ZAHLE, Lebanon: Near the end of a summer tourism season marred by periodic bomb blasts, kidnappings and outbreaks of violence, a visit to the new boutique hotel Beit El Kroum in the Bekaa Valley confounds expectations.
I made the one-hour trip from Beirut to Zahle last Saturday, expecting to have the 8-month-old hotel more or less to myself. At the very least, I planned to wrangle a free room upgrade.
I was greeted by a group of perfectly tanned, bikini clad 20-somethings lounging around a mountaintop infinity pool overlooking the red roofs of Zahle. Though it was the peak of the afternoon heat, refreshing gusts of dry wind kept the sunbathers and the grassy backyard cool as the temperature reached levels that would be positively oppressive in Beirut.
Shockingly, when I asked to be moved from a $130 room to one with a view at the same rate, I was informed that all nine of Beit El Kroum’s rooms were occupied – a phrase I doubt many other hoteliers in Lebanon, particularly in the Bekaa Valley, have had the chance to utter this summer.
I understood why within an hour, as I rocked on a hammock-shaped chaise lounge, sipping fresh lemonade, after eating a delicious plate of Kafta and vegetables whipped up from scratch at the hotel’s restaurant, Abricot Cerise.
Visiting Beit El Kroum feels more like staying at a friend’s beautiful, well-equipped country house than a hotel, which is exactly what owner Irene Alouf had in mind in March 2012, when she decided to develop the family property her relatives and friends had enjoyed for years.
“It had a small home with a garden and a great view and picnics and nature,” Alouf said of Beit El Kroum’s previous incarnation.
“It was an open house where friends and family who were coming from Beirut would stay and the kids and their friends would come, so we decided to dream about what we wanted it to become.”
Alouf commissioned a feasibility study for a hotel project on the site, secured bank financing, and began transforming the original small house into a three-story guesthouse in March 2012.
Beit El Kroum opened for business in February, just as the security situation in the Bekaa Valley began to deteriorate. Though business was sparse in the first few months, it picked up this summer and has stayed relatively full of Lebanese guests visiting family in Zahle, U.N. workers and a smattering of foreign tourists in August.
“The concept was to build a hotel that was more like a small house,” Alouf explained. “The most important part is that it is not commercial and that it really feels like a home.”
It does – so much so that I happily ignored the shortcomings of my room, which lacked a fan or air conditioner and comfortable pillows, and focused instead on the personal touches that displayed obvious effort on the part of the hotel’s management.
Each room is named for a different flower that is pictured on paintings which hang on every door and has a private balcony. I slept in the violet room, which had bathroom towels, handmade curtains, an area rug and a throw blanket of the same color.
You don’t want to spend too much time in your room at Beit El Kroum anyway. It’s really about relaxing on the swinging love seat in the backyard or by the pool and taking in the truly breathtaking views. Though the lawn and pool area are by no means large, even when all the lounge chairs and outdoor seating were occupied by couples and sunbathers, it somehow never felt crowded.
If you want to escape the heat or surf the free Internet the hotel offers, Beit El Kroum has multiple different cozy seating areas scattered around the ground floor and in common areas around the rooms.
Around 5 p.m. Saturday, guests began congregating for sunset cocktails mixed and served by Alouf’s son and a rotating group of his friends and cousins that took turns manning the poolside bar.
Platters of complimentary homemade chocolate cake and organic fruit grown onsite appeared in the dining room for guests to munch on.
I never once saw anyone pay for anything in cash at Beit El Kroum, and I didn’t notice anyone keeping tabs on drink orders, which bolsters the feeling of being a guest in someone’s home rather than a hotel.
With just a few full-time employees and a skeletal wait staff, Beit El Kroum is truly a family-run establishment, which Alouf was not anticipating when she started the project.
“I was expecting to have young people from Zahle working here to serve,” Alouf said. “In Beirut, young people work during the summer, but here the concept hasn’t caught on I guess. I would like to have more young people from the area on staff.”
Instead, Alouf’s son and relatives helped serve dinner, desert and nargileh to guests and visitors at the hotel restaurant Saturday night, and at breakfast the next morning she passed around a platter of zaatar manakeesh straight from the oven.
Touches like this make up for what might otherwise be too high a price tag for the relatively Spartan rooms. If you are more daunted by the crowds at one of Lebanon’s upscale beach clubs than alarming travel advisories or are just in need of a short staycation to cap off the summer, Beit El Kroum is well worth a trip.