Living in Beirut can seem unbearable during the summer months.With the sun blazing, traffic jams and construction noise, one begins to dream of a getaway to a more serene environment.
This desire for escape is the driving force behind the rising number of boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts in Lebanon’s mountainside and even in the more quiet areas of Beirut.
Across Lebanon, there are around a dozen genuine maison d’hotes or bed and breakfasts — eight of which are profiled on the website L’Hote Libanais — characterized by the owner residing in the house and sharing vacant rooms with guests, offering them homemade breakfast in the package. Executive also uncovered more than 10 small boutique hotels and guesthouses which have opened their doors in the past year and a half.
Promoting their lodgings mainly through social media, owners of these hotels are without complaints this summer. Where larger operators are struggling to attract visitors from among dwindling foreign inflows, the rural boutique hotels tell Executive of full occupancy on all weekends and holidays and more than 60 percent occupancy on regular weekdays. The warm and friendly atmosphere of these hotels has proven a hit with Lebanese either visiting on local tourism or on a short-retreat from the bustling city.
Although situated within a walking distance from busy downtown Beirut, Villa Clara Boutique Hotel feels notably tranquil. This is made possible by the location of the two-floored 1920s-style villa on a quiet side street off Armenia Street in Mar Mkhayel — Beirut’s up and coming art district — and the fact it is surrounded by 100-year-old paradise trees, which allow guests to wake up to the sounds of chirping birds instead of the noise pollution associated with Beirut.
Its placid location makes Villa Clara — launched in December 2012 — ideal for those who are on business in Beirut but still seek a peaceful and authentic area where they can experience such Lebanese traditions as neighbors on balconies inviting them for coffee or having their shoe fixed at the local shoemaker.
Villa Clara has seven fully serviced rooms, each painted uniquely and decorated with pieces designed by the likes of Andree Putman or Philips Aurelle, giving the boutique hotel a reputation of being design-oriented and artistic. At the time of the interview with Executive, the rooms were fully booked on all days of the week until the end of August — with reservations piling up for September. Villa Clara is promoted mainly through word of mouth, recent guides on Lebanon and social media sites such as Facebook or TripAdvisor, where users have posted photographs, as well as commenting on the friendliness of the owners, the fast internet connection and the good French food in the restaurant, which is a part of the Villa Clara project.
Marie-Helene Gougeon, who along with her French chef husband Olivier owns Villa Clara, says her guests are mainly Europeans on extended business trips, as well as some expats and Lebanese couples seeking a romantic getaway. “They are looking for a place that is calm where they can discover the city in a pleasant way,” says Marie-Helene.
With its common salon and open garden, Villa Clara is a dynamic yet intimate hotel and guests are often seen mingling together in quiet conversation or seeking recommendations from Marie-Helene — who has a PhD in business and design — on local designers and authentic experiences in the area. Yet Marie-Helene insists that she is running a hotel, not a “bed and breakfast” and so guests are to have their privacy respected whenever they seek it.
$165 for single room with breakfast and $180 for double, breakfast included. Wifi and valet parking included.
Bouyouti was not initiated as a commercial venture. Three years ago, the hotel’s owners, the Bazergis, stumbled into the hospitality sector upon the suggestion of a French family friend.
The Bazergis have a 40,000 square meter (sqm) green land surrounding their family home in Deir Al Kammar, in the Chouf region of Lebanon, including a pond, a cave and a small farm. Inspired by his love of the nature in the area, Rafic Bazergi designed and built eight little huts on the land as a hobby. “Each time, he would be planning to build a home for the caretaker but we would tell him it’s too pretty and suggest another purpose such as a guesthouse or an atelier for my mom who is a designer,” says Rawan Bazergi, the daughter and spokesperson for the project.
When the family friend first suggested they use the huts as hotels, the Bazergis were hesitant about letting strangers into their private land but the friend encouraged them by saying he would only send them his trusted contacts. Being hospitable and friendly by nature, the Bazergis found that they enjoyed hosting guests and decided to take the hospitality business seriously, adding a pool to their land and ensuring each guest house had full amenities.
Midway through this year, Rawan created the logo and social media page for Bouyouti and the family has been receiving reservation calls ever since leaving them almost fully booked until September 21. According to Rawan, 70 percent of Bouyouti’s guests are Lebanese who either want to discover the well preserved nature in the Chouf area or enjoy a calm break away from their busy schedules in the city. The remaining 30 percent are Europeans of various nationalities. Bouyouti’s guests usually stay for one night but some have stayed for a week as a work-related retreat.
When explaining the appeal of their boutique hotel, the Bazergis quoted their guests who have said that they feel at home in Bouyouti, since they are given a charming guesthouse to themselves rather than a generic room in a hotel. Also of interest to Lebanese youth, says Rawan, is being able to explore areas of their country that may be previously unknown to them and also enjoying the greenery — something of a rarity in the capital.
Building on the serene image projected by Bouyouti, the Bazergis plan to start yoga retreats and are considering spa accommodations. While Bouyouti has the facilities to remain open year long, the Bazergis are still in debate about whether or not to do so. “This remains more our home than a commercial venture,” says Rawan and so profit won’t be a factor in that decision. Instead it will be decided on what would be appealing to guests.
A two-person guesthouse goes for $200, breakfast included. Four people would pay $300 for a fully furnished hut, including towels, with all services and pool access.
La Maison De La Foret
Now in its first summer of operation, La Maison De La Foret is a 35,000 sqm boutique resort village consisting of a restaurant with a capacity of 150, a snack bar, bungalows and tents for 50 guests, as well as a myriad of outdoor activities including hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing and donkey rides — enjoyed by both adults and children.
