“Postcards from the age”

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Voyager, British Midland International, April 2011


Postcards from the age
VOYAGER, British Midland International (BMI), April 2011 – By Sally Howard – Original Link

In the 1960s, Beirut was where the world’s rich and beautiful let it all hang out. It’s been a long time coming, but the party days are back in this one-time ‘Paris of the east’

SOME OF US GET TO LIVE THROUGH PIVOTAL MOMENTS IN HISTORY: the rise and fall of great empires, the harnessing of fire, the invention of support hosiery. Perhaps luckier still are those who get to gatecrash history’s great parties: the glitter-strewn discos of 1970s New York, or the feasts of Tudor Britain.

Such a serendipitous time and place was 1960s Beirut. In the early 1950s, the Lebanese capital was little more than a sleepy city with a choice location: jutting out into a benevolent stretch of the eastern Mediterranean. But the end of the decade was the beginning its golden age, buoyed up by independence from French colonial rule, the Persian oil boom and the scramble for Arab businesses to move their headquarters to this peaceful, strategically located state.

By the early 1960s Beirut had achieved the moniker ‘the Paris of the East’, as it evolved into the playground for the decade’s famous and leisured. Glamorous hotels and nightclubs quickly sprang up along its sunbaked coastline. There was the Phoenicia: Tippex-white and state-of-the-art; the Palm Beach Hotel, which boasted a penthouse cocktail bar with panoramic views and a curving pool the size of a car park; and the notorious Casino du Liban, whose extravagant nightly cabaret kicked off with feather-clad women descending from the ceiling atop giant artificial flowers.

Doyen of them all was the luxurious Saint Georges Yacht Club. Built on a private peninsula overlooking the Med, this 1932 French colonial hotel expanded to reflect the hubris of the age, with a vast marina to house its clients’ yachts and one of the world’s largest outdoor swimming pools – an aquamarine monster that, to contemporary eyes, called to mind the great amphitheatres of the ancients.

“One side of the pool was glass,” remembers American film-maker Nick Black, 69, who visited Beirut in the mid-1960s. “And at its foot was a bar where you’d see everyone from celebrities to businessmen sinking cocktails as they checked out the chicks.”

The sunloungers at the Saint Georges saw it all: Marlon Brando glugging Dom Pérignon from the bottle in his high-waisted swimming trunks; Brigitte Bardot lolling about on a lilo after too many martinis, Gauloise dangling from photogenic lips. “The Levant was the aspirational vacation back then,” adds Black. “It was seductive because of it’s hybrid culture, which combined an Arab identity and Western attitude. Plus it had sunshine, beautiful women in bikinis, killer cocktails and all-night bars – what wasn’t to love?”

The party ended abruptly. In 1967 Lebanon was caught in the crossfire of the Arab-Israeli War. By the mid-1970s the conflict had mushroomed into the Lebanese Civil War, which took 15 years to play out. When the gunfire was silenced, in 1991, the jewels of Beirut’s heyday lay in tatters, not least the once-glorious Saint Georges, whose showcase swimming-pool was a cratered ruin, a sad aide-memoire of happier times.

Twenty years later and Beirut’s hangover is finally subsiding. The city’s cosmopolitan boulevard cafés have flickered back to life, as locals giggle over mint tea, mezze and hubble-bubble pipes. In the small hours you’ll find them dancing on the tables in clubs such as Music Hall, a 19th-century cinema converted into a raucous cabaret venue.

Beirut is in the process of reclaiming its mantle. But instead of Paris, the ‘Miami of the Middle East’ might be a more apt moniker, as a new generation of buzzing beach clubs colonise its coastline.

Today there are party beaches littered with bronzing beauties that call to mind Ibiza in its 1990s heyday. There are generously kitted-out family beaches with sands as soft as Duchesse potatoes. There are women- only beaches for bashful sorts who are set on all-over bronzing (Aajram and Costa Brava). And there are glamorous private beaches with lounger-side service that puts the Caribbean to shame.

So when the summer sun comes calling, tug on your super-sized shades and sink your toes into the sands at Beirut’s best beach clubs.


Where to lay your towel…

Powdery sand, fruity cocktails and private thatch-roofed cabana with sunloungers – yours for £9 a day. It’s like Miami’s South Beach reimagined by Danish designers. If the handful of rug-rats splashing in the Lazy B freshwater creek cramp your vibe, head to the Adult Zone, with infinity pool, aromatherapy massage and languid dance beats. +961 7095 0010; www.lazyb.me

All you need to keep the nippers on-side: four spotless swimming pools, a kids’ playground and a 100-metre stretch of beach, where sand is sifted daily to keep it soft enough for precious feet. Watersports are on offer for the adventurous, and the outdoor restaurant serves mezze and Lebanese wines. While playing, keep your kit safe in a beachside chalet for £10 a day. + 961 5 802208; www.gobeachclub.com

With an organic market (weekly) and zero-carbon water treatment, Oceana has the credentials to satisfy eco-warriors. But green or not, come here for the setting amid a banana grove, with a boardwalk that snakes past pools, natural-wood cabanas and stylish cafés to a sandy shoreline. Stay for sunset, when DJs spin mellow tunes, good-looking locals sip organic Pilsner and the lights of Beirut glimmer in the distance. Barefoot bliss. +961 399 8080; www.oceana-resort.com

Tucked on the end of the Cornice, this beach café and lounge on the city’s seaside promenade is thick with Middle Eastern scenesters. By day, there’s a broad seaside terrace with white-cushioned sofas, teak sun loungers and oversized umbrellas, and a pier-front tanning ledge. At night, La Plage comes into its own, when beats ring out from the terrace of its Café d’Orient, Champagne flows and the vibe is pure carnival. +961 1 366222