NIHA, Lebanon: From the trail of Niha there is a view of the Mediterranean Sea and clusters of cedar trees, as well as people who can explain the area’s history, sell locally made produce and host you at a guesthouse for the night.
“It’s a combination of cultural and natural heritage,” explains Nizar Hani of the Chouf’s ability to attract Lebanese and foreign visitors. Hani is former director of the Chouf Biosphere Reserve, which in 2006 launched a comprehensive ecotourism campaign involving the local community. Today, visitors to the Chouf can explore natural and historical sites and savor a slice of rural life.
Neither north nor south and nowhere near the coast, the Chouf is a landlocked treasure of imposing mountains, deep ravines, dense forests, ancient ruins and rural traditions.
Although tourism in the Chouf is largely geared toward groups, the independent traveler will find an abundance of visually arresting sights upon which to linger and reflect. Examples include: the vast cedar forest of individually unique trees; the Beiteddine Palace, with its expansive courtyards, carefully restored woodwork of Ottoman-era rooms, and museum of mosaics; and the Niha fortress of nature, towering over a lush and verdant valley.
“Every time I come here, I discover something new,” says Samer Zebian, administrative officer at Chouf Cedar Reserve and a resident of Niha, as he contemplates a waterway once used by the inhabitants of the natural fortress of steep and rocky elevations.
Zebian then shifts his focus to the rectangular doors of the caves that once served as rooms and a large bathtub, marveling at the fact that this was all made by simple hand tools during the Crusades nearly a thousand years ago.
At the southernmost point of the Chouf, Niha’s trail overlooks olive groves and the pine forest of Jezzine lying further afield. Here, the foreboding dimension of the vast natural fortress fully manifests itself, with some sections only accessible by people walking in single file with just a small rope separating the visitor from the deep valley below.
The surrounding steep mountains provide an oasis of calm, interrupted only by the twittering of birds. The curved fortress, most of which faces westward, provides an ideal place from which to watch the sun set.
Just a 15-minute drive north is the Beiteddine Palace, home to the summer festival of the same name. The building sits in a valley, which looks stunning from just above the roundabout at the Beiteddine town center.
A visitor could easily spend half a day wandering through the palace grounds. The building itself is white and nondescript, but within its walls a wealth of treasures can be found.
The rooms, with high ceilings and stone arches, have been meticulously restored to showcase the mosaic woodwork, tiles and stained glass. The second-floor terraces overlook the courtyards, with their fountains and finely manicured gardens.
And at the far end of the palace – easy to miss, although the guards will not let visitors leave without seeing it – is the mosaic museum. There, under a dim light, intricate Greek and Roman mosaics depict animals, religious figures and geometric patterns.
A 15-minute drive to the east is the Chouf Cedar Reserve, home to the largest collection of cedars in the country, as well as the world’s largest cedar tree – called Lamartine, after the French poet who was an admirer of and frequent visitor to the Chouf.
From afar, the cedars appear to be a cluster of greenery, indistinct from one another. But up close, it becomes clear that each tree is unique. One that has grown into the shape of a large chair has been dubbed “the prince’s throne” by locals. Two others, which have been felled by storms yet continue to live and grow in a horizontal position, look like four-legged animals.
At the entrance to the reserve, like other tourist sites in the area, a stand sells locally produced jams, marinades and honey – a way to give visitors a taste of local food, as well as support the local economy through ecotourism.
Shawki Zeidan is one person who has benefited from the region’s rise as a destination for ecotourism. Zeidan returned to his native Chouf a year ago, after a career working as a post office manager in Beirut. He is now a guide for visitors. “I’m happy to work in the Chouf. It’s my home,” he says.
Back in Niha, at her guesthouse, Samia Merchad warmly greets the overnight guest. She proudly points out that the heating in the house is solar-powered and that the food she serves all comes from the garden – a testament to the natural way of living for many in the Chouf.
Before going to bed, she talks about the Lebanese and foreigners she has hosted since opening in 2008. Some of the foreign guests attend weddings and sample other aspects of the local culture, while Lebanese from outside the area explore a part of their country that they might not know. All seem to be drawn to the area for its inhabitants’ unusual tenacity in preserving their environment and traditions.
“People go to the shops here, and they buy products that are homemade,” she says. “They like it here because they feel at home.”