The U.S. immigration officer asked me where I had flown in from.
"Lebanon," I replied.
"It’s pretty dangerous over there," he remarked.
"Actually, it's not," I countered. "They were some of the nicest people I've ever met."
The officer muttered something as he put a special mark on my embarkation card: a "random" mark, according to him, that got me a VIP pass to the special search-them-extra-good room.
Lebanon has an image problem. Once considered the place to see-and-be-seen in the Mediterranean, the country suffered greatly during the civil wars that raged from 1975 to 1990. The Lebanon hostage crisis that lasted for 10 years during the height of the civil wars didn't help matters either, while images of a bombed-out Beirut blasted across television networks deterred most tourists to the region during the 1980s and 1990s. For a very long time, it was hard to think about Lebanon without thinking of mortar shells and machine guns.
Now, I’m not saying you’re not going to see machine guns if you go to Lebanon, but they won't to be aimed at you. I’ll also admit that if you’ve never been out of the country, Lebanon might be a little intense for your first trip. Geographically speaking, it's situated in a hotbed of conflict, sandwiched between Israel and Syria. However, these days, Lebanon is once again an oasis in the middle of the Middle East and has amazing travel adventures to offer. Things here are safer than they've been in a very long time, and if you’re looking for a unique experience, you’ll find it in this tiny little country packed with surprises. Did I tell you how nice the people are? Don’t worry, I will.
Beirut will undoubtedly surprise you as soon as you spot it from the plane window. Despite its nickname as "the Paris of the Middle East," it rather reminds one of New York City, albeit with much shorter buildings. The capital city of Lebanon seems to go on forever, filled with traffic-snarled streets, great restaurants, upscale hotels and scenic walkways along the water. Unlike the Big Apple, however, it’s a mix of very old and new. It's not unusual to find yourself in a brand-new high rise, looking at 2,000-year-old ruins below your balcony.
As the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East, Lebanon features an amalgam of people who practice everything from Christianity, Islam and Judaism to Baha'i, Buddhism and Druze. Everyone is surprisingly tolerant of each other’s beliefs. Next to the giant letters downtown that spell BEIRUT, you'll see Roman "pagan" ruins, a huge Christian church and a mosque, all within spitting distance of each other. The Lebanese have learned to adapt, get along and make the most out of their tiny bit of Mediterranean real estate; at just over 4,036 square miles, the country is roughly six times larger than Houston.
Less than an hour north of Beirut is the city of Byblos, the first city built by the Phoenicians and one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world. Byblos is so beautiful and charming, you may not want to go anywhere else while you're here. The city is one of the oldest inhabited places in the world, with ruins over 7,000 years old. It’s also the place from which the Bible gets its name. A beautiful harbor dotted with restaurants and shops lines the coast, while a crusader castle crowns the center and rises up from within the midst of the old town’s cobblestone streets.
You may think it’s difficult to find a bar in such a place, but the opposite is true. Lively music, cold drinks and a laid-back vibe right in the middle of the ancient streets make Byblos something special. Feniqia is the restaurant that stands out as the best Lebanese dining experience, and to date is my favorite food experience in the Middle East. To be honest, I had to drag myself out of Byblos, because it’s a place I didn’t want to leave. I reached a self-compromise to come back my last night. As luck wold have it, Byblos was hosting a wine festival in its picturesque marina. In case you don't know, Lebanon has long been renowned for its wines, many of which are finally making their way onto American wine lists.
My next stop was Baalbek, an absolute must-see and once known in the ancient world as Heliopolis. Its Roman ruins are a two-hour drive from Beirut, near the Syrian border. The proximity gave me brief pause; I thought I might hear bombs dropping or see people running madly through the streets, but instead I found myself in a quiet town surrounded by snow-capped mountains, its world-famous ancient temples dwarfing everything else in sight. I’ve seen plenty of Roman ruins, but these are something special. The Bacchus temple is one of the best preserved Roman sites in the world; its entrance gate and collection of stone lions and carved figures will astound you. The museum here even uses original structures to house its treasures.
