I edged my feet toward the cliff, 10,000 feet above ground.
Somewhere in the distance, I heard my cousin yell my name, warning me to get down. But my senses were elsewhere.
Standing on one of the highest peaks in Northern Lebanon in my parents’ homeland, I was 5,700 miles from Buffalo, surrounded by mountains that stretched toward the clouds. My eyes followed the valleys that sloped down to meet the Mediterranean shoreline. Rooftops, orchards and the historic cedar forests that are repeatedly mentioned in the Old Testament covered the hills.
I felt an intimacy with nature I’d never before experienced. In a country often affiliated with words like “conflict” and “chaos,” I felt liberated.
I didn’t stay in Beirut, the country’s capital – which the New York Times rated the No. 1 travel destination in 2009 – and I barely explored the country’s nightlife and high-profile restaurants that many articles recommend.
Instead, I woke up early every day, put on my athletic gear and spent mornings in the mountainous terrain – jogging, hiking, driving ATVs and exploring caves.
For an outdoor enthusiast with an adventurous spirit, Lebanon is a playground.
Whether I was walking down the street, sitting at an outdoor café or jet skiing on the Mediterranean Sea, I was surrounded by archaeological ruins and serene landscapes that date back to ancient Phoenician civilization, which flourished for more than 2,000 years.
Get your motor runnin’
Every summer, hundreds of Lebanese students and young people flock to Ehden – a mountainous town and tourism center – for the pools, hookah lounges, cuisine and nightlife. Al Midan, Ehden’s historic public square surrounded by distinctive Middle Eastern architecture, is filled with cafés, patisseries and restaurants.
But even as a popular destination for nightlife activity, Ehden is as frequented a location for outdoor activities during the day.
My cousin and I joined our Lebanese friends there almost every night. Shisha smoke was always in the air, and they’d laugh at my Arabic while we nibbled on local sweets. The same waiter took our order at our go-to outside lounge almost every night, and he often gave us free snacks and drinks.
Nestled only a few minutes from its bustling, night-driven atmosphere are trails that lead to some of Lebanon’s highest mounts.
One night, my friend Lucien, a local, was driving a group of us to Al Midan, and a young couple on an ATV passed my window side and waved.
“There are ATVs here?” I asked, startled with surprise. Lucien, with his inherent generosity, recognized my interest and took me back the next day – this time, in the morning.
It was $50 for an ATV that fits two people; we got the four-wheeler for one hour with the option to drive around the town or explore the rougher, mountainous terrain.
We chose the latter.
Ehden is 1,500 meters above sea level. I remember going up the valley. The drive was uplifting – in elevation and in spirit. I got an eyeful of gorges, historic cedar forests and wild orchids. I saw man-made crosses and shrines on the way up, witnessing how the country’s natural heritage ties in with its spiritual one.
People make these wooden crosses and leave them there for the pure sake of divine expression.
From the trail’s start, it took only 30 minutes to reach one of the highest peaks in Lebanon – maybe because Lucien is a crazy driver, or maybe because it never seems to take much time or effort to reach anything serene in Lebanon.
We reached the 10,000-foot point to witness a breathtaking view under the sun. My face and body were covered in debris from the drive up, and I spotted tan lines from the scorching sun when I got home.
Al Midan was an exciting and vibrant place to be at night with my friends, but I still have days when I can’t get my mind off the thrilling speed and cathartic sensation of moving up a mountain – the wind at your back and the scenery by your side; nothing replaces the intensity of the feeling.
Take a hike
My first day in Lebanon, a friend from my family’s village took me hiking in the “kaf,” the town’s surrounding forests. Just a short walk from my family’s home, we trekked through rocks, hills and valleys; we saw caves and fresh water springs, we ate wild walnuts and grapes from the trees.
Though I wasn’t near any of Lebanon’s formal hiking trails, there was no shortage of hiking opportunities around me. And if I woke up in the morning and had nothing to do, I would grab a few friends familiar with the area, and we’d spend hours in our town’s bordering wilderness.
One of the country’s most recent developments is Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT), a 275-mile trail with 26 sections. It stretches from North to South Lebanon.
Hikers pass through more than 75 towns and villages as well as museums, monasteries and shrines belonging to poets, monks and others who were spiritually inspired by Lebanon’s nature. The path passes the museum of Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese artist, poet and writer who became the third best-selling poet of all time, according to the New Yorker.
And often, indigenous Lebanese villagers will offer hikers a place to stay and eat.
In August, Norbert Schiller, a photojournalist who has covered conflict in the Middle East for decades, hiked the LMT to see a different part of Lebanon that “rarely makes the news,” he reported in Time magazine.
“One of the reasons why I like hiking in the mountains of Lebanon so much is almost every hill you go over or every bend you turn or every water you go into or valley you go into or mountain range you cross, the whole scenery completely changes,” he said.
Being in Lebanon, there is no need to travel far to reach one of these hiking destinations. Trails are situated in the north and south, near urban cities or rural towns; the countryside is widespread and inescapable.
The water works
I saw the odometer hit 70 mph. Can you go that fast? I thought. What’s going to happen next?
Lucien laughed as I screamed.
My questions didn’t matter. We were in Lebanon, where laws, rules and regulations don’t always apply. Lucien just wanted me to see what living in Lebanon is all about – having fun.
He drove us faster and faster with the countryside in our purview; the mountaintops touched the clouds.
I yelled for Lucien to slow down, so he made a sharp right turn over a wave, and we flew off the jet ski and into the sea.
As I fell into the Mediterranean, salt water filled my mouth but felt soft on my skin. I came up from under water, welcomed by the mountainous skyline in the horizon that sharply descended to the Mediterranean’s coast.
We were in Chekka, a beach town in Northern Lebanon, and I was facing Râs ach-Chaq’a,’ a white and green mountain that was named “Theou Prosopon” or “Face of God” by the ancient Greeks. Today, Chekka has a range of hotels and resorts on its public and private beaches with more than 270 chalets, 100 cabins and dozens of boats and jet skis to rent.
I visited many beaches in Chekka during my vacation, and every one offered jet skiing – whether it was at a cheap public beach or private resort.
Beyond Chekka, there are hundreds of beaches that dot Lebanon’s coast.
And in Chekka, Lucien and I paid about $50 to jet ski freely in the sea for 30 minutes.
That’s the thing about Lebanon – it ignites a feeling of free will in its natural habitat, but it is all the while matched with an overpowering sensation to preserve, respect and understand the land.