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Boon for Beirut

Jack Smith

The morning rush hour in downtown Beirut is a study in chaos. One might expect such a situation in a 5,000-year-old city whose roads originally were built for chariots and sandals. But the antiquity of the urban grid is only part of the problem. To Lebanese drivers, it seems, traffic lights are at best guidelines—to be followed or ignored depending on an individual’s mood or self-image. Right-of-way is a courtesy reserved for visiting royalty, not for a convoy of four chauffeur-driven Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speeds motoring through the city.

Tumultuous as they are, the streets of Beirut are far more civilized than they were in the 1990s, in the wake of a 15-year civil war that at various times involved Chris­tian and Muslim militias, the PLO, sectarian Muslim groups (including the nascent, Iranian-backed Hezbollah), and Israeli and Syrian forces. Toward the end of the last century, speed limits, road signs, and traffic cops were nonexistent, and drivers signaled turns not with flashers but by holding guns out of their windows.

Judging by the scenery along the road, a détente has set in. "You can tell which part of town you are in by looking at the billboards," says Geoff Dowding, Bentley Motors’ regional director for Asia Pacific and the Middle East, who is riding with me in one of the Flying Spur Speeds. "If the ads show girls in lingerie and bikinis, you are in a Christian part of town. If the women are fully dressed, you are in south Beirut, the Hezbollah district."

I notice the billboards less than the construction cranes moving across the skyline, lifting sections of luxury condos and skyscrapers into place, and the bulldozers chugging to and fro along the waterfront, shaping the coastline into yachting marinas, parks, and promenades.

Beirut’s legacy of violence to the contrary, today every new dawn seems to bring new glitter to the city’s landscape. The Le Gray, a hotel operated by the same company that runs One Aldwych and Dukes Hotel in London, opened in late 2009, and the Four Seasons Hotel Beirut debuted a couple of months later. The city even smells new; instead of a shadowy labyrinth of stalls redolent of decay, the Beirut Souks is a sleek complex of polished marble and glass. Inside are nightclubs and restaurants and hundreds of boutiques offering haute couture and bijouterie.

"Beirut is very liberal, very stylish," interior decorator Mary Cochrane Sursock, an expatriate from Baton Rouge, La., tells me later. "I see more chadors in Harrods than in Lebanon. You see girls working in banks looking like they’re headed for a disco. Even the schoolteachers have a glitter look. There’s cleavage everywhere. Nude beaches are the only things we don’t have. But we do have beaches where the girls wear thongs and go topless."

Perhaps at some point we will visit those beaches, but at the moment the Bentleys are headed east through the city, toward the mountains. We are coming from one of the Middle East’s fastest-growing purveyors of luxury cars, Bentley Beirut. These are good times for the dealership. "A few years ago we’d sell 10 or 15 Bentleys in Beirut," says Dowding. "This year we’ll sell between 25 and 30."

Bentley Beirut’s proprietor, Michel Trad, is marking his family’s half century of ownership by opening a new, three-story facility on the city’s corniche. The Lebanese love a party, and a shiny new showroom is certainly as good a reason as any for celebration. The Bentley head office in England has invited a small group of sociable types from such far-flung locales as Azerbaijan, South Korea, Russia, Germany, England, Japan, and the United States to join the festivities. The plan is for us to spend several days in and around one of the world’s most charismatic cities, exploring historical and archaeological sites, touring the country’s vineyards, and hobnobbing with Beirut’s luminaries. Along the way each of us also will get to know the new Flying Spur Speed from the vantage point of the richly appointed driver’s seat. That sounds like fun. The 12-cylinder Speed is a true supercar, with a top speed of 200 mph. Even though it weighs 5,380 pounds, the sleek four-seater can rocket from a standing start to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. All that performance and veneered picnic tables for the rear-seat passengers as well.

There is just one catch: Because of the vagaries of Beirut’s streets and the local driving habits—not to mention the $207,000 retail price of each Bentley—Trad has proposed that his chauffeurs drive the cars from the showroom through the city traffic. Once in the more tranquil countryside we guests will have our turns driving the cars.