As mentioned, I was a little nervous about staying in a town so close to Syria and once a stronghold of Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon War. As I looked for a restaurant and wi-fi, two men sitting at a table invited me to join them. Hours later, after meeting a dozen of their friends, drinking Lebanese beer and talking about life, I realized they had paid my tab and bought my dinner. They insisted that I stop by an informal get-together at one of their homes thrown in my honor. We drank arak, listened to Fleetwood Mac, and they gave me the grand tour of what a super-cool Lebanese house looked like. It was an amazing evening with some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.
On the way back to Beirut, I stopped in the UNESCO site of Anjar, a small set of interesting 8th-century ruins in a strange Armenian-only village enclave. After a short visit, I headed towards Jeita Grotto. I had been told by two Russian travelers that it was one of the most spectacular things they had ever seen in the world and my curiosity was piqued.
The grotto has two chambers, upper and lower. One has to take a gondola to get to the upper half and no cameras are allowed inside. The caverns are impressive enough and although the path is only about 10 minutes long, even jaded spelunkers might let out a spontaneous woah! or two. However, the piece d’ resistance is the lower chamber. You take a cheesy, trackless train down the hill, lock up your camera in a locker once again and walk into an underground chamber to board the boat that will take you through the cavern. The boat ride is stunningly beautiful. It’s 5 to 7 minutes of wow, wow, wow. Even Walt Disney couldn’t make a ride this good. The caverns are beautiful and serene; going by boat is something that must be experienced.
If you haven’t had your fill of gondolas, nearby Jounieh has an amazing tram ride that will transport you from its seaside shore to the world famous pilgrimage site, Our Lady of Lebanon. You can reach the giant statue of Mary, which sits atop the mountain at Harissa next to an ultra-modern church, in a short ride that gives you the best possible view of Beirut and the coast. People from all over the world climb the steps leading to the statue, light the candles and pray to Mary.
Even if you’re not a believer, the views are amazing, especially in the evening as the town lights up. The traffic to the top of the hill is nothing short of horrendous, so plan accordingly. Jounieh is considered to be one of the liveliest towns in Lebanon with dozens of beachfront bars and seafood restaurants. It has its seedy side as well, and is not nearly as easy to navigate by foot nor as sexy as nearby Byblos, but is still worth a visit if you’re not pressed for time.
Sidon and Tyre are south of Beirut on the coast and can both be visited on a day trip. Tyre has two fantastic ruins: one picturesque site on the coast dotted with ancient columns (Al-Mina) and a more elaborate complex that features a huge hippodrome, an ancient acropolis (Al-Bass) and several other well-preserved buildings and arches. The hippodrome is an impressive UNESCO World Heritage site and gives you an idea of the size of the events that the Romans once put on at the height of their empire. Tyre also has a beautiful ocean boulevard that might make you feel like you’re in Florida for a brief moment with its palm trees and colorful restaurants. It’s also the home of countless loggerhead turtles. Smoke a lemon-mint flavored nargile and sip on a fresh fruit smoothie on the second floor of one the beachfront restaurants and you can make out the border of Israel as you watch the sunset.
Sidon is a bit more traditional with its old souk and crusader castle on the water. There’s a soap-making museum, a Phoenician temple, the Khan el-Franj, and various other ruins from the different civilizations who made this city—the third-largest in Lebanon—their home over the last few millennium. But it wasn't just the centuries-spanning history of the country nor its beautiful beaches nor even its delicious food that left me most awestruck by Lebanon.
I’ve rarely encountered the hospitality I found in this great country. People I just met insisted on treating me to dinner and none of them would let me pay for anything! They all said "you are my guest" as if it was a national slogan or something. If I was walking and looked confused, people would stop their cars and ask me if I needed help. One man stopped to help me get on the right road to the Jeita Grotto and then drove hours out of his way to get me there. We became friends on the way and the next day he drove me on an epic tour to the southern part of the country. We went to the coolest restaurants and he made sure that I saw everything wonderful that his country had to offer. Who does that? Not anyone I’ve met in America. Not lately, at least.
Was I just lucky that everyone I met went out of their way to show me hospitality and make sure that I had a great time? I don’t think so. I think the people in this country are just that way. Lebanon is one of the most awesome countries I've ever visited, and I'm not afraid to say it—even if I do get searched twice back home.