Stay The Night: Phoenicia Hotel, Beirut
The Phoenicia, like Beirut itself, has emerged from civil strife to regain its reputation for good times, says James Litston
Sunday 16 October 2011
Appearances can be deceptive. With its polished façade and glitzy interiors, you'd never guess that the Phoenicia Hotel has just celebrated its 50th birthday – or that it's had such a turbulent history.
Throughout the 1960s it was the Mediterranean's most fashionable address, overlooking the marina. Then came 15 years of civil war, which devastated the city and saw the Phoenicia reduced to a burned-out shell. The hotel reopened in 2000 but was damaged again five years later when a massive car-bomb detonated right outside, killing the Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.
But Beirut today is a peaceful place, and the city is fast regaining its reputation for a party spirit. The Phoenicia is also busily recapturing the essence of its heyday, investing in a multimillion pound renovation to bring it bang up to date.
Don't be fooled by its affiliation with InterContinental Hotels; this family-run property doesn't have the feel of a chain hotel. Thanks to Najib Salha (the grandson of the hotel's founder), the public areas have been given a seriously stylish overhaul; the chic, contemporary canvas is embellished with distinctive Middle Eastern touches, such as ornate lanterns and geometric patterns, to add a satisfying sense of place.
The end result is a thoroughly individual hotel with outstanding service and unfailingly charming, tri-lingual staff. And, judging from the other guests, the Phoenicia has already reclaimed its status as the hippest hangout in town.
There are 446 rooms and suites occupying two separate towers. After the stylish lobby, my room in the Phoenician Tower seemed disappointingly drab. Although undeniably spacious, with a huge marble bathroom and good-sized balcony, the decor felt pallid and rather dated. That's all set to change next spring, however, when British designer Martin Hulbert is let loose on the guest rooms. As the creative force behind the Phoenicia's stunning lobby, his new-look rooms should be show-stoppers.
The food and drink
With seven restaurants and bars on site, there's little chance of going hungry. Start the day with a few laps of the breakfast buffet ($36/£23) at Mosaic, a bright, airy, space with views across the yacht-filled harbour. Besides the typical European dishes, try the manoush (like mini pizzas topped with thyme) and Lebanese mezze. By day, the poolside Amethyste lounge is ideal for lingering over lunch and a chilled glass of Ksara, the local wine. Dinner is served with more sea views at Eau de Vie, the top-floor destination restaurant that's also had the Martin Hulbert treatment. Expect high-end French food with a price tag to match (around $60 a head for three courses, without wine). Plus, there's an outpost of London's Whisky Mist bar in the basement.
The in-house spa is probably the best in town and there's a decent gym, though top billing goes to the fabulous outdoor pool area, where the sleek design and chilled-out beats feel more akin to Miami than the Middle East. Downtown Beirut and the bar-filled Ashrafieh and Gemmayzeh districts are an easy walk. Don't miss the Saturday morning Souk el Tayab farmers' market (soukel tayab.com), where producers sell fruits, honey, pastries, pickles and hand-made crafts. Among the trips available further afield are visits to the Bekaa Valley with its well-preserved Roman temples at Baalbek and award-winning Ksara winery.
Children are welcome. There are non-smoking floors. Five rooms have facilities for guests with disabilities. Wi-Fi access is free throughout the hotel.
Double rooms from $288 (£186) per night, room-only. Return flights from London Heathrow with BMI (0844 8484 888; flymbi.com) cost from £454.
Minet El Hosn, Beirut, Lebanon (00 961 1369 100, phoeniciabeirut.com).
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