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April Snow in Lebanon

Wafik was late. “Sorry, sorry,” he said as we shook hands before piling our bags – and ourselves – into his roomy SUV. “Very bad traffic coming here.” Beirut might be somewhat infamous for its clogged roads and lack of public transportation, but having come from Jakarta, Bama and I felt very much at ease with the whole thing. Once on nearby Damascus Street, Wafik gestured to the barely-moving stream of vehicles stretching past the heavily fortified French Embassy and the National Museum. “I was stuck here for 20 minutes,” he explained.

A light drizzle streaked the windows. Soon, we motored onto the eight-lane highway heading northeast out of Beirut. The usual American fast food joints – KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King – appeared on either side, and eventually the twin red-and-white striped chimneys of Zouk Power Station hoved into view. Practically hidden by billboards and a jumble of medium-rise apartment blocks, the broad sweep of Jounieh Bay was much harder to spot. I only realized we were in Jounieh when I saw the overhead cables of the famous Téléférique pulling ’60s-era gondolas up the vertiginous, pine-clad mountainside to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon. Eventually, at the seaside town of Chekka – dominated by a hulking, dystopian cement factory – we turned away from the densely populated coastline, breezing past an enormous quarry, terraced hillsides, expansive olive groves, and clusters of nondescript concrete buildings interspersed with tile-roofed houses in honey-colored sandstone.

The narrow, meandering road took us up and up into the Mount Lebanon range, where a thick blanket of fog obscured all but the nearest details. Signboards announced the names and elevations of villages we passed through in both Arabic and French: Tourza – 760 meters; Qnat – 1,020 meters; Qnaiouer – 1,390 meters; and now, Hasroun – 1,600 meters. But where was the snow? I wondered. Wild grasses and shrubs still thrived on the stony slopes. Wafik fearlessly navigated a series of hairpin bends and stretches of asphalt with precipitous drops on one side, barely cloaked by the gloom. Then, as the fog lifted in a brief window of clarity, we finally saw a snowcapped summit looming above the next village. Bama turned to me with an enormous grin; he had previously observed the Himalayas from afar in both Nepal and Bhutan, but this would be his first close-up experience with the white powder.

What unfolded next was almost too dreamlike, too surreal to be true. By then, the low clouds had dissipated just enough for us to behold the UNESCO-listed Qadisha Valley, where multiple waterfalls tumbled down a sheer cliff face into a verdant chasm dotted with Catholic monasteries. Wafik motioned to the town clinging to a mountain flank on the far side of the canyon, its skyline dominated by several red-tipped church steeples. “Bsharri village. That’s my country.”

We rounded the head of the Qadisha Valley and entered Bsharri, momentarily plunging into the darkness of a short, curving tunnel, then twisting around several switchbacks as the fog closed in once more. Small patches of powder by the roadside gradually gave way to larger and larger snowdrifts, until they grew even taller than our SUV. Now, watching Bama’s face light up with childlike glee, I recalled spending my very first white Christmas in Hokkaido, Japan – where I learned to ski – and another Christmas several years later in suburban Toronto, when my siblings and I pelted each other with snowballs inside the parking lot of Frankie Tomatto’s, an all-you-can-eat “Italian” restaurant that would infuriate any true-blue Italian. “I knew I was going to see snow here,” Bama said, barely containing his excitement as he peered out the window. “But not this much!”

Bama touches snow for the very first time; a wood-burning stove

Snow piled up against the windows of White Cedar Hotel’s dining room

A foggy afternoon at Al Arz

An overview of the dining area

Inside the central lounge; the hotel’s cozy “living room”

Lebanese-Armenian soujouk pizza

Two hours and 15 minutes after leaving Beirut, we rolled into the ski village of Al Arz (The Cedars). Here, cocooned in fog roughly 2,000 meters (or 6,500 feet) above the Mediterranean, the snow appeared infinite; it was hard to tell where the wet powder ended and the sky began. Wafik momentarily looked into the rearview mirror. “Because this is your first time,” he said to Bama, “I will park on the snow.” And so he did, laying down fresh tire tracks as we came to a stop at White Cedar Hotel & Resort. I opened the door and stepped out onto a layer of powder a few inches thick, with a perceptible crunch underfoot. It was far colder than rainy Beirut. I looked over at Bama to see him wide-eyed in wonder, absorbing the sensation of snow falling on his uncovered hands and the sleeves of the padded down jacket he’d bought the night before leaving Jakarta.

