in Jbeil.
Beginning my journey early on a traffic-less Good Friday, I hit the road around 8 a.m. to get to Mzaar for the best snow. Winding up the mountain streets, a few roadside vendors hawk mittens, gloves and cheap sunglasses, taking advantage of one of the last weekends of the year to move their merchandise.
In February, snow covered the ground at the roundabout in Jeita, but today, the first snow sighting is in Mayrouba at about 1,250 meters. Glimpses of the peaks in the distance show that there is plenty of snow. But as I get closer I wonder if I’m about to be confronted by a giant pile of slush.
I enter the town of Faraya greeted by a waving Pierre Gemayel and a throng of cars and people. I worry at first they are all headed to the slopes like me, but it turns out (thank God) they are headed to Good Friday mass. It strikes me that the national holiday may be more important to enabling the completion of the ski-and-swim challenge than weather conditions as we arrive to the relatively empty Mzaar parking lot in record time.
In the equipment rental shop I inquire if any of my fellow skiers are as intrepid as I in their ambitions for the day, joining me on the snow-to-sea trek. None volunteer but, fortuitously, one man tells me that he accomplished the feat once before, five years ago.
“Everyone says you can do it, but not many people who tell you to do it can say they’ve done it,” my new friend Georges says as I seek advice about the best place to swim. I ask him what it was like, to realize the ultimate Lebanon experience.
“We felt like rock stars,” he replied. Enough said. Excited and wanting to feel like a rock star myself, I eye the 1980s-era, hot-pink ski suits hanging in the shop.
Soon though, in my normal fleece, I hit “la piste.” Unlike my earlier trips to Mzaar, the chairlift waits are short and there are no children zooming around me, yelling in French as they slide over my skis and push through the “line.” The snow up top is surprisingly light and enjoyable but gets stickier the lower you go, like skiing through a snow cone. The estimation by the Mzaar ski patroller that the season will last another weekend, and possibly two if we’re lucky, seems a bit of a stretch. But today, conditions couldn’t be better – breezy and sunny, making the temperature seem much warmer than the 15 degrees the monitor in town shows.
After a few runs, I’m feeling exhilarated, but a bit overheated and in need of a swim. It might be the booming tunes by Stereo Love and the Black Eyed Peas blaring from the lodge speakers or maybe subliminal messaging from all the billboards advertising vodka, but I’m feeling ready for another, world-renowned Lebanese pastime – to party. I take off my skis, intent on joining the snow bunnies drinking white wine at the lodge in their furry, Prada boots, but remember that I have a mission.
I’m off to Jbeil, following flashy Hummers driving down the mountain. As I descend, the temperature rises, as do the glorious smokestacks of the Zouk power plant just ahead. Beach, here I come.
I slip onto the beach in front of Eddé Sands in Jbeil from the public entrance, navigating rocks and last summer’s empty bottles of Ksara Sunset. Once I reach the water, I kick off my shoes to feel the baked, orange sand between my toes. To my surprise, the beachgoers abound, lounging and playing in the water. Ready with my swimsuit donned under my ski gear, it’s now or never. I pick the least slimy looking bit of beach and run in, hoping the thin, green film on the water’s surface isn’t something contagious. The temperature is shockingly cold but I’m in to win it and dunk my head. Mission accomplished.
After a brief swim curtailed by chattering teeth, I rest on my towel at the edge of a row of plush, pink beach beds newly laid out by Eddé Sands for the start of the summer season. The local patrons appear just as worn out as me, lounging and sleeping, slathered in tanning oil – so exhausted it seems that a few need their maids to build sandcastles with the children and refill their water cups. Oh, what a day we’ve had.
Gazing down the coast to where I assume Beirut sits behind a cloud of smog, I feel exuberant and consider my accomplishment. Do I feel like a rock star, though? Not quite. But I hear that you really haven’t seen Lebanon until you’ve been seen at another Beirut institution – SKYBAR. Cue bass.
By Alex Taylor
Share your experiences as a tourist in Lebanon or as a local: Have you skiied and swum within a day in Lebanon? Have you found yourself selling Lebanon based on this tourist selling plug?
Copyright © 2019, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.