48 Hours in Beirut: Our quick-fire guide to the ‘Paris of the Middle East’

It’s a wonder that the Lebanese capital — with its bullet-ridden buildings and back-street bars — even qualifies as Middle Eastern. (Shutterstock)
Updated 04 April 2018
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48 Hours in Beirut: Our quick-fire guide to the ‘Paris of the Middle East’

  • Home to around just 4 million citizens, the small city has so much to offer
  • A great place to stay is the cozy, boutique Albergo hotel on Monot road
Beirut is known as the “Paris of the Middle East,” and when you get to know it, it’s a wonder that the Lebanese capital — with its bullet-ridden buildings and back-street bars — even qualifies as Middle Eastern in the first place.
Although home to around just 4 million citizens, the small city has so much to offer. Start your day with breakfast in the ‘holes-in-the-wall’ — Al-Sousi Restaurant in Aisha Bakkar (voted world’s best breakfast by CNN in 2014) and Le Professeur in Mar Elias give you the most authentic, hands-on experience of a well-rounded breakfast of hummus, eggs and meat, and the knockout foul medamas. Be sure to have this early in the morning, and not too much. It will stick around your stomach for a while.
After you’re properly ‘foul’-ed up, a long walk along the sea front on the city’s Manara corniche is a great way to work off your breakfast. Start from the iconic picturesque Pigeon rocks and stroll all the way along to the recently re-opened Downtown area, filled with shops and restaurants. There, you can explore the grand and elegant Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque right beside the worn-down Martyrs’ Square statue.
Feeling peckish? Fret not! Right at the heart of Downtown’s Beirut Souks lies the ever-expanding culinary experience of Souk Al-Tayyeb, the Saturdays-only open-air farmers market, offering a wealth of snack (or more) options.
Head to the nearby gritty, narrow Gemmayzeh street for an incredible selection of restaurants, cafés and pubs, or keep walking to the buzzing Mar Mkhael street. Popular hangouts like Radio Beirut, Junkyard and Dirty Laundry Kitchen and Bar are always packed with thirsty Lebanese spilling out onto the streets.
A great place to stay is the cozy, boutique Albergo hotel on Monot road, but prices there can go as high as $225 a night. More budget-friendly options include Mar Mkhael’s Villa Clara hotel, which goes for an average of $160 a night.
Beirut during spring and summer is a treat, allowing you to enjoy its beaches and numerous rooftop lounges. Be sure to swing by the classy Four Season’s rooftop lounge in Downtown for a breathtaking view of the capital’s coast. If you’re on a budget, Coup d’etat offers a more casual setting — and also houses the loud and lively Café Em Nazih on the ground floor.
For the best beach experience, you have to head out of Beirut and head north toward Pierre and Friends in the historical coastal city of Batroun, one of the oldest cities in the world, or south toward Tyre Rest House where white sands and clean water dominate.
For shisha lovers, Beirut is filled with all kinds of places to just play cards beside your bubbling hookah. Al-Falamanki is a favorite restaurant/café that offers good Lebanese food and an assortment of shisha flavors in a lovely seating area in a courtyard hidden by trees and surrounded by three two-story, war-torn buildings.
Student-hub Hamra is a must-see. Situated in the middle of Lebanon’s two top universities, the road is always bustling — its restaurants, pubs and stores packed. Li Beirut and Mezyan are hotspots for Arabic music lovers, while Ales & Tales and Bricks are popular watering holes for students and professors alike.


Sensational Sikkim: Exploring the unspoiled wilderness from Chumbi Mountain Resort

The Chumbi Mountain Resort. (Supplied)
Updated 15 January 2019
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Sensational Sikkim: Exploring the unspoiled wilderness from Chumbi Mountain Resort

  • Chumbi Mountain Retreat is located in India, in the northeastern state of Sikkim
  • The retreat is both a luxury resort and a repository of traditional culture and craft

DUBAI: At the ungodly hour of 6 a.m., I was awoken by a phone call from reception. “Madam, we have a really clear view of Kanchenjunga mountain this morning, so Mr. Chopel has asked us to wake you, so you can see it,” said a disembodied voice, apologetically but with a sense of urgency.

I smiled and flung open the curtains, and there it was. The majestic Himalayan mountain — the world’s third-highest — looked like it was right outside my bedroom window, within touching distance. Clustered with its neighboring snow-clad peaks, it sparkled a bright white, against the impossibly blue skies.

General view of Kanchenjunga mountain.(Shutterstock)

That’s the kind of thing that you don’t mind dragging yourself out of bed — and barefoot onto the cold stone terrace — for; to capture that perfect photo before the fleeting view disappears behind a veil of clouds.

And it’s the kind of personal touch that makes the Chumbi Mountain Retreat special. Owner Ugyen Chopel (a filmmaker and prominent local personality) has made it is his mission to showcase this little-known corner of paradise to the world.

The retreat is situated in India, near the Himalayas in the northeastern state of Sikkim — the country’s second smallest and one of its youngest, having remained a Buddhist monarchy until as recently as 1975. Sikkim has a rich and unique heritage, as well as the more recent distinction of being India’s first fully organic (in terms of agriculture) state.

Nestled in the hills of Pelling in western Sikkim, Chumbi Mountain Retreat is both a luxury resort and a repository of traditional culture and crafts. The traditional monastic design and motifs recreated using natural materials such as local stone and wood, in an artisanal approach, and the many hand-picked historic artifacts used in the décor make staying in this serene hideaway an immersive experience.

Nowhere is this truer than at Dyenkhang, an intimate specialty restaurant offering authentic local cuisine in the traditions of the royal palace. It’s the only place in Sikkim offering this kind of meal, I was told.

The food is served in a traditionally reverential manner — the servers are meant to never show their back to the diner — on gleaming copper tableware, the fit-for-a-king feast includes phing zekar (glass noodles with marinated local greens); chu zhema (cottage cheese dumplings); gundtruk sadako (fermented greens tossed with onion and chilli); and phyasha saltum (chicken cooked in traditional herbs).

The fresh, organic produce ensures each dish bursts with flavor. But dinner here is as educational as it is delicious, providing an insight into the many influences that went into shaping Sikkimese culture and cuisine.

Another great way to experience that local culture is with a traditional ‘Dottho’ hot-stone bath in the resort’s zen-like Mhenlha Spa. An Al-fresco soak in a wooden tub with heated mineral stones added to the water together with local herbs makes for a healing, hugely relaxing experience — aided by a fermented rice drink which you are meant to sip throughout.

With its vantage point boasting panoramic views across the valley, and with numerous nooks and communal spaces to relax in, guests may be tempted to simply stay in the resort for the duration of their trip. But that would be a shame, as there is a great deal more to see in this unspoiled region.

From the scenic Khecheopalri Lake (which, local folklore has it, has the power to grant wishes) and the impressive perennial Kanchenjunga waterfall, to the sacred Pemayangtse monastery — a mountaintop Buddhist temple where fluttering prayer flags and meditative chanting create a rarified atmosphere of tranquility — excursion options abound. For the more adventurous, trekking and hiking trails are also available nearby, as are farm tours.

Kanchenjunga waterfall. (Shutterstock)

Truth be told, this isn’t the easiest place to get to or around — the roads aren’t great and Sikkim’s overall infrastructure is still developing. But those making the effort to visit this remote land will be rewarded with stunning alpine landscapes, great hospitality from unaffected, friendly people, and an inescapable sense of spiritual wellbeing. And, who knows, maybe even an elusive sighting of some of the world’s greatest mountain peaks.