BEIRUT: For some, a vacation means a fully catered luxury getaway to an exotic location, or perhaps it’s an adventure with a backpack and the chance to meet other travelers at a hostel. For others, the appeal can be the opportunity to feel at home in a foreign country – or in some cases in another region of the same country – with the expert hospitality of a knowledgeable local.
In Lebanon, where large luxury hotels are often touted to attract big-spending tourists, the small but charming bed and breakfast – or boutique hotel – model is growing in popularity in the shadows of shiny high-rise accommodation. The standard ranges from simple rooms in a proprietor’s home to suites fit for a king – or a tourist with an appreciation of architecture – in fastidiously restored grand houses.
“I prefer small hotels with stories,” says Samar Youssef, a travel blogger staying at Villa Clara, a boutique hotel in Mar Mikhael – one of the few Beirut neighborhoods left with Ottoman- and French Mandate-era homes lining its streets.
“It feels like home. I get the chance to get to know people.”
Villa Clara was opened by a French-Lebanese couple, chef Olivier Gougeon and his wife Marie-Hélène Moawad, who has a doctorate in business. They purchased the dilapidated 1920s building two years ago, originally for their own use, before deciding to put their professional backgrounds to work and open a hotel with an authentic French restaurant, naming it after their daughter, Clara.
This was in the midst of the Arab Spring, when Gulf states were issuing Lebanon travel warnings to their citizens – still in effect today. The Moawads weren’t too worried about attracting guests, however.
Being a niche hotel with only seven rooms to fill, they have had a steady stream of customers – including European artists and writers, many of whom have become repeat visitors as well as close friends – since they opened their doors in 2012.
“Each room has a different identity,” Moawad says, pointing to the difference between a small hotel in a home and a generic chain.
“Guests can have breakfast at any time of the day. We can manage that because we only have seven rooms.”
Khalil Arab, founder of Al-Yasmine Guesthouse – also named after the owner’s daughter – located in the mountains of southern Lebanon, just above the coastal city of Tyre, was never intended to be a hotel.
A farmhouse that had been in Arab’s family since 1973, it has survived the Civil War, the Israeli invasion and most recently has been used as an observation outpost by UNIFIL. When the proprietor finally reclaimed it in 2007, his daughters suggested that he turn the old family farm into a hotel.
“Little did I know that this would be the greatest idea they came up with,” says Arab, sitting in the garden of the renovated family house and horse stables – now turned into bungalows for weekend travelers.
Activities on offer include horse riding, cycling, tennis, hiking, swimming in the outdoor pool – all on a mountain with a view of the Mediterranean. And, of course, there’s the history lesson from the owner. When the hotel opened, it only served breakfast but quickly scaled up to three meals a day after it became clear that few guests wanted to go out for dinner, preferring the hotel’s home-style meals and atmosphere.
“Had I known how much fun it would be to meet different people, I would have done it long ago,” says Arab. Like the Moawads, he is unfazed worried about the country’s security situation affecting his business – especially given the farmhouse’s colorful history. He says most guests are repeat visitors from Beirut who go there to discover the south and learn about the place through word of mouth.
In a period of political instability, these venues offer the hoteliers a potentially more sustainable model that doesn’t depend on mass tourism, but instead on a certain type of traveler who values history over modern glitz and views of winding cobblestone streets over panoramic scenes. Perhaps most important and memorable of all, they seek conversations with the proprietor about the history of the house and the neighborhood.
For Jamil Azar, who opened two rooms of his early 20th-century apartment in Beirut’s Ashrafieh district to tourists in 2005, making lasting friendships has been a pleasant surprise to his small business.
Now in business for just under a decade, he has helped visitors plan trips to villages and ancient ruins alike. In two instances, he accompanied Lebanese expatriates – one from Europe and another from the United States – to the orphanage where they were adopted during the Civil War.
When the unrest in Syria in Syria broke out three years ago, the security situation actually helped his business, with several guests who were no longer able to tour the region deciding to extend their stays in Lebanon. With Azar’s detailed knowledge of Lebanon’s hidden treasures, he was able to keep them busy.
“I help people find their way, where to eat. It’s not like running a regular hotel,” he says.
It was with this growing popularity of independent cultural tourism that Paris-based Lebanese expatriate Orphee Haddad started his booking website business L’Hote Libanais in 2004, featuring guesthouses throughout Lebanon in traditional old homes, targeting Lebanese city dwellers looking for weekend getaways in villages as well as foreigners who want an authentic experience.
“I’m trying to get under the skin of the country,” Haddad says. He admits that it was at first a struggle to convince Lebanese – whom he describes as both hospitable and private – to open their homes to strangers. But once they did, he says they were surprised with the results.
“This is a global trend,” Haddad says, pointing to the diversity of Lebanon’s range of small-scale accommodation. “Luxury means you’re experiencing what no one else can experience.”