Air fares to Lebanon have just been slashed - but does that make Beirut somewhere for the weekend?

It was like perfume on the Champs Elysees, only the scent was of chocolate. The boy carried on his shoulder a tray of patisserie, rolled wafers of black chocolate under a sheet of greased paper. Twisting on a heel he entered a gorgeous, gilded patisserie. It was a street not in Paris, but in Beirut.

Ironically, M Chirac was in town that morning. The French have been here for more than a century, leaving a legacy of political instability, blue enamelled street signs, and pastry. Chirac was preaching democracy to an auditorium of students. "In other words," said one world-weary Lebanese, "he wants Arabs to buy more Peugeots."

Cynicism aside, the message is that the city is again open for business. Liberal, lotus-eating Beirut once again has fashionable cafes and night- clubs, exotic dancers and clip joints, gold-stuffed jewellers and Benetton outlets.

The road from the airport takes you through the southern suburbs, the Islamic area where Western hostages were held during the civil war. If you carry on to the old city centre, you find an empty space where a whole quarter has been demolished. The gutted Holiday Inn looms like a giant tombstone, and wandering the streets around the "front line" makes for a weird kind of tourism. Exploding shells have made gashes with delicate aurorae of pitted stone, bullets have pocked a white apartment block. The top half of a minaret has been blown away, leaving a cage of metal rods pointing at the sky.

If you want to see any of this, you'll have to move fast. Beirut is under urgent construction. The ground shakes from mechanical diggers. The foundations of skyscrapers are being poured into giddying holes.

The energy with which Beirut is reinventing itself is making fortunes for a new stratum of property developers and business people. Their increasingly decadent lifestyles recently led to the city being rocked by sex scandals. Divorce levels among this nouveau riche are unprecedented. There's a joke currently going round: "I hear that George is getting married." "Oh yes? And to whose wife?" I learnt this from a Californian named Celicia, whose lawyer husband had been lured from their Scarsdale mansion by the fortunes to be made in his native city.

Beirut's Promenade des Anglais is the palmy Corniche. The palms have mostly survived the war, but promenading has not. Courting couples sit in cars and look not at the sea but at each other. Anglers whip six-metre rods over their heads and hurl their hooks into the foam. Old men smoke, and stare at the horizon. It feels more like Cromer than Cannes. But all along the Corniche apartment blocks are rising, marble-clad, 20, 30 storeys high. And what is that shiny chromium object at the far end of the Promenade? It's the Hard Rock Cafe.

Behind the Corniche is Hamra, currently serving as the city centre. Built around the American University, it has dozens of fast food outlets, stylish shops, hotels and upmarket restaurants. Be careful to check the prices on the menu: it's easy to spend pounds 80 on a meal for two. Quite apart from its French influences, Lebanese cuisine is delicious. To sample it affordably, it is better to leave the city centre.

It's quite feasible to drive out of Beirut. Car hire is cheap, and driving is a less life-threatening experience than in, say, Cairo. A three-hour trip into the Bekaa Valley brings you to Baalbek, a huge complex of Roman ruins. Further north is Bcharre, the last remaining forest of the legendary Lebanese cedars, and birthplace of the prophet Kahlil Gibran. Closer to Beirut is the port of Biblos, one of the oldest continuously-inhabited towns in the world.

Jounie, on the coast road back from Biblos, is one of Beirut's northern - Christian - suburbs. What with its film hoardings, cafes and designer clothing stores, you might be in Naples or Miami. Well-dressed men and women park their Mercedes and BMWs and step into plush restaurants.

Down the hill, on the beach, is a mile-long strip of fish restaurants and night clubs. As I walked along the street a car pulled up and four high-heeled, scantily-clad, Russian-speaking girls tottered into a "special night-club". There is much talk in Beirut about the influx of prostitutes, mostly said to come from the former Iron Curtain countries.

In the hills above Jounie is the little-known attraction that makes Beirut unique among capital cities. I would argue that it alone justifies a visit here. Jeita is said to be one of the most extensive grottoes in the world. Millions have recently been spent on lighting, engineering and a superb cable-car to the caves. Once inside, you can walk for a mile through a vast cavern where giant stalactites a million years in the making hang down from the roof, 100ft above your head. A lower cave complex is flooded by an underground river. Electric boats glide through over pea-green water, filtered through limestone and, they told me, very drinkable. I scooped some up in my hand and sipped: it was sweet as a berry

Beirut basics

Getting there: Middle East Airlines (0171-493 5681) has cut its Heathrow-Beirut fare to pounds 250 return, including UK and Lebanese taxes, for February. MEA operates on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. British Mediterranean (0345 320100) flies daily except Tuesday and Wednesday; British Airways (0345 222111), flies on Sundays and Wednesdays. Red tape: British passport holders must get a Lebanese visa in advance. Apply to the consular section of the Lebanese Embassy, 21 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 (0171-229 7265), with two photographs, a statement from an employer confirming your occupation, and pounds 12. More information: Travellers' Survival Kit: Lebanon by Carole Cadwalladr and Anna Sutton (Vacation Work, pounds 9.99).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
A rub on the tummy sprang Casey back to life
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little