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If a 20th century Bruegel were to paint the 20th century world at play, he would find a perfect vantage point on a balcony of the Phoenicia Hotel overlooking the mountain-ringed sweep of Beirut's St. George's Bay. The waterfront is crenelated with beach-club jetties thrusting fingers out to the transparent sea. Floats like strings of red, white and yellow beads shelter swimmers, skin divers and dorade fishers from the high wash of speedboats and from water skiers darting like dragonflies.
This sun, this sea, this harbor and all that surrounds it have made Beirut the new star of Mediterranean tourism. The beaches along the European coasts of the Mediterranean have become overrun with the seasonal surge to the sea, and the searchers have moved steadily eastward. In the isles of Greece the only sure island of quiet is now the deck of a chanter boat. Every country with a stretch of Mediterranean shore, from Turkey down through Lebanon, Israel and Egypt, is having a tourist boom measured in increases of hundreds of thousands. Of all these Middle Eastern places, Lebanon is the best prepared to please the seeker after Riviera pleasures: sun, sea, good hotels, good food, a sparkling night life and well-developed sports facilities. One can find all these pleasures in abundant measure without stirring more than 500 yards from the scene in the photograph to the right. Or one can be more adventurous and gamble the night away side by side with bur-noosed sheiks at the lavishly marbled Casino du Liban, or dive for fish and Phoenician coins in ancient walled port cities like Byblos and Tyre, which sent the world's first travelers to the opposite reaches of the Mediterranean.
A LONG, EASY TRIP TO A RICH SPORTING LAND
In the hyperbole of travel brochures, Lebanon is described as a country where sports-minded visitors can ski the snows of the Cedars of Lebanon in the morning and the warm blue waters of the Mediterranean in the afternoon. This is in effect a contemporary paraphrase of the ancient Arab poet who described Lebanon as a land which "bears winter upon his head,/Spring upon his shoulders,/Autumn in his bosom,/While summer lies slumbering at his feet." In addition to the Lebanese climate and landscape, the Lebanese capital, Beirut, has so much going for it that there is little wonder it has suddenly become for Americans and Europeans the Cannes of the Middle East. The most important factor working in Beirut's favor is that tourist disease which manifests itself most strongly in an itch to go beyond where one has been before, an itch particularly aggravated when everywhere nearby seems to be spoiled by the crowds. Beirut is the capital on this year's "beyond" map.
Beirut is also one of the easiest places in the world to get to, on 10 major airline routes. It has good, even excellent, hotels and the food is an amalgam of the best of the Middle East and France. Its night life combines the atmosphere of the intrigue bars of Munich's Schwabing and the discothèques of Saint-Germain with the extravagances of Monte Carlo and the Oriental sensuousness of Egypt's belly-dance emporiums. And there are days so radiantly sunny that one can enjoy them by doing nothing more active than settling into a chaise by the sea. But the adventurous traveler will bestir himself and seek the pleasures to be found all over one of man's oldest playgrounds.
At Byblos, a tiny port 17 miles north of Beirut, there is layer upon layer of ruins—Assyrian, Phoenician, Roman, Crusader. But down on the harbor at Pepe Abed's Fishing Club there is a rustic, fishnet-strung restaurant built into the old Crusader walls where you can have grilled rouget, tomatoes and cucumbers spiced with mint, and a bottle of rosé made by the Jesuits of the mountain-resort town of Ksara. You can also go out into the harbor and snorkel for Phoenician coins, or spearfish for rock bass.
From the top of Mt. Hermon, highest of the Anti Lebanon range, you can look between two mountain ranges, down the high plain that has been the Middle East's bread-basket since the time of Ezekiel, all the way to the Holy Land. You get to the top of Mt. Hermon by organizing a sleeping-bag, muleback pack trip in one of the friendly little farm villages in the valley.
On weekend afternoons, Kuwaiti sheiks in gauzy burnooses and European bankers in white linen and all the cacophonous Middle East are at the races to play the Arab horses. Beneath the canopy of the grandstand Singapore fans whir, and the cacophony is joined by cicadas in the groves of umbrella pines that shade the red-earth track.
At midnight at the Casino, a marble-and-glass palace on a promontory overlooking the sea, East meets West once more as tall blonde Scandinavian chorines stage performances that rival those of the Lido while Arabs play baccarat and American oilfield workers shoot craps.
GETTING THERE: Beirut is on Pan American's round-the-world Flight 2, which goes from New York to London and Frankfurt, then on to Beirut in 16 hours. The fare is $1,285.60 round trip first class, $798 economy. The Cunard, Norwegian-America and Italian lines have Mediterranean cruises from New York stopping at Beirut. From European ports and cities there are many more scheduled sailings and flights—Beirut lands 50 jets a day.