DMIT VALLEY, Lebanon: Plans for a 24-hour trip to the Chouf’s Ecovillage campsite took a turn as a left down a narrow, cliffside dirt path suddenly evoked scenes from thriller film “Final Destination.” We weren’t sure we would make it. A rather understated sign hung before the turn casually telling cars not to go any further. In spite of this, the SUV made it to a valley’s bottom without tipping over the edge and sending its passengers to an abrupt end before their minivacation even began.
The campsite, however, left us pondering whether the car had indeed flipped over and landed in an alternate universe full of bamboo treehouses, 24-hour electricity, organic farming and quiet, garbage-free public swimming.
If that wasn’t enough, coming from a city where trash of all sorts overflows indiscriminate steel bins, Ecovillage tested our bad habits with not one but three methods of trash disposal: nonrecyclables, recyclables and organic food waste destined for a compost pile.
For anyone living in Beirut without a village escape this summer, Ecovillage is a pocketbook friendly retreat from just about every vice and misery present in the city.
There were even 2-month-old puppies by the reception desk ready to great us with their fluffy bundles of unconditional love.
Ecovillage was founded by a group of friends interested in environmentally friendly living, founder Karim al-Khatib writes on Ecovillage’s website.
None of the managers were present at the site over the weekend, and the camp’s owner had recently traveled back to Germany, where he lives, said a volunteer, Patrick, manning the reception desk.
A first look around Ecovillage made it clear the place was well suited for children and families.
A small playground, an outdoor arts and crafts corner, shallow river swimming, a short – but nonetheless entertaining – zip line, a so-called yoga hut and lots of land to explore were among the most obvious family-friendly offerings.
A member of the kitchen staff directed our attention toward a poster advertising a music and arts festival scheduled for next weekend called Leo and the Seeds of Love, which will target children and families, as well.
Ecovillage’s dedication to green living extends to its accommodations, which are made from natural, renewable resources like mud and recycled wood.
Some of the cabins are honest-to-goodness tree houses, accessible by elaborate, raised bridges and equipped with impressive balconies. Ours, however, was a two-story bamboo hut with a single light per room and basic double bed, which we were relieved to see covered in white mosquito netting.
Though you won’t be bringing a hair dryer to Ecovillage, the campsite was better equipped with electricity than most of the country.
Sheikh Hasan, a local dressed in traditional Druze garb, works with Ecovillage in a role described only as “integral.” He gave a tour of the water-powered generator, which harnesses the force of falling water to turn a propeller, the movement of which is then converted into usable energy to power lights and the basic utilities at Ecovillage, he said.
The Dammour River powering the campsite is so clean that Hasan filled a plastic bottle’s worth and passed it around to drink fresh and cold.
Hasan lives with his family on the mountainside above Ecovillage and knows a fair bit about the history of the mountain. He led a short but tiring hike through the brush, passing a natural pond so secluded he assured it was common for campers to swim in the nude.
He led the hike through abandoned stone shelters, which the Druze used as hideaway homes during times of persecution or war, he said. The Druze people have inhabited the Chouf area for almost 1,000 years, since before the Crusades.
Our guide’s knowledge of the area extended to its diverse vegetation, from which he sporadically picked or pointed and explained its medicinal use.
Based on Hasan’s tour of Ecovillage’s natural flora, seemingly every ailment from obesity to basic lethargy could be cured from the Dmit Valley’s dense forest. Upon returning to Ecovillage’s main building, a volunteer explained he’d broken out that morning in a rash to which Hasan had applied a bundle of brush that immediately diminished his outbreak.
Beside the smell of fresh greenery and dirt, about an hour before each meal the center of Ecovillage was filled with the aroma of home-cooked food made with veggies picked from the site’s organic farm – fragrant garlic, tomatoes, onions and eggplant.
It was the kind of seductive smell that makes you stop whatever you’re doing – be it swimming in the fresh-water river, exploring the farm or playing a board game from their on-site collection – and slowly gravitate toward the kitchen.
That night, it was fava beans in tomato sauce, soy rice noodles and carrots, freshly made pizza, cauliflower in some dreamy garlic sauce, white rice and chocolate-vanilla sponge cake still warm in the center.
It was the kind of meal that was delicious and filling without leaving you hunched in an over-satiated stupor. A member of the kitchen staff even prepared traditional cardamom-infused Arabic coffee upon request.
This was the kind of unexpected but welcomed treatment we found from the minute we walked onto the campsite. There is nothing luxurious about Ecovillage, and it guarantees you will leave with scratches, bug bites and the humbling realty of peeing in a hole disguised as a toilet. But every staff member and volunteer will go out of their way – and happily – to make you a part of the village.
The real night cap, however, was a group of a half-a-dozen volunteers and campers cuddled up around a massive fire singing “Wonderwall” by Oasis and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” lullabies that finally sent us off to bed.
A night in an Ecovillage tree house or hut costs $40, including breakfast. All visitors and overnight visitors pay a $10 entrance fee. Buses from Cola to Beiteddine pass by the village of Kfar Heem, where drivers from the camp regularly pick up campers and transport them to the site.
For more information, visit Ecovillage’s website at ecoecovillage.com.