There’s no denying the thrill of Whistler-Blackcomb’s vast ski runs or the Swiss glitz of St. Moritz, so it’s easy to see why winter sport aficionados to return to those great alpine paradises year after year. And while New Zealand’s Southern Alps or the powdery peaks of Northern Japan may have creeped their way onto bucket lists for off-the-beaten path ski experiences, rarely does the Middle East or North Africa make the cut. It’s fair enough–after all, the region tends to evoke images of shape-shifting sand dunes rather than snow-clad mountains. But a different kind of oasis exists there, too–namely unexpected winter wonderlands that have remained under-the-radar even for the most intrepid travelers. So from Israel to Iran, and even Morocco, read on to discover the seven best resorts in culture-rich destinations to snap on your skis this winter.
Mzaar Kfardebian, Lebanon
Though smaller than Connecticut, Lebanon is home to some of the best skiing in the Middle East. Just under an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean coast you’ll find the snow-capped peaks of Mount Lebanon, where the slopes of Mzaar Kfardebian, the region’s largest resort, rise over 8,000 feet. Every winter, fashionable locals and the jet-set crowd conquer its impressive snowpack, take part in a rowdy après-ski scene, and tour the ancient Roman ruins nearby. While day trips from Beirut are typical, alpine accommodations are also plenty–we’d suggest checking into one of the Swiss-style chalets or the prestigious Intercontinental Mzaar Resort & Spa, which has its own ski lift.
Cedars Ski Resort, Lebanon
If you’re looking to trace back skiing’s roots in the middle east, head to Cedars Ski Resort, which is renowned for being the oldest skiing grounds in Lebanon. Founded as a ski academy by the French army in the 1930s, its facilities were modernized in 2005 (though don’t expect any cutting-edge equipment here). The resort is typically recommended for beginners because of its gentle slopes, however cross-country skiers can find the best-maintained trails in the country. The Cedars of God forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of rare cedrus libani trees, some as old as 2,000 years, is nearby and more than worth a stop once you finish up on the slopes.
Head 90 minutes outside Tehran into the cragged Alborz mountain range to reach Dizin, Iran’s most famous ski resort. With lifts reaching a peak altitude of about 12,000 feet, desirable dry snow is abundant throughout the exceptionally long ski season, which sometimes can last well into May. It’s not uncommon to see an overnight snow accumulation of up to 20 inches, with all nine ski runs offering spectacular views of Mount Damavand, the country’s tallest mountain. While haphazardly enforced on the mountain, Iran’s strict Islamic codes of conduct prevent any sort of après ski fun, making a day trip from Tehran the preferred choice for most.
Mount Hermon, Israel
The only winter ski resort in Israeli-controlled territory is settled on the southern slope of Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights. Despite hostile political relationships with Lebanon and Syria to the north, Mount Hermon is still a thriving resort with 14 pistes, 11 chair lifts, and a renowned ski school. There’s also a plethora of activities for non-skiers should you have dragged your family along on your off-the-beaten-path adventure, with sledding and tubing as popular options. Grab a traditional mulled wine as an après ski treat (there are also multiple kosher cafes in the area worth checking out), before switching gears to explore the nearby Rujm el-Hiri archaeological site.
Once you arrive in Oukaïmeden, just 50 miles from Marrakech, you’ll find a rather atypical picture of Morocco. The sleepy hamlet is nestled 8,000 feet up in the High Atlas mountains with ski lifts rising to the peak of Jebel Attar Mountain, 2,000 feet further up–earning it the title of Africa’s highest ski resorts. Oukaïmeden has all the facilities of a classic European resort, though be advised that most of the seriously retro rental equipment from the ‘80s (its well-maintained, but you may want to bring in your own gear). One chair lift and 20 sparingly-groomed runs render it small and rustic by Western standards, though it’s all worth the extraordinary experience of skiing in North Africa.
An hour away from mystical Cappadocia in central Turkey is the country’s most popular ski resort, Erciyes. The country’s highest resort town sits at the base of an extinct volcano, whose summit has year-round snow coverage that guarantees a fruitful ski season each year. The resort offers up access to over 90 miles of slopes with 34 pistes that range from easy to very difficult (accessible via state-of-the-art gondolas and chair lifts), including Turkey’s longest ride. For luxury accommodation right on the mountain, check out the Magna Hotel, which offers direct access to the lifts.
Ski Dubai, UAE
Known for its ambitious building projects (including the world’s tallest skyscraper) and over-the-top hotels, Dubai managed to accomplish the seemingly impossible in 2005: Create a ski area in the middle of the desert. Different than any other ski resort on this list—or in the world, really—is Ski Dubai, an indoor ski area within the Mall of the Emirates. The resort features a “mountain” the height of a 25-story building, and the longest of Ski Dubai’s five slopes is about 1,300 feet. The adjacent Snow Park is known for its sled and toboggan runs, ice caves, and penguins that are occasionally let out of their enclosures to waddle free.