Intercontinental. The very name implies prestige, service, luxury, and hospitality. Say the name to anyone who has been to Beirut, and the name is associated not just with a brand, but with a property – the Phoenicia Beirut. This hotel was the very pinnacle of luxury accommodation in Beirut when it opened in the sixties, it was then on the front line of a civil war in the seventies, the site of a political assassination in the early 2000s, and it now has come full circle, regaining its position as the very definition of luxury hospitality in Beirut.
Flying into Beirut, I literally had no idea what to expect. I had heard fabulous things about Beirut and Lebanon from friends who had visited previously, and other than that knew very little other than what you see and hear of Lebanon in mainstream media, which is more often than not less than complimentary. That said, if the hospitality extended to me by the crew on MEA and my fellow passengers was any indication, it was going to be a fabulous experience. I was one of the few non-Lebanese passengers, and somehow word spread that the tall blonde in 20A was going to Lebanon for the first time. People gave me restaurant recommendations, ideas for shopping and excursions out of town, and two of the crew and another passenger stopped by to simply say “Welcome to our home. We hope you enjoy your stay.” As we approached the airport, the dazzling skyline of Beirut, lit up by the bright coral-pink sunset, seemed to say the same thing.
Once you clear the mess that is Lebanese Immigration and Customs, getting to the Phoenicia was actually easy as pie. A chauffeur had been set up, and the hotel has a desk right outside customs at Rafik Hariri International Airport. In no time at all, I was being whisked through Beirut towards this local icon. As I walked in, I was immediately taken aback by the impressive chandelier hanging over the grand marble staircase that leads up to the main floor – a chandelier which I was later told survived the civil war and a car bomb outside, and is the original chandelier that was hung prior to the opening of the hotel in 1961. Talk about a survivor! Approaching reception, I was greeted by a warm “Good evening, Mr. du Pont and welcome to the Phoenicia.” While the expert staff checked us in, the concierge came over to ask if we’d like dinner reservations in town, explaining that Thursday nights were often quite busy. I had been told about one spot in particular, Em Sherif Café, but warned I probably wouldn’t get a reservation on such short notice. Not a problem for the concierge at the Phoenicia though! In under five minutes I had my room key, a dinner reservation at Em Sherif, and we were headed up to our Grand Deluxe Balcony room, located in the original 1961 Phoenicia Tower. (The hotel now consists of three separate towers surrounding a central courtyard. The original Phoenicia Tower, with its ornate balconies, was opened in 1961. The second, taller Roman Tower was opened in 1968, and the third Residence Tower, which is a luxury-apartment building, was opened in 2003.)
As if the dazzling view of the harbour and the surrounding mountains from our balcony weren’t enough, we were greeted by a gorgeous display of fruit, mezze, and macaroons. I love fruit, and I love mezze, but macaroons – these people really know how to make a boy feel special!
The room itself was opulently appointed and very spacious – a king size bed with scrumptious Egyptian cotton sheets, touches of deep purple in the furniture, and subtle hints to the hotel’s namesake and Lebanon’s Phoenician past, by way of carvings in the dresser and lamps. The bathroom, which is the size of my entire flat in New York, featured cream coloured marble floors, green marble sinks, a bathtub deep enough for even this 6’3” giant to submerge himself, and a separate shower with a rainforest showerhead that I never wanted to leave. The fixtures in the bathroom as well as the modern furniture in the room reflect the complete renovation that the hotel underwent in 2000, as well as a second revamp in 2012. All in all, it retained the grand-dame feeling one gets in an iconic hotel while also feeling modern and up-to-date, a balance that is not easy to strike.
