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Going downhill fast — and loving it

Whether it's for the snow, socializing, or slinky catwalk models, skiers are flocking to Lebanon.

“The most we heard about Lebanon was Hezbollah and war and stuff,” said Norwegian professional snowboader Hans Kristian Bergheim. He and a team of other snowboarders sponsored by Quiksilver were brought in from Europe by the resort to participate in the snow festival’s snowboarding and ski jump exhibition.

“It’s really nice here. I recommend everyone to come to Lebanon at some point in their life,” Bergheim said.

Lebanon’s ski resorts are located mainly in the Christian-inhabited mountains east and north of Beirut. Massive steel crosses on the mountain peaks face somewhat defiantly out toward some of the country’s more conservative Islamic coastal cities and valleys below.

Lebanon’s ski industry began in the 1950s, when the Lebanese government installed the first chairlift at the Cedars ski area, on one of Lebanon’s highest peaks. A few years later, in the early 1960s, Lebanese entrepreneurs bought and installed the first chairlift at Mzaar. A luxury hotel was built at the foot of the mountain, chalets were built and more lifts added.

The ski area continued to expand until 1975, when Lebanon’s civil war erupted and the luxury hotel was occupied by a militia. Still, the resort continued to function. Local lore tells of the owners bringing a new chairlift through the port of Tripoli during the war, and skirting it through checkpoints to eventually get it up onto the mountain.

The InterContinental was built in 2000, nearly 10 years after the war ended. Now, Lebanon’s glitterati arrive here every weekend, including former presidents and Lebanese pop stars. Late model Porsches, Land Rovers and Mercedes drop off garishly dressed guests at the hotel entrance.

“Our clientele is the A+ and A category during the high season,” said Joost Komen, the InterContinental’s general manager. “The rich and famous, let’s say.”

Or at least those who plan to be rich and famous some day.

At the lingerie show, newly graduated fashion designers Yasmina Zaatari and Amanda Kabbani sat at a table with friends who had just cracked open a bottle of vodka, included in the $45 per person table charge. Zaatari sported Armani shades and a Rolex. Kabbani had on Ray-Bans. Both wore coats embellished with fur.

“This is Lebanon, dress to impress!” Zaatari said. “This is the way it goes here.”

In a country where individual incomes average $11,000 a year, few Lebanese can afford to ski regularly. The $30 to $50 lift tickets, the $250 a night Intercontinental Hotel (although there are other, cheaper hotels), and the $50 bottles of wine at the handful of local restaurants makes the resort off-limits to most.

But the expats from Dubai point out that skiing in Lebanon is cheaper than at most resorts in the U.S. and Europe. And it's a heck of a lot more convenient, said Chambers, a Dubai-based British architect.

“To get to Europe it’s seven hours on a plane. Coming here it’s three. So it’s that much easier,” she said as a model took to the catwalk in hold-up stockings and a tiny black lace bikini. Madonna’s “Material Girl” played loudly. Dubai-based designer Matthew Trehy was impressed.

“We fly back tomorrow, so this is a nice way to end the holiday,” he added. “You’d never see this in Dubai.”

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