Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2019, including this retreat research trip to Lebanon in September. There are more details about our upcoming 2020 retreats at the end of this post.
I realize for some this is a difficult time to read about travel. However, my blog audience has spoken and they have overwhelmingly requested a break from COV-tent (content about, well, you know…), and a place where they can mentally escape right now. So, I will continue to post from my past travels to inspire those who wish to daydream about the day it is safe to travel again. Wishing all of you love and peace in this time of reflection.
For a seaside city lover like me, Beirut was captivating enough to fill an entire trip. Yet I’m glad I didn’t — the rest of Lebanon has so much to offer.
I mentioned in my previous post that Lebanon is smaller than the state of Connecticut, and generally receives less than two million tourists a year — Egypt, in comparison, received over thirteen million tourists in 2019. Of those two million, the sightseeing inclined are likely to head to the ancient ruins of Baalbek and Anjar, which the Lebanese gush could rival the ruins of Petra, but without the crowds.
Jess confessed to me early on that she was pretty Baalbek and Anjar-ed out, which I totally got. Having lived in Thailand for years, I definitely reached my threshold of times I could graciously accompany my visitors to the Grand Palace, at some point. So, already strongly sensing that I’d be back to Lebanon someday, when she asked if I’d be up for a few more offbeat adventures instead, I blindly accepted — I was loving Lebanon through her eyes.
I rented us a car for two days, and Jess generously took the wheel. I’ve driven in a lot of countries around the world, and doing so in Lebanon would give me great pause.
On day one, we headed north. Our first stop was Byblos, a popular crumbling port city about an hour north of Beirut, depending on the whims of traffic. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the world’s oldest continually-inhabited cities, first settled by the Phoenicians between 8800 and 7000 BC.
While there’s not an overwhelming amount to do, Byblos is great for a breathe of fresh air — wandering the souks, grabbing a bite at a charming little eatery, touring the Ruins of Byblos, an impressive archeological site, and of course, strolling past the charming harbor.
While it was lovely to see and great to stretch our legs, our final destination was further afield. We paused yet again in Batroun, one of the places I’m most looking forward to returning for our Wander Women Lebanon trip. This hip surf town is the outpost of badass outside Beirut, chock full of yoga classes, community beach cleans, Lebanon’s favorite microbrewery, and beach clubs ranging from laid-back to lit. I cannot wait to get back here!
But still, we pushed further north, stopping on whatever whims called us, eventually reaching Chekka. Largely a domestic tourism destination — which, to be fair, can be said for all of Lebanon — this coastal city was home to our final destination for the day: Rocca Marina.
As I confessed in my Beirut post, one of the things that had always attracted me to Lebanon was its reputation for incredible nightlife and epic summer day clubs! Most of them are actually outside of the capital city, in semi-remote destinations like this one. One of the best things about traveling to visit Jess was having someone to experience that with — and did we ever!
While Lebanon’s coastline is stunning, fluffy white sand beaches are a rarity. Rocca Marina didn’t let that stop them — they built an adult playground right out of the rocky shore. We had the absolute best day here, sipping rosé, smoking nargile — known in the US as — and splashing around in the sea and soaking up the Vegas party vibes that the place was bumping with.
Seriously, this place was like a dream. Just look at the views! From special hookups for nargile at the edge of the infinity pool to VIP service to the waterfront sunbeds, this place was something out of an Arabic music video.
I couldn’t have asked for a better day trip north out of beautiful Beirut.
The next day, we pointed the car in the opposite direction. This time, our friends Oneika and Rob joined us for the adventure.
Our first destination was Beiteddine Palace, a windy hour of narrow passes through the Chouf Mountains south of Beirut — again, major kudos to Jess! Again, we marveled at being the only visibly foreign visitors at this gorgeous gem, and were delighted to get to observe several local brides snapping wedding portraits on the grounds.
While the history of this palace is fairly grim — legend has it that the emir who commissioned the palace had the architect’s hands cut off after the fact so that it could never be duplicated — it is a major flex of Lebanese architecture, mosaics, and scenery, and I’m so glad we came here.
Next up? Shallalat Al Zarka Waterfall in Bakleen. This was a spot on Jess’s own travel wish list, and we could see how it landed there, upon arrival. A charming open-air restaurant built around a natural waterfall created a peaceful place to cool down mid-day.
However, not everyone in our party was very hungry and the only option was an extensive set menu, so we meandered around a bit, snapped some photos, and then moved on. If you do come hungry, I can’t imagine a more beautiful place for a meal.
Jess knew just where to take us instead. And so we meandered towards our final stop of the day, Nomads Nature and Nurture. This bohemian bed and breakfast, tucked deep in the Chouf Mountain range, is really something special: a place not just to stay but to be.
Here, travelers gather to do yoga, relax by the river, and indulge in homemade meals that feel like a bbq with friends. The gregarious owners, who Jess and her boyfriend Malte have befriended over the years, made us feel like family over just one afternoon.
It was the perfect end to another beautiful day trip from Beirut.
Ah, traveling Lebanon. It truly lit my soul on fire.
For independent travelers, I have to admit, there are obstacles — which is part of what makes Jess and I so excited to offer a Wander Women Retreat here. Lebanon had been high on my list for ages before Jess invited me, but it’s not without its hurdles to visit.
While I felt safe throughout my trip there, it is advisable to keep an eye on the local political situation when you touch down. Safety is on everyone’s minds when you discuss travel in the Middle East, and Lebanon’s borders with Syria and Israel can occasionally simmer with tension — there was shelling and a fire exchanged at the border between Israel and Hezbollah during our trip, leading us to scrap plans to head further south to Tyre and Sidon, out of an abundance of caution. Again, I felt totally at ease, though appreciated having an inside scoop while we made our decisions.
The more pressing issues facing travelers are these: it is a surprisingly expensive destination and also is not an easy country to travel independently. There simply isn’t the infrastructure for much tourism and so reaching the stunning sights outside Beirut requires a rental car (which is what we did — Jess amazed me behind the wheel, but I would not recommend it for those without lots of hectic driving experience), a private tour guide (pricey, of course) or the rare group day tour (there are very few tour companies in the country and most run on a fixed schedule — a certain tour on Monday, another on Tuesday, etc. so you have to luck out with that you want to see lining up with your itinerary.)
Just a bunch more reasons I couldn’t be more grateful for the inside experience I had — and can’t wait to share it with others.
Lebanon, I love ya — and I’ll be back soon.
Have you been to Lebanon? Are you tempted to go?
Love the idea of traveling to Lebanon? If all goes according to plan, we will be returning to Beirut and beyond in August 2021 for Wander Women Lebanon: A Yoga + Adventure Retreat.