When we reach the suburbs I take the chauffeur’s place behind the wheel, while Dowding, sitting next to me, expounds on the Speed. "This is the ultimate connoisseur’s car," he begins, as we effortlessly ascend a twisty mountainside road. "It’s a large car, but it doesn’t feel like one. Its steering is far more taut than other luxury sedans. You’ll feel the car conform to your own personal driving style as you go along."

While I imagine Bentley’s engineers conferring about me and my driving style as they fine-tune the Speed’s handbuilt engine, the sedan, with its oversize brakes and aluminum-intensive suspension, proves nimble and responsive and a joy to drive. The car also is a head-turner: muscular and seamless, as if sculpted from a single block of steel.

"Everything about the Speed bespeaks authenticity," says Dowding. "If something looks like burnished aluminum, it is. If it looks like a chestnut or walnut inlay, it is. Its lines are classic and understated, but it will outperform virtually every car you encounter on the road."

Even so, it sometimes takes more than power and sleek lines to sell cars in this part of the world. In 2006, for instance, Beirut’s harbor was closed while Israel’s military bombed the airport and other targets in response initially to the capturing of two Israeli soldiers during an attack on an Israeli border patrol. "Trad had a half-dozen cars waiting for him on a boat, but there was no way for him to take delivery of the cars as long as the bombing was going on," recalls Dowding. "Fortunately we were able to divert the cars to other dealerships in the Gulf. And we did it all on a handshake.

"Sometimes you would like a written guarantee that certain things will get done, and you won’t get one," he continues. "But if the Lebanese say they’ll do something, they’ll do it—maybe not right away, but they will do it. If you are going to do business in Lebanon, you have to learn to be flexible."

If you are going to let someone behind the wheel of a Bentley in Lebanon, you have to be sure he knows how to drive. This I discover shortly after we arrive at our first stop, the Mzaar ski resort on Mount Lebanon, where the Phoenicians harvested wood for their temples and ship masts. After a coffee and a brief stroll around the mountaintop resort, I surrender the keys to the next driver, a fashion editor from Azerbaijan, and join an amateur racer from Moscow in the back of the automobile.

Before we get out on the road, the Azerbaijani does something that causes the Russian and me to exchange looks of alarm: He hooks his thumbs tightly around the steering wheel. The car lurches forward as he stomps on the gas pedal and wheels into the center of the road and then back to the right, where a 6-inch-tall curb is the only thing preventing us from plummeting hundreds of feet down a cliff.

Before long, bemusement gives way to terror; it is just a matter of time before we swerve headlong into oncoming traffic or, even worse, hop the curb and careen into oblivion. But fate, in the shape of a large delivery truck parked by the right side of the road, intervenes. We smash into it and, as though we were filleting a trout, shear the sheet metal from the right side of the Bentley.

The Azerbaijani leaps from the car as it comes to a stop, forgetting to set the transmission into park or to apply the emergency brake. With nobody at the wheel, the Bentley begins to roll downhill, picking up speed. But before it gets going very fast, one of the chauffeurs jumps in behind the wheel and brings the car to a stop.

"Is anybody hurt?" asks Dowding, who has come rushing from the car ahead of ours. The damage to the Bentley is mostly cosmetic. I bumped my nose against the front passenger headrest, but the air bags did not deploy. Even if they had, well, this is Lebanon; you have to be flexible. We pull the side-view mirror back into position and off we go, destination Byblos.

 

"Beirut is back!" So announce signs on the construction barriers that clutter the sidewalks in the city’s downtown. This is all well and good, but back from where, or more appropriately, from when? It is difficult to tell whether the battered temples and scarred monuments that litter virtually every Lebanese vista are remnants of ancient biblical sieges or 21st-century bombing raids.

The Byblos seaside where our Bentleys are parked was once the center of the Phoenician civilization. By the third millennium BC, long before the Roman or Greek empires had formed, Byblos had emerged as a powerful city-state with its own culture, kings, and gods. The scribes of Byblos produced the early version of our modern alphabet, which migrated to Greece around 800 BC, changing forever the way people communicated and lived.

Two millennia later, the Crusaders arrived here and built a labyrinthine castle and moat where Roman ruins once stood. Saladin, sultan of Syria and Egypt, captured the fortress in 1188 AD and tore it down. That proved to be a mistake, because in 1197 a second wave of Crusaders seized the city. They then rebuilt the castle, a limestone structure that is still standing.

