TYRE, Lebanon: “The story behind this place is the story of my childhood. I love this place,” says Mona Khalil, a small woman with cropped, silvery hair. She breathes in deeply as her eyes focus on something down toward the sea. “[My siblings and I] grew up in Beirut for the schools, but we came to the south during holidays and most weekends. As kids, all our toys were what we picked up from the ground.
“Anyway, things happened in life and I had to leave Lebanon. But this place was always at the back of my mind while I was away,” she adds.
“This place” is the Orange House. Part guesthouse and part turtle conservation project, the large, tangerine-colored building sits just past a military checkpoint halfway between Tyre and Naqoura in southern Lebanon.
Guests stay in three large, comfortable rooms arranged around a central living room with a wood fire and lots of big, squishy sofas. The house is surrounded by a garden stuffed full of grapefruit and lemon trees, pieces of art made of beach litter, vases, places to sit, interesting bits of wood, animal skulls, Dutch clogs and anything else that takes Mona’s fancy.
At the bottom of the garden is a large pen with goats – Khalil’s beloved pets and nothing, she insists, to do with the delicious goat’s cheese she serves as part of breakfast. To the right, rusting railway tracks lead out of the house’s immediate grounds to a dirt track that leads through the surrounding banana plantations and onto the private beach just minutes away.
There, guests can catch up on their reading, swim in the sea (bracingly cold at this time of the year) and feel the warm sand between their toes. There is nothing else to do – no sun loungers, no cafes, no hawkers – and this is the way Khalil wants it. It is wild, undeveloped and peaceful – a rarity in Lebanon.
Those who want to come here must get a security pass from Sidon in the morning and drive several hours from Beirut. But it is worth it – the experience is about inhaling, exhaling, and rebooting for a day or two.
Visitors can bring their own dinner (and drink) to enjoy in the garden or down on the beach. For those who would rather eat out, a restaurant just down the road serves excellent Lebanese food. The bustling dining scenes of Tyre and Sidon are a short drive away.
The mornings are dedicated to Khalil’s justifiably renowned breakfast: a typically Lebanese table-full of bread, yogurt, honey, olives, zaatar, halloumi, goat’s cheese and tea.
The main event is trying her homemade jams, which revolve around whatever fruits are ripe on the trees. This time there was strawberry – dark and rich rather than sickly sweet; passion fruit – speckled with black, crunchy seeds; lime – sharp, tangy and utterly delicious; peach; and prune.
The Orange House is a shelter from the bluster of modern life, liable to make you realize quite how hectic your everyday routine is.
It wasn’t always like this, however.
At around 12 km from the border with Israel, Khalil’s family house was deep in the occupation zone until the Israelis withdrew from the south in 2000. While the fighting played out, she moved to the Netherlands, where she found a second home among the Dutch – something reflected in her choice of the house’s color.
When she finally returned just before the turn of the century, she found the place forsaken and rundown.
“It was like a forest,” she says, gesturing around her, “neglected for more than 15 years and no one was taking care of the garden. The whole thing was an orange grove and the trees were very weak. For the first few years I was just cleaning up and making this place what it is now.”
Her sole original aim was to help the local sea turtles.
The heavy development of Lebanon’s coastline has left very few safe spots for these animals to lay eggs. During nesting season, the two species that appear on the country’s shores – the green turtle and the loggerhead turtle – are constantly at risk of getting caught in litter, bright lights that disturb the mother while she is laying her eggs, and predators such as dogs and foxes.
“We all knew about the turtles,” she explains, “but no one dared to go down to the beach because the Israeli boats were very close to the shore.”
Ironically, she says, the Israeli boats actually kept the sea turtles safe and the beaches clean. Once they left, people began partying on the coast again, leaving rubbish and stealing the animals, eggs and even hatchlings to sell on.
The fishermen were a problem, too. Khalil struggled to explain to them that close-meshed nets and fishing methods that included dynamite and poison were counterproductive for marine life.
It didn’t make her very popular.
“Locals and fishermen even came and shot at me,” she says, laughing.
She points at a pebble-covered clearing with a wooden table and chairs. “They stood there with their Kalashnikovs. They hated me coming here saying, ‘No this, no that.’ They hated me.
“But it did not affect me, and after six or seven years they gave up. Now it’s OK,” she says, grinning, “and no more dynamite.”
But starting a turtle conservation project from scratch was not easy, and was certainly not cheap. She needed marine biologists to come and train her and it would be time-intensive work with little financial reward.
So she came upon the idea of setting up a guesthouse, and although locals were unsure at first, they soon warmed to the idea when it became clear that it would bring much-needed tourism to Lebanon’s southern countryside.
Lebanese guests were initially uncomfortable with the idea of sharing a bathroom and a kitchen with strangers. They would try and rent out the whole flat, she says, but it didn’t last long.
“With time they started coming with sleeping bags. The turtles are something that moved them, I think, to know that here in Lebanon, something like this exists.”
Her most popular period for bookings remains the turtles’ nesting season between May and October, and she is already heavily booked up this year. Guests are invited to help clean the beach, look for nests and watch hatchlings take their first steps to the sea. The experience is especially popular among families with young children.
But Khalil says the Orange House has another, distinctly Dutch, appeal to it. “People come because here it’s a very private place. It’s a place that nobody is going to judge them, so long as they respect the nature. Homosexuals, lesbians, whatever – nobody will judge them here.”
Khalil’s project was nearly undone in 2006 during the 34-day-long war with Israel.
With shells landing all around her, she moved along with her numerous pets to a small house on the beach.
“Hezbollah was here just 500 meters from this house. So I was jammed in the middle. It didn’t feel safe there with all the horrible loud sounds. And this house was hit. I made a statue from all the Israeli shells that hit my place.”
She falls silent, and suddenly there is no sound other than the gentle clinking of the colored bottles, trinkets and wind-chimes hung throughout her garden.
“I made a decision a few months ago not to go out of this place, unless something is really wrong with me. I want to be here for the rest of my life, I feel I have everything that I need,” Khalil says.
“This place is my heaven on earth to me. There is no other heaven for me, this is it.”
For more information and bookings visit www.orangehouseproject.com.