At Le Yacht Club, the devil is in the details

BEIRUT: Lined with wooden bookshelves and large windows overlooking a cluster of yachts in Zaitunay Bay, the cozy library at Le Yacht Club Beirut induces images of graying men sipping amber-colored liquids, smoking cigars and discussing topics that may not be truly important but seem so because of the soundproof walls. The building – built to look like the wreckage of a mammoth futuristic ship – houses Lebanon’s first private club, in the sense that it resembles the kind of invite-only exclusivity of the world’s most private country clubs. It also features a boutique hotel of less than a dozen suites and an unorthodox addition of two floors of fully stocked and furnished luxury apartments for sale.

The club will host a soft opening in about a month. Were it a grand opening, however, most would still never get a chance to step inside.

Le Yacht Club Beirut follows a similar model to American country clubs or British gentlemen’s clubs. That means entry and the use of its facilities, which include a spa, gym, lounge, pool, restaurant and game room, are restricted to members only. You won’t find the hotel rooms listed online, as accommodations are likewise limited to friends and guests of club members.

“You can’t step past this door unless you’re a member or accompanied by a member,” General Manager Walid Kanaan said, as he led a tour of the newly finished interior.

Kanaan started in an open lounge area that looks out through glass-paned walls onto the club’s infinity pool and outdoor terrace – all of which overlook the Mediterranean Sea and passageway for boats accessing the marina.

It is eerily quiet out on the deck. The clubhouse is sequestered at the very tip of Zaitunay Bay and has no immediate neighbors to pollute the tranquility with noise. The only sound on the poolside deck is the lazy rumble of sea waves. And through the glass walls of the empty restaurant, the silenced traffic – then romantically blurred into a sherbet-colored sunset – makes the city appear far away. No insignificant feat, as from the bottom-floor exit, it’s a 30 second walk to Downtown.

Le Yacht Club Beirut already has 56 paid members and eventually hopes to count 100 among its founding group. Their neighbors, the owners of the yachts next door, could make great candidates to be recommended or handpicked by the club’s board.

What grants you entry to such a place? Well, a lifetime deposit fee for starters and a certain importance, Kanaan explained. Money alone won’t buy a membership here.

“It’s not a billionaires’ boys club,” he said. Businessmen, politicians, editors, Kanaan listed the kind of movers and shakers he envisions playing bridge in the game room or stopping by after work for a whiskey.

The club will be open to men and women, though not to children. “It’s not childproof, it wasn’t built for that,” Kanaan said. He gestured to widely set wire lining an indoor balcony overlooking the ground floor: “A child could slip right through.”

Kanaan is also a member at l’Automobile et Touring Club du Liban, better known by its acronym: ATCL. Located on a marina in Jounieh, ATCL has a reputation for being elite but not necessarily refined. There, Kanaan’s children can delight in as much raucous playtime as they like, but not here, he explained.

What’s interesting about Le Yacht Club is that while most clubs, say in the United States, still fall along antiquated ethnic or religious lines, in one of the most sectarian countries in the world, the club seeks to be a refuge from division. Wealth and influence will be the great unifiers.

“Our target member is someone who knew Lebanon pre-[Civil] War; who used to have a good time,” he said. “We’re trying to recreate that with people who share the same values ... people who’ve contributed a sense of well-being to society and don’t ask about religion.”

Once the club opens, Kanaan expects a total membership of 500 with a waiting list, of course. Optimal members will be permanent residents of Lebanon who get the greatest return on investment (membership), he said. They’re also playing with the idea of partial-year memberships for Lebanese expatriates or short-term memberships for foreign ambassadors working in the country.

With such a small clientele, members will have a large hand in the ultimate experience at the club. For example, the founding 100 will invite their friends, and even the restaurant menu will come down to member preferences. Kanaan described it as basic continental comfort foods.

“If you’re a member here, we want you to open a menu and understand what’s on the menu without someone translating it,” he said. “If our members say ‘we don’t like snails, can you do something else,’ then I have to listen since we’re operating on their behalf.”

So far, the club’s greatest selling point has been location. Instead of inching through gridlocked traffic in rush hour, Kanaan said, members can relax here after leaving their Downtown offices, work out, schedule a massage, share a drink with some pals and head home when evening traffic has thinned.

The club is a joint project between Solidere and Stow, a Lebanese development company. To optimize luxury, the developers brought in American architect Stephen Holl and one of the country’s leading interior designers Dada and Associates. The spa and fitness center will be stocked and run by Sisley, a posh cosmetics company in France.

The apartments, which are somewhat autonomous from the club, are the first real estate project on the new waterfront, said Amal Khoury, the project’s communication manager.

Asked about the price, Khoury replied: “They are more expensive than any of the surrounding residences. ... People who stay here are people who can afford it.”

That’s because of the services. Owners will benefit from the club’s restaurant, room service and communal spaces. Like the hotel suites, the contemporary-style apartments come fully furnished and stocked with utensils and glassware. The developers intended the apartments to be secondary homes of sorts for residents who no longer need big family houses. To keep the culture of the club intact, the managers are also handpicking their buyers.

“By invitation only,” he said. “They probably won’t use it as a main residence. Maybe they are expats who travel a lot to Lebanon and they’re sick and tired of hotels.”

There are still staff to hire and some work to be done before the opening, Kanaan said. He pointed to a napkin on the ground and scoffed: “See, the devil is in the details.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 28, 2014, on page 2.




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