Arriving on a Tuesday afternoon, it seemed as though we were the only ones staying there. Neither of us minded that our smallish room had a desk but no place to sit; just a few steps down the corridor, a set of double doors led to a central lounge with multiple nooks and a small collection of reading material. Bama sat down for a closer look at the front cover of a thick, illustrated volume, using his knowledge of the Arabic alphabet to decipher the title – and discovering that it mirrored the Indonesian words for “wonders of the world”: ajaib dunia. Tucked behind the lounge, an empty restaurant had been simply furnished with booth seats and a long counter running down one side, presumably for the breakfast buffet. We sat down in the unheated space while bundled up in our thick jackets, savoring the crisp, invigorating cold that would have been unthinkable back in steamy Jakarta. In time, a man with a kind, deeply furrowed face appeared. He spoke almost entirely in Arabic and motioned for us to follow him. “Stove, stove,” he said.

The man guided Bama and I to a small room that lay just off the reception. In the absence of other guests, it almost felt like our own secret lair. Soft, diffuse light flooded in from the windows running along two sides; below a colorful clock centered on a print of Big Ben, built-in sofas with throw pillows had been arranged around a sturdy coffee table. And just as we’d been told, a cast-iron wood-burning stove had been lit, the flames blazing a vivid orange behind a glass screen. Bama and I were famished. Luckily for us, the menu here offered Lebanese mezze as well as international comfort food: including a generously portioned fettuccine alfredo (our option for dinner the very next day), burgers with thickly cut fries, plus several kinds of homemade pizza. We ordered our meals at the front desk and settled in for a late lunch, watching the snow falling quickly at first as icy pellets, before slowing down to dance in the air as larger flakes.

Our first few days in Lebanon had been dogged by work-related loose ends that I’d been unable to tie up in Jakarta. Though we were on holiday, I had little choice but to spend early mornings and some evenings on email, ironing out the details of an impending assignment: negotiating with my boss and a photographer to confirm dates and prices, making sure all flights were booked, and contacting a restaurateur I was hoping to interview. Only on the morning of our departure from Beirut, to my immense relief, did everything finally fall into place.

I was looking forward to the simple pleasure of just being, of relishing the moment and not having a care in the world. Online reviews of White Cedar had warned of unreliable Wi-Fi, and in a way, that was just what I’d hoped for. I wanted nothing better than to unplug and disconnect entirely from the world of deadlines.

The kind-faced man eventually returned to serve us lunch. Just days before, it seemed impossible to think that we’d be enjoying a freshly baked pizza topped with local cheese and soujouk – a piquant Armenian-style beef sausage – in a room warmed by a crackling fire as snow piled up against the double-glazed windows. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt such bliss, and for now, there was no other place I wanted to be.

Leaving White Cedar Hotel for an afternoon walk

Snow in the Middle East

A world resembling cookies ‘n cream

Old-growth Lebanese cedars, the national emblem; Bama poses by a roadside snowdrift

Empty chalets and holiday apartments

The waters of the Mediterranean reflecting the late afternoon sun

Folds of the Lebanese landscape

Cedars Church, just down the road from our hotel

The snowcapped peaks of Mount Lebanon emerge from the clouds

Catching the last glimmers of daylight

Sunset and low-hanging clouds at Al Arz

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow! Didn’t think of Lebanon being that cold. Live and learn.

    April 30, 2019
    • It is! We were very lucky to catch the tail end of the winter in those mountains.

      April 30, 2019
  2. I can hardly believe that these photos were captured in the Middle East :)The snow is so thick that it can be comparable to the Swiss Alps. But could you ski here? I ask because the snow looks a bit soft, and there is no skier around.

    April 30, 2019
    • Yes, you can actually ski there – Lebanon is well known in the Middle East as a destination for snow sports, and our hotel was just downhill from the Cedars ski slopes. 🙂

      In fact we were told by the owner that during the winter, guests come from Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, and other European countries to ski. And sometimes the snow is even 10 meters deep. The lack of skiers in my photos can be explained by the fact that we were there on a work day… the place gets busy on weekends with all the people coming up from Beirut.

      April 30, 2019
      • Well… it’s a perfect place to escape the heat waves, especially in a region like Middle East. If Vietnam has such a cool place, I think will go there every summer 😛

        May 1, 2019
  3. Beautiful!

    May 1, 2019
    • Indeed, Nicole! I think Lebanon will be great for mountain hikes especially in the summer and fall.

      May 1, 2019
  4. Oh I can just feel Bama’s excitement. And your bliss at having time finally to relax and be on holiday. And what a wonderful holiday! What a place to be!
    Alison

    May 1, 2019
    • Bama was like a kid in a candy store – his reaction to seeing and touching that snow for the first time is something I won’t forget easily. I hope you and Don make it to Lebanon soon!

