Vine & Kibbeh
Lebanon: My first introduction to Beirut was in 1994 when I was a relatively new Gulf Air Cabin Crew member on the back of A320.
I was so delighted to get the opportunity to fly into Beirut because, growing up in Ireland, I heard so much about Lebanon, not necessarily from a political standpoint but from a historical point of view. History was a favorite subject at school, plus I was a child in the '70s when Beirut was referred to as "the Paris of the Middle East," " A holiday destination where visitors could ski in the morning and swim in the Mediterranean that very same afternoon.
The flight was full and most of the passengers were returning home after a long absence. They cheered and some cried when we landed. I looked out the window to see the most pot holed airport I have ever landed into. The passengers all trundled off and I thought my god I hope it looks better on the inside!
While it was clear that Beirut was still a little war-torn! All the crew on that trip were keen to see Byblos. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the largest city on the Mount of Lebanon Governorate of Lebanon. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a lot to see in Byblos, museums, mosques, churches, and the walled medieval city. A day is all the time we had on that visit, and it did not do Byblos any justice at all.
My next experience with Lebanon came when I worked as a marketing consultant for a Dubai-based company that sold the concept of two for one, you buy a whole book of coupons for various hospitality entities, and your guest goes for free, something like that.
I liked it, and I was passionate about promoting it. An opportunity came up to go to Beirut to work for Le Royal Hotel in the foothills north of Beirut City. You couldn't hold me back. At the time, there was a certain amount of civil unrest working its way to the surface, and my manager confided in me, Hilary, this is probably not the best time to go to Lebanon."
All advice was ignored, and I got on a plane, and off I went. When I landed in Beirut on 14th February 2005, it was chaos. How our plane even got to land, I have no idea. On reflection, I think the flight crew who probably had done more than one sector on that day were out of fuel; otherwise, they would have gone somewhere else.
When I got into the terminal, I never saw so many petrified people in my life. People were running in all directions, shops closed in a hurry, and staff were hard to find. I felt I had landed into a sort of twilight zone, and I basically I had no idea what was going on.
Phones lines were down, and I am talking if you could find even find a landline. It was not the age of the internet or mobiles, and I could not find any airline staff. I started to get quite worried, and frankly, I was not sure what to do.
As people were milling all around me, at a certain moment, I grabbed this one young guy and asked what was going on… this frightened face said .."Madame, there was a bomb… many people dead..don't leave the airport".
The words of my manager echoed in my head ..then my mother the queen of famous sayings chimed in, .. . "Well you got yourself into this mess, so now get yourself out of it..."
I hung around in the arrivals halls for some time and I am sure I looked distressed. There were no taxis' and no staff... eventually I found a phone and I was able to call Le Royal. They said, "Madame, get back on the plane, we can't get to you". It was good advice but that was not going to happen, as I think the airport shut down soon after I landed.
I had no idea what I was going to do and even to this day I honestly can not tell you how this happened. But somewhere in the crowd was a young kind person who came up to me to ask if I was okay. And here is what happened, and it was something I would never normally do or recommend when traveling. But sometimes your intuition or maybe a guardian angel will guide you and you just go with it as you have no other choice at that moment.
I got into the most beat-up little car you could imagine with two young petrified guys who knew I was equally scared out of wits and we drove all the way around the outskirts of the city to Le Royal Hotel. After more than two hours I was deposited at the front of the hotel. It was quite incredible. And the staff at Le Royal including the GM of the day were astounded to see me that evening.
Later in my hotel room courtesy of CNN, I learned that a much-loved Prime Minister of Lebanon had been killed by a massive explosion. That is a day many will not forget but for me, it's a day that endeared me to Lebanon forever.
There really was not much to do over the intervening days as you can imagine. The hotel treated me like royalty during my stay, and while I was stuck there, I did not feel like that.
I am sure I suffered some level of stress in the aftermath of those days. I mean what did I think I was doing and to not listen to people who knew better. It was a big learning curve for me.
In the days that followed as part of a very closeted group, I made it to the square to see the upset of the community and pay my respects to the deceased. I also had a drive-by of the area where the Phoenicia Hotel was situated. The level of destruction and the debris area assured all of us of just how determined the perpetrators were!
I stayed for 6 weeks, half because I could not get out and half because we tried desperately as a company to infuse some life into the original idea for me being there. However, needless to say, our efforts were futile. The genuine love, care, and kindness of all the Lebanese people I met during that time is something I will never forget, and will always hold dear.
Eventually, I made it back to Dubai.
My next trip to Beirut came many years later in 2019. Beirut is a short 2 and half hour flight from Riyadh.
This time I went with friends, to family homes, to a vibrate community. Once again, I experienced warm hospitality and laughter; amazing fresh food, and drank fine chilled local Vin de Pays. I marveled at the progress of the intervening years, and I was excited to be back in Lebanon. There is a lot to see and a lot to do in Lebanon but here are a few places that I highly recommend.
Cantina Sociale, Beirut, a young, trendy cafe with a delicious menu.
Basta, Beirut'sit's Antique District, great for strolling around and looking for interesting trinkets.
Raouche Rocks, Beirut
Al Falamanki, Raouche Facing Pigeon's Rock, is a very special restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. You can book via their website.
MusicHall Starco, Beirut.. very popular music venue and you need to book before you travel.
Le Royal Hotel, Beirut, treat yourself to something special.
Byblos, 40 mins from Le Royal Hotel
Domaine Chouchene, a beautiful guesthouse in a pretty natural setting about 30 km from the airport and off the main road Kab Elias, Lebanon.
Chateau Heritage Winery, a booking is required if you want a tour, plus it is not far from Domaine Chouchene.
Baalbek, the best way to get there is to hire a car and a driver for the day. It is about 67 km from Beirut and a fabulous day out. It is home to the Baalbek temple complex, which includes two of the largest and grandest Roman temple ruins: the Temple of Bacchus and the Temple of Jupiter. It was inscribed in 1984 as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Less than twelve months after this trip the world was shocked by a massive, explosion in the center of Beirut that killed 214 people and injured 6,000. Beirut's own 911. The explosion decimated the city of Beirut and robbed the people of hope that they will ever live in a normal free transparently governed country free from the conflict that strangles the life out of their dreams and robs them of everything.