Beirut used to be called the ‘Paris of the East’ - a melting pot of Europe and Arabia and a magnet for the rich and famous intent on spending their fortunes in the fleshpots, the like of which had never been seen that side of the Cote d’Azur. Hedonists could ski in the morning and sip champagne overlooking the snow-covered slopes, then swim in the Mediterranean in the afternoon. But that was before the Lebanon found itself embroiled in a 15-year civil war.
Well, the good times are not only back, but back with the kind of passion the fun-loving Lebanese do so well.
The last time I had been in Beirut was shortly after the war ended in 1991 and the city was one of the world’s biggest building sites – dwarfed, perhaps, only by post reunification Berlin – as construction companies fell over themselves to build bigger and better hotels and all the other tourist infrastructure that goes with them.
This time, however, as the jet lined up for its final approach to the Lebanon’s capital city and I pressed my face against the window to catch a glimpse of the scene below I could not help marvelling at just how much has changed during the years since the conflict ended. Only a few minutes in a taxi from the airport through the city centre soon provides the answers. Everything has changed - and nothing.
Beirut is becoming a major business centre for the Middle East. Besides chemical and textile industries it is an exporter of electrical goods, paper products, jewellery and food. And many global banks are making this their regional base.
Drive through the downtown area, crossing from what was once Muslim West Beirut into Christian East Beirut, over the border known during the civil war as the ‘Green Line’ around Martyrs’ Square, and you cannot help but notice how, where there were once war-scarred buildings on both sides of the road, there are now smart buildings, many of them either newly-recreated or rescued from the rubble and returned to their original splendour.
Some of these are office blocks housing banks and other internationally-recognised companies as well as shops, bars and restaurants. Some of them now house some very stylish hotels, such as Le Gray, one of the latest creations of hotel guru Gordon Campbell-Gray, who once worked his magic in the likes of London’s One Aldwych hotel. Le Gray, right on Martyrs’ Square and therefore about as central as possible, has quickly become a tourist attraction in its own right with Beirut’s style-makers queuing to view the open atrium and wide public spaces as they make their way to the roof-top bars and terraces for which this hotel, like many other buildings in Beirut, is famous.
You could spend virtually the whole day on the roof terraces of Le Gray, making Indigo on the Roof your daytime base; when you are not sunning yourself by the pool until it is time for pre-dinner drinks at the stylish rooftop bar that acts as an after-work magnet for Beirut’s beautiful people.
Visit in spring or summer and you will be in the city for what has become known as the ‘rooftop season’ when any hotel, bar or restaurant of any note opens up its top-floor terraces and the city becomes almost like the venue for a 24-hour-a-day party as Beirut’s movers and shakers park their BMWs, Ferraris, Mercedes and Porches ostentatiously outside the main entrances and head for the pleasures of al fresco swimming pools and sunbathing in the daytime, dining and drinking designer cocktails as the sun goes down and continuing well into the night and early morning.
Beirut has become a key stop on many European executives’ visits to the Middle East, not least because it is a base for doing business with others from the region. As well as its own stock exchange, the city houses the Beirut International Exhibition & Leisure Center and is developing a key conference industry. Besides boat and motor shows, the city hosts the IT Expo and Security Middle East will be held there next March.
It is very easy to fall in love with Beirut. It is one of the world’s most interesting cities, with the added bonus of some of the most charming and hospitable people you are likely to meet anywhere. Perhaps it has something to do with living for years alongside danger, but the Lebanese - particularly those living in the capital - are certainly experts at enjoying themselves and making sure that visitors enjoy themselves as well.
Visit the Hamra area in the western side of the city and you will be hard pushed to know that there had ever been any fighting in this city. It is a lively, cosmopolitan area dominated by the University of Beirut with all the cafes and bars you would expect of an area frequented by students. There are even some UK-style pubs, just in case you are homesick for a pint and a game of darts.
Just to the south is one of the main shopping and commercial areas and a good selection of hotels, not to mention glitzy jet-set residential neighbourhoods where apartments are said to change hands for millions. Here you will also find a good selection of pavement cafés and restaurants, some with impressive views over Pigeon Rocks, two slabs of rock carved out by the sea about 200 yards offshore. Go shopping in this area and you will find everything from cheap trinkets to the latest in designer fashions, much loved by style-conscious Lebanese. Look in the back streets for coffee pots, pottery, gold and silver jewellery and glassware.
Here, too, is the Corniche, made up of Avenue de Paris and Avenue General de Gaulle, once again a fashionable place for an evening stroll. The years may have taken their toll but it still retains much of its original charm as a popular walking route for locals and visitors alike.
Head here at sunset, after the worst of the evening traffic has subsided, and you may spot old men sitting on benches playing backgammon, just as they have for centuries. Stop at one of the vans parked along the road and buy tea or coffee or try some roasted chestnuts or corn on the cob from one of the street vendors who patrol the area each evening. Alternatively take a seat at one of the open-air pavement cafés for a cool beer and perhaps try a nargileh - the hubble-bubble pipe so popular in this part of the world.
If your work schedule allows, take a trip to the fishing port of Byblos, just along the coast. An old fort and good small restaurants make for a great day out. Or in winter visit the Faraya-Faqra ski resorts, about 30 minutes away by car. Great for people-watching even if you don’t fancy skiing.
Beirut, one of the liveliest cities in the Middle East, has shrugged off the dark days of conflict and is well on the road to recovery. Visit soon before the city again finds a permanent place on the schedule of the rich and famous and prices escalate to match other jet-set resorts.
+ British Airways which operates 10 flights a week to Beirut with a choice of Club World and World Traveller seats. Prices start from £490 return, including taxes, fees and charges. See www.ba.com/Beirut or call 0844 4930787.
+ A deluxe double room at Le Gray hotel starts from £232 per room per night for two people sharing on a room-only basis, exclusive of VAT at 10%. Email or phone +961 1 962 828.
Jeff Mills has visited most countries of the world at least once during more than 30 years reporting on business and leisure travel. He edited Travel Weekly and was travel editor of Sunday Business: he now writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal Europe and other publications.