Born out of a public-private partnership between the Union of Municipalities of Jezzine and a company established by Tanya Nader, her brother Antoine and Amal Bou Zeid, La Maison De La Foret’s main objective is to promote eco-tourism in the Jezzine region, South Lebanon.
Nader speaks of the boom in eco-tourism among the Lebanese over the past 10 years, giving the example of Al Chouf Cedar Nature Reserve where, a decade ago, only a third of the 6,000 annual visitors were Lebanese while today the reserve receives 68,000 annual visitors among which only 6,000 are foreigners.
According to Nader, however, South Lebanon has been largely left out of this local tourism boom so far, particularly as there are no big attractions like Baalbek or the Cedars in the area. “What we do have is the biggest pine forest in the Middle East which means that eco-tourism could be a big factor in promoting tourism to the area and helping it grow both economically and socially,” says Nader. Eco-tourism seems to be a big factor indeed as La Maison De La Foret’s outdoor activities alone see a turnover of over 600 people during the weekends.
With 24 full-time and 27 peak-time employees, in addition to the suppliers and various handymen associated with the project, La Maison De La Foret is benefiting the region economically as well.
La Maison De La Foret is performing better than Nader expected and its bungalows are fully booked Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until the end of September. Its tents, which are usually reserved on a week-by-week basis, were at 50 percent capacity for two weeks in mid-August.
Nader divides her Lebanese clientele — who account for 75 percent of her guests — into three groups: families with children looking for fun activities; groups of friends between the ages of 18 and 30 looking for outdoor adventure; or expats seeking to discover new areas of Lebanon. The remaining 25 percent are foreigners residing in Lebanon and Nader says she has not received any tourists in the resort yet.
La Maison De La Foret will be operating year round with seasonal activities and Nader will be targeting schools and corporate sector retreats in spring and Fall when the weather in the region is ideal.
Bungalow $125 for the first person and $25 for each additional person including a large breakfast of locally produced foods.
Tents $35 per person with a shared bathroom.
Beit Al Batroun
While Collete Kahil was living in London, she entertained a dream of owning and operating a bed and breakfast in Lebanon. After five years of working on its construction, with the aid of one stone master from the area, Kahil realized her dream in July 2013 with Beit Al Batroun, situated minutes away from the Batroun highway, on a hilltop overlooking the touristic beach clubs below.
Beit Al Batroun is a true bed and breakfast as Kahil lives in the charming house and has her room right across from the guest room on the first floor. The ground floor has two other rooms, making a total of three rooms in Beit Al Batroun, which have been fully booked since day one and remain so until the end of September with Kahil already receiving inquiries about New Year’s Eve.
Kahil is pleasantly surprised by the success of her venture, which she has promoted only through her Facebook page and word of mouth from satisfied guests. She explains the appeal of Beit Al Batroun by mentioning the serenity of the area, which is still in proximity to the more active beach restaurants of the Batroun area. She also feels her bed and breakfast concept is unique in Lebanon and people are enjoying the novelty of being a guest at someone’s home, especially one as appealing as Beit Al Batroun, which has vintage pieces from Middle Eastern history — each with their own story — collected by Kahil herself over the past 10 years.
Kahil first thought she would be catering mainly to foreigners but has only received two foreign groups so far, with the majority of her guests being Lebanese from various regions. Beit al Batroun will remain in operation until November but Collette is considering accepting guests after that and hopes to cover costs, and not to return the investment on the house itself which she considers her home for life.
$160 a room with breakfast.
Kroum Ehden is the first venture of Optimum Holding — a real estate development and professional services company located in Beirut serving mainly Europe and North Africa — into the hospitality sector as both as owners and operators through their offshore company Fantazy Hospitality Events.
An ambitious project of six phases, phase one is Kroum Ehden, which spans over 14,000 sqm area of land and opened its doors this July at a cost of over $6 million. The luxury boutique summer destination has a restaurant, a beach resort with two communal cascade pools, a lodge with four suites for families and six chalets for couples each with a private pool, outdoor night spot and an Italian pizza bar.
Gaby Tayoun, chairman and CEO of Optimum Holding and owner of Kroum Ehden, chose the area for personal and emotional reasons, including the fact he is a native of Ehden. He says he is pleased to contribute to the economic and social growth of the northern region of Lebanon by employing 82 full time staff who are also hospitality students in the universities of the area and through creating more activity in Ehden. Future phases include boutique stores, a spa and wellness center, a winter hotel and residential serviced villas with seasonal leasing. But Tayoun adopts a “we will see” approach to future plans as he believes that Lebanon’s foundations are too unstable to build a solid business plan.
Phase one is performing better than expected and Tayoun says they are flattered by the positive feedback from Lebanese expatriates — who are their main clients — along with Lebanese residents looking to try something different. Kroum Ehden’s Lodge had 84 percent occupancy — including weekdays —since its opening in mid-July and ongoing until September while the main restaurant which has a capacity of 250, is seeing two or three turnovers on weekends. Tayoun attributes Kroum Ehden’s success to the fact people are seeking peace of mind and he proudly says no local news is played on their TVs or found in their magazine selection. Guests also enjoy the luxuriously authentic surroundings and the activities provided by the resort — paragliding and hang gliding to name a few — as well as by the surrounding area.
Tayoun says there is something for almost everyone in Kroum Ehden, from the middle class young professionals enjoying the healthy food in their restaurant, to the wealthy professionals relaxing at the pool, to the youth from neighboring areas enjoying sunset drinks and late night parties in the lodge.
Average restaurant bill: $35 per person for a five course meal, comparable to good restaurants in the region.
Suite in the lodge: $290, including breakfast with wifi connection and access to private and public pools.
Chalet in the lounge: $190 with wifi and access to all pools..