For some visitors to Byblos, the attraction is not its prebiblical past, but instead its association with a later age’s glitterati: Brando, Sinatra, Brigitte Bardot, David Niven, and others. Their photos line the walls of the Fishing Club restaurant, set at the foot of the Crusaders’ castle. In its heyday, the Fishing Club was owned and operated by bon vivant–turned-restaurateur Pepe Abed, who appears in many of the hundreds of photos, sharing a drink with one celeb here and draping his arm about another’s shoulder there. Pepe died five years ago, and now his son and grandson run the restaurant.

Set amid the stone reminders of past dynasties, the Fishing Club is at first jarring—more kitsch than classic. But whether you come to Byblos to view ancient fortresses or photos of bygone stars, you will leave raving about the restaurant’s calamari.

Later that evening, we are at Indigo on the Roof, the rooftop restaurant at Le Gray hotel in Beirut’s central district. Our host is Gordon Campbell Gray, the dapper Scotsman who owns this hotel and the rest of the CampbellGray Hotels (the brand omits the space between his names) collection of properties. On one side of the penthouse, we can see the city lights playing off the iridescent blue dome and spiked minarets of the Mohammed al-Amin, said by some to be the world’s most beautiful mosque. As rock music wafts over from a nearby club, Campbell Gray recalls his first trip to this city, in 1995. "A friend had two airline tickets to Beirut, and he couldn’t give them away—literally. He’d won the tickets in a contest, and nobody would go with him but me. When we got here there were tanks in the streets."

A lesser man might have hurried back to the airport and caught the next flight home, but not Campbell Gray. He decided this would be a marvelous place to open a hotel. Years later, he pursued that idea. "I spoke to analysts in London, people who tell you what the chances are of a hotel’s success, and they all said to open one in Dubai," says Campbell Gray. "They thought I was crazy."

His plan did not appear any saner in 2006, during the Israeli bombings, or in 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized western Beirut during a power struggle for control of the Lebanon government. "Everyone was really wary after the Israeli attacks," says Campbell Gray. "But we refused to let it throw us off course and bashed on."

In November 2009 Campbell Gray opened the hotel, contradicting critics who had warned of a creeping Dubai-ification settling into the city. Instead of a featureless tower soaring into the stratosphere, the Le Gray is a seven-story structure with a softly crenellated yellow stone facade. The hotel’s 87 rooms and suites are positioned around a circular glass-domed atrium.

"I always thought the hotel would do OK, but now we’re packed," says Campbell Gray. "People who’ve lived abroad are coming back. These people have a lot of passion; they love their cigars, their food, and their music. This area was fabulous before the [1970s and ’80s civil] war, and it will be fabulous again soon."

Then Campbell Gray pauses and smiles. "Yes, there’s an element of danger here," he says. "But people like places that are a bit edgy, don’t they?"

The city is not dangerous enough to dissuade Four Seasons, which opened its Beirut hotel in January 2010. "It’s not what you’d expect from a Four Seasons, is it?" Suzan Bou Dargham, the hotel’s public relations director, asks me the next day as we move through the lobby, which bears gold and black pillars, and the restaurant, the doors of which are inscribed with Arabic script. The bar is decorated with a mosaic mirror and an oversize chandelier, providing further contrast with the restraint that characterizes the decor of most Four Seasons properties. "We expect to get fewer business guests than other Four Seasons," says Bou Dargham. "The hotel is designed more for the vacation traveler."

The hotel will be especially convenient for those who arrive in Beirut by yacht. From the 26th floor, where the hotel’s swimming pool is set, Bou Dargham points out the new marina and park taking shape across the street. "When the marina is built you’ll be able to dock your yacht and then walk through a tunnel to the hotel," she says. "You won’t need to be concerned about traffic."

 

Water is everywhere at our next destination, Beited­dine, or "House of Faith," the palace that is considered one of Lebanon’s greatest treasures. Water shimmers in pools, gushes from walls, and spouts skyward from fountains. Built in the early 19th century by Emir Bechir Chehab II, Beiteddine is a stunning example of classic Lebanese architecture, with marble mosaic floors, opulent Turkish baths, and harem suites. On the grounds surrounding the palace are impeccably groomed gardens.