Beirut itself is a vibrant city with legendary nightlife and a food scene to match. We headed to the Em-Sherif Café, a short 5-minute walk from the hotel, for our first dinner in Beirut and our first meal of Lebanese food straight from the source. Even on a Thursday night, people were dressed to impress. Designer outfits, stunning jewellery, hair, make up, more Louboutins and Jimmy Choos than Carrie Bradshaw could shake a stick at – Beirut was making quite the impression. Outshining even the blingiest of bangles however, the food at Em-Sherif was phenomenal. All of the Lebanese staples were there, but far better than any I’ve had outside Lebanon – Hummous, Fettouche, Tabbouleh, perfectly grilled meats – accompanied by delicious local wines and a cheeky tableside shisha. Of course, this was the case at all of the restaurants recommended to us by the expert concierge team at the Phoenicia. Nothing was too much for them, not even arranging to have my bag (which mysteriously stayed in Paris for an extra day) picked up from the airport and delivered straight to my room. (In Lebanon, lost baggage is not delivered by the airline – rather the owner must go to the airport and pick it up…)
Having stuffed ourselves to the gills at dinner, we slept like (very fat) babies that first night. We only just managed to drag ourselves out of bed in the morning for breakfast, and thank goodness we did! The breakfast room at the Phoenicia features floor-to-ceiling windows with stunning views of Zaitunay Bay and the Mediterranean, as well as the St Georges Hotel, another Beirut landmark that unfortunately has not fared as well as the Phoenicia. (It is currently unoccupied and in need of serious renovation.) The spread at breakfast was fit for a king (or queen!) Fresh juices, eggs made-to-order, delicious freshly baked pastries, a vast spread of the usual Western breakfast fare, and of course plenty of delicious Lebanese food. They even had made-to-order Lebanese flat bread with zataar or spicy spread, cooked right before your eyes on a special grill. Of course, nothing actually happens before I get my coffee, and the staff here had no trouble at all serving up a bone-dry double espresso macchiato that was as good as any I’ve had in Rome or Florence. Bravo!
After breakfast, we met the hotel’s wonderful Press Team. We had another coffee with them on the plush couches that surround the fountain in the main lobby while they told us a little bit about the property and its history before we set out to explore. The pool, in the main courtyard that the three buildings of the property surround, has a gorgeous Phoenician-themed mosaic on the bottom. The Amathyste restaurant and bar is next to the pool, and the service here as in the rest of the hotel is second-to-none. Pool boys bring over cushy purple towels and craft cocktails, always addressing you by name, while elegant curtains hung around the pool from Romanesque columns flutter in the breeze, making you forget that you’re smack in the heart of one of the biggest cities in the Middle East. We then went up into the Residence Tower, and were given a peak at the Penthouse Suite there – a sprawling two bedroom duplex, that was impeccably decorated and would be frankly be perfect for entertaining (and is apparently almost always booked!)
Next stop was the Spa, my favourite spot in any hotel after my bed. SPA Phoenicia is a beautifully lit, calm, quiet oasis with a pool and a boutique as well as treatment rooms. We were served hot tea while our masseuses came over to discuss our treatments with us. I went for an Ayurvedic massage, the Abhyanga treatment, and the Indian masseuse who treated me was nothing short of a muscular miracle worker – I left an hour later feeling totally refreshed and rejuvenated, if not a little oily. In-room treatment options were available too, but then that precludes you from the fun of actually going to the spa and enjoying the calming environment there, not to mention a dip in the pool after your treatment.
As we relaxed on our balcony in outrageously comfortable Terrycloth robes from the Spa, I reflected on the indelible impression Beirut and Lebanon were leaving on me after only one day. The country has had such a checkered past, particularly in recent years, and yet Beirut, the Phoenicia, and the remarkably resilient people who live here always seem to come out the other side smiling. Everyone we met in and out of the hotel was gracious and kind, the food was stunning, and the ambiance was one of optimism and hope. Later that night, we took a taxi to dinner and we drove past the Ottoman-inspired Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque which is literally right next-door to the neoclassical, 19th century Saint Georges Cathedral. The Call to Prayer was drifting from the Mosque’s minarets, and at the same time the church bells at cathedral were ringing in celebration of a wedding that had just taken place. As worshippers left the mosque after evening prayers, they lined up to watch and cheer for the newlywed couple coming out of the cathedral. I thought to myself, this is the real Beirut. Tolerance, and diversity – people of different faiths and cultures living in perfect harmony, celebrating each day as it comes.
The Phoenicia seems to encapsulate what it is to be a native of Beirut – resilient, warm, welcoming, and gracious. The hotel has seen unimaginable horrors, and yet against the odds it has rebounded to once again be THE address in Beirut for Lebanese hospitality and charm, winning over guests with the service and elegance for which the Intercontinental brand is known worldwide. I am anxiously looking forward to my next trip to Beirut in the Spring (yes, I already made plans to go back) and I look forward to returning the Phoenicia to once again luxuriate in the hospitality that has cemented their reputation as an icon in Beirut.
Phoenicia Hotel Beirut
Minet El Hosn
PO Box 11/846