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Off the Beaten Path:  Nature´s Secret Destinations
Off the Beaten Path:  Nature´s Secret Destinations
Editorial Team

Lebanon has long been known for its diverse array of tourist attractions.  With a wealth of historical artefacts and archaeological sites (such as Baalbeck , Beiteddine, Byblos etc.), beautiful sunshine, welcoming beaches,  breathtaking ski slopes and mountains and a wide selection of nightclubs, pubs, cafes and restaurants, Lebanon has something for everyone.  The enchanting attraction of this small country is nothing new and many civilizations have imprinted their presence on this land (Phoenician, Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottoman Turks...), drawn by its greenery, nature and fertility.  The ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ has a surprisingly rich variety of climates, cultural heritages and eco-systems…so what better way of going back to nature and tradition than through ecotourism?

Ecotourism and rural tourism are gaining international popularity and may well prove to be a major fixture in Lebanon’s future as a hot tourist destination.  With growing concerns about being environmentally friendly, ecotourism aims at being ecologically and socially conscious.  Ecotourism highlights local culture, wilderness treks to discover the fauna, flora and the cultural heritage of a country.  It promotes conservation, sustainable tourism and preserves traditions and knowledge.  So what does Lebanon have to offer with respect to ecotourism?  Read and let us take you on a journey… If you explore certain rural settings in Lebanon, you come across hidden gems.

One such gem is Quadisha Valley which is an U.N.E.S.C.O “World Heritage and Cultural Site”.  This exquisite valley is a place steeped in nature, charm and culture.  Quadisha means ‘Saint’ and is considered to be the ‘holy valley’.  Generations of monks, hermits and Sufis have found tranquillity deep in this mystical setting.  Numerous monasteries are carved into the cliffs, depicting a chronicle of the region’s religious, spiritual and cultural past.  The fragrant plants and flowers, caves, waterfalls and springs make this place like the Garden of Eden or a spot of heaven on earth.  The valley also features the very first printing press to grace Lebanon’s shores back in the 16th century and is home to the Gibran Khalil Gibran Museum which pays tribute to the internationally acclaimed writer and artist.

Discovering the traditions of rural villages in Mount Lebanon, the Bekaa and in other regions can give great insight into a side of Lebanon far from the rush of the modern cities.  Visiting Mtein, a village that still looks as it would have 2 or 3 hundred years ago lets you to time travel into an almost forgotten past.  During the early 16th century, the Al-Lamaayeen Emirs made Mtein their home and began constructing palaces and buildings.  Eventually the village developed into an important location during Ottoman rule and was famous for its high-quality silk.  Today Mtein not only retains a flavour of the past but boasts vast vineyards and produces Arak.  Other villages hold great appeal too: Douma has a magnificent natural setting, Beit Chabab is where they still cast church bells, Rachaya has charming traditional houses, Jezzine has stunning waterfalls, Deir al Qamar is simply enchanting, Bsharreh is Gibran Khalil Gibran’s village and Amchit has splendid villas with wood and frescos.

If archaeology strikes a chord, then certain villages off the regular tourist track can provide you with ample alternatives of great historical significance.  Sfireh in the North is home to at least 3 Roman temples, one of which being one of the best preserved in Lebanon, with its walls nearly reaching their original height.  Tibnine, is a southern village with an impressive Crusader castle with a wealth of history encased in its walls.  After it fell into Mamlukes and Ottoman hands, the castle underwent some remodelling, but the 2000m² fortress’s main features and panoramic view have managed to survive the test of conquest and time.  Famous for its needlework, Baaqline in the Shouf, played an important role in Lebanon’s history.  Dating back to the 12th century, the village possesses a stunning Grand Serail (governmental building) which was constructed in 1837 and was the birthplace of Fakhreddine II (one of the founders of modern Lebanon).  Zghorta is home to Aal Fortress which was built in 1816 by Mustafa Barbar Agha.  This fortress is a captivating self-contained world with women’s quarters, small rooms, a courtyard and even a mosque and cemetery within the castle’s grounds. Furzol, in the Beqaa, has the ruins of a roman temple and the caves of Wadi El-Habis (Hermit’s Valley).  These part man-made, part natural caves are all dome shaped and contain mysteries waiting to be unlocked.  Some were used as burial sites, while others were possibly used as homes or for religious ceremonies.  There is also a room which some believe might have been a temple to the Phoenician god Baal.  Kamid El-Loz in the Beqaa is living proof of Lebanon’s changing history.  This artificial hill, formed by civilizations building over each other’s foundations, began to grow in the Stone Age 7,000 years ago and reached its full height during the Persian era in the 4th century B.C.  The hill has hidden away a variety of urban structures from temples to defences, palaces, workshops and small homes.  Clay tablets discovered at the site indicate that it used to be the capital of an ancient Egyptian colony.  Arqa in Akkar also has an artificial hill with its foundations in the New Stone Age (6,000 years ago) in addition to hundreds of ancient tombs.  As time passed, Early Bronze Age people settled here followed by the Canaanites who later became known as the Phoenicians.  Arqa had great historical significance.  Not only was it was mentioned in the Egyptian Annals, the Assyrian Annals and even in the Bible, but it was also the birthplace of the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus during the period of Roman rule. If rural tourism and alternative archaeological destinations leave you dreaming of greenery, then visit Lebanon’s different nature reservesThe Palm Islands Reserve is a key bird area and wetland where rare under-water sea sponges live.  Its sandy beaches are important egg-laying sites for marine turtles and visitors include highly endangered monk seals. 

Horsh Ehdeh Reserve is a forest full of endangered animals, birds, butterflies, insects and lush trees.  Here cedars take root with acer, pine, wild plum, pear, firs and the last remaining forest community of wild apple.  Tannourine Cedar Forest Reserve is the biggest cedar forest in Lebanon with hundreds of rare plants and many endangered animals and birds.  Yammouneh Reserve is alive with a variety of old juniper trees and a rare Lebanese fish: minnow.  Bentael Reserve is an ideal Mediterranean pine forest.  Al Shouf Cedar Reserve is Lebanon’s largest nature reserve and is home to large mammals like the wolf, the caracal lynx and the Nubian ibex and is also an important bird area.  Tyre Beach Reserve is a sun and sea hot spot which attracts many birds and is a nesting site for globally endangered marine turtles. 

Ras El-Ain’s fresh water pools and the surrounding marshlands host numerous frogs and amphibians.  Lebanon is also renowned for having several spectacular grottos, the most famous of which is the one at Jeita, which is incidentally, the most popular natural attraction. Lebanon has a wide variety of outdoor sports that let you get your heart pumping while appreciating the best that nature has to offer.  The list of possibilities is endless: picturesque walks and hikes; mountain biking; golf; horse riding; mountain climbing; caving; rafting; alpine and cross-country skiing; paragliding; hot-air ballooning and scuba diving.  The Assi and Letani rivers always create waves for rafting and the sea hides many treasures in its depths such as a World War 2 submarine off Khaldeh and Phoenician remains near Tyre… The only thing left is for you to experience all the treasures of Lebanese ecotourism first hand.  You’ll naturally find fertile possibilities and abundant appeal.
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