A series of anterooms leads to the emir’s throne room. Visitors would pass through these rooms, waiting a while in each before finally being summoned to the throne room. Each chamber is ornately lined in carved cedar and painted in gold leaf. So at least the visitors had something to look at while they waited.

Refreshments from the next stop on our odyssey, Bekaa Valley, might have made the time pass even more quickly for the palace’s visitors. The valley is home to Château Kefraya, one of Lebanon’s leading winemakers. Of course, some might observe that leading Lebanese winemaker is oxymoronic. To which a Lebanese oenophile could point out that his ancestors were making wine when the French were scrawling pictures of mastodons on cave walls. The country’s sunny climate and coastal location do seem ideal for viticulture, and some Lebanese wines have earned respectable appraisals from Robert Parker and other reviewers. Nevertheless, many might agree with the sentiment expressed on a sign I notice as the Bentley caravan pulls away from the château. It reads, "We are not making wine, we are making Kefraya."

 

The Lebanese are fond of telling how they dealt with the 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. "It was devastating," says Neiman Azzi, a party planner and publicist in Beirut. "But we didn’t let it interfere with our social life."

Instead, he says, the parties went on, with some revelers relocating to the predominantly Christian mountain suburbs. Others relied on the skills of the Israeli pilots. "Certainly we heard the bombing, but it didn’t really bother us," says Roderick Cochrane Sursock. "The targets were precise. We had nothing to fear."

This was good to know in case the bombing resumed during our visit to the Cochrane Sursock digs; it would be a shame to miss this party. A double flight of white marble steps leads to the main entrance of the house, which occupies one large city block. Inside, waiters offer glasses of Champagne and hors d’oeuvres as they move through a hall about the length of a football field. Tapestries and oil paintings abound on the walls of the hall.

Upon being summoned to dinner on the terrace, the guests descend a staircase where vitrines from the 2nd century adorn the landings. The glass showcases contain tomb offerings that have been untouched for 1,700 years. It is always nice to have family keepsakes.

The Cochrane Sursocks have been in Beirut since 1714, when the family controlled an industrial empire that extended from Turkey to Egypt. "My father was a baronet, but my brother got the title," says Roderick Cochrane Sursock, with a wry smile. Instead of the title, he received the house and the surrounding property.

"You’re a very lucky man," says one of his guests.

"Well, it takes a lot of attention," Cochrane Sursock replies, in a weary tone.

While Cochrane Sursock and his wife, Mary, the Baton Rouge native, serve as the seneschals of bygone grandeur, Sara Torbey stands guard over a more contemporary form of indulgence. She is the 26-year-old reservation manager at White, a club that is a short walk from the Four Seasons hotel. "Everybody in Beirut knows her, during the day people come up and schmooze her so she’ll let them in," says Claude Saba, White’s 28-year-old manager.

With peace now a reality in Leba­non, the Beirut club scene—legendary among jet-setting pleasure seekers—has become more frenetic than ever. White and other hot spots typically stay open until dawn. Unlike many of the clubs in Europe, where your looks alone can determine whether you get past the doormen, White—so-called for the hue of its monochrome decor—requires reservations. This makes Torbey a very popular person in Beirut. "People call up and try to talk in fake accents, like they’re a wealthy foreigner," she says. "But I know everyone in Beirut. They are the in-crowd. They’re not young, and they’re not old. But they go clubbing every night."

Reservations were not nearly as difficult to obtain when White first opened, in 2006. "That was our first summer," recalls Saba. "We opened 25 days before the bombing. It was bad for business. But now we sell lots of VIP tables every night at $1,000 a table.

"Yes," he concludes, as two young women enter his club wearing sequined bodices, "Beirut is booming."

How does he mean that, I ask.

"Excuse me?" Saba says.

Never mind.

 

Bentley Motors, www.bentleymotors.com; Four Seasons Hotel Beirut, +961.1.761.000, www.fourseasons.com; Le Gray, +961.1.971.111, www.campbellgrayhotels.com

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Photo by Dana Allen
Photo by Cheryl Zibisky