      May 1, 2019
  5. All these years whenever snow-related blog posts come up from the bloggers that I’ve been following, I always tell them how much I want to touch the snow. Finally this dream of mine came true last month in the least expected place of all. That first afternoon at our hotel in Al Arz was truly bliss, and if you remember there was a black cat walking on the snow just outside the lounge where we had our late lunch. What a purrfect day!

    May 1, 2019
    • Before we got to Al Arz, I was anxious and hopeful for your sake – I wasn’t sure how much snow to expect and I was totally relieved (and thrilled) that it hadn’t melted down to a thin layer. And I do recall seeing that cat making paw prints in the powder. Had we gone there a month earlier and for longer, maybe you could have learned to ski!

      May 1, 2019
  6. I am not a huge fan of the cold, but I am a huge fan of fires, pizza and being warm. That sounds like a delightful way to spend an evening. Kristi and I spent our honeymoon at a ski resort in Alaska during the week between seasons. It was a massive 500 room hotel and I bet we had one of 3 rooms that were occupied. It was great, but kind of like The Shining.

    May 1, 2019
    • Wow, it must have been slightly spooky to have such a giant hotel practically to yourselves. Bama and I both like traveling to cold places – I guess the novelty of not being in the tropics, and being able to walk around for hours without constantly sweating, really colors our preferences.

      May 1, 2019
      • I’m looking forward to not sweating soon! Beirut looked rainy on the coast, but was it otherwise pleasant temps? It is always nice to be able to rewear the same clothes the next day when traveling, something that is hard to do in SE Asia.

        May 1, 2019
      • It was sometimes pleasant in Beirut, especially on the odd occasion when the sun came out, but most of the time a jacket was necessary. In Fahrenheit it ranged from the low 50s to mid 60s. That said, my friend there told us it was unseasonably cold and rainy for early April.

        May 1, 2019
  7. Even after I read your title, I did NOT expect that first photo! And I was grinning from ear to ear (and even had a few goosebumps) looking at Bama and thinking about the wonder that comes along with a first glimpse of something as magical as snow. Even though I escaped that kind of weather a few years ago (it’s different when it lasts for 6 months!), I still see the beauty and excitement in a fresh snow, especially if there’s a cozy, warm place from which to view it. Your time in the mountains looks fantastic, and I’m glad your mind was free from work pressures so you could enjoy it with Bama. (I am still smiling back at his face in these photos!)

    May 2, 2019
    • Having Bama there and witnessing his pure joy made it such a special experience. It’s so interesting to hear your positive take on fresh snow even after years of living in Chicago – but at the same time I can imagine your immense relief at not being there during this year’s polar vortex! Lebanon was probably only the sixth time I’d ever experienced snow so it remains a novelty for me. I count myself very lucky not to have endured harsh, long Canadian winters as my siblings did when they went to college in Montreal… my brother once had to brave a severe ice storm in his first year just to get to class!

      May 2, 2019
  8. Snow in April is rare, and in Lebanon I would have thought impossible ~ but those photos are something else, and created an great story for you in your travels. Growing up around snow in the winter, I always took it for granted ~ but your story makes me wish I could remember the magic of seeing my first snow 🙂

    May 7, 2019
    • Thank you for the kind words, Randall – and sorry it took me a month to respond! 🙂

      I’d heard that this past winter was especially cold in Lebanon but I was really not expecting snowfall in April. That made the trip even more special. I guess we couldn’t have asked for better timing!

      June 9, 2019
  9. I love how you captured Bama’s excitement of touching/experiencing snow for the first time (and in a place that I’d normally not associate with having this much snow). Even after a lifetime of being around snow, I’m one of those weird people who loves the stuff. I’m as excited as a little kid when I see the first snow of the season. I’m glad you were able to feel a little peace and relaxation in your cozy hideaway.

    May 9, 2019
    • Cheers Caroline! I think the mountains would have been a lot busier had we gone during the weekend; one trait that struck me about the hotel was its immediate familiarity… especially when it came to being all wrapped up while exploring the various indoor spaces (when the heating was turned off). The feeling reminded me so much of winters in Toronto.

      PS apologies for the much-delayed reply!

      June 9, 2019
      • No worries about the delay James. I often get stressed about all the great posts I haven’t had a chance to read/respond to, and remind myself it’s OK. Crazy, fast-paced world we live in (or at least for an old gal like me). Glad you got a little reminder of those Canadian winters.

        June 15, 2019

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