Though it may come as a surprise, there is, in fact, a country in the Middle East without a desert: Lebanon. Not only is it desert-less, but it also has some of the most impressive sights in the region, including the Mediterranean Sea, an inland valley that holds wineries and Roman ruins, and snow-capped mountains that are home to my favorite places, a small grove of cedars known as the Tannourine Cedars Forest Nature Reserve.
I’m half-Lebanese, so I visit Lebanon on a semi-regular basis. My dad immigrated to California about 30 years ago, but my grandmother still lives in Beirut, the country’s capital. Every time I visit, a day trip the small, protected grove outside my grandmother’s family hometown, also called Tannourine, is a mandatory family activity. It’s the place where my dad and my grandmother spent their summer vacations growing up, so it holds a lot of memories, but it’s also representative of Lebanon’s recent environmental efforts.
On my most recent visit, my dad, grandmother, great-aunt and I headed out to the grove, a drive that winds through mountains dotted with red-roofed summer homes, terraced farms of apple and cherry trees, and waterfalls that tumble down the sides of cliffs. And, as always, the trip was eye-opening and the cedars stunning. Here’s why you, too, should visit Lebanon’s ancient trees.
1. It’s a sign that Lebanon actually cares about its environment. Unless you’ve persistently avoided reading major newspapers for the last 40 years, you’d likely link the country of Lebanon to political instability, not picturesque cedar groves. In all fairness, the country is currently in the midst of a political crisis, triggered by protests over garbage disposal. Beirut’s landfill reached its capacity months ago, and the country’s Parliament, not typically known for its effectiveness, hasn’t found a solution. But, in a few pockets of the country, environmental conservation is underway. There are two other protected Cedar Groves besides Tannourine; one in the southern part of the country called the Chouf Reserve, and another to the north near a town called Bcharre. There’s also an organization called the Lebanese Mountain Trail Association that promotes conservation through environmentally responsible tourism. The cedar grove in Tannourine has been protected since 1999, and today is run by a local family in partnership with the Ministry of the Environment.
2. You can say you’ve visited the Holy Land—the part that nobody knows about because it’s outside of Israel. Lebanon is part of the Holy Land, as evidenced by the occasional Crusader castle along the country’s coastline. The oldest cedar in the Tannourine Cedars Forest Nature Reserve is about 750 years old, but the trees have been a part of Lebanon’s history since biblical times. Most famously, they are said to have been the wood for the temple of Solomon. Thousands of years later, the Lebanese haven’t forgotten the trees’ importance; today the outline of the cedar is prominent on the country’s flag and currency, and banners any major political event. Lebanon even had a successful independence movement from Syria in 2005 that the rest of the world, harkening back to biblical times, christened the Cedar Revolution.
3. The hikes are a breeze. All of the cedar reserves in Lebanon have hiking trails. The ones in Tannourine are described as “not for the faint of heart,” but I’ve concluded that the Lebanese standards of what constitutes a strenuous hike differ from those of my Northern Californian peers. My grandmother strolled through the wider, flatter walkways in heels. However, while doable in fancy footwear, I recommend hiking while in proper footwear because some paths in the Tannourine Preserve are actually rocky and steep. Bonus: On the way to the reserve, keep an eye out for Tannourine’s cherry trees, which drip with ripe fruit (the perfect pre or post-trip snack).
4. You can have a post-hike meal in a tiny town-slash-pop culture reference. If you choose to visit the cedars in the Tannourine Preserve, you’ll get the Lebanese version of a small-town experience. Even though the village of Tannourine is truly remote—a full hour-and-a-half drive northeast of Beirut on what, until recently, were dirt roads—even Arabs from outside of the country know of it. That’s because a famous Lebanese singer, Fairuz, wrote a song about Tannourine several years ago, which became an instant classic. Plus a brand of bottled water in the country shares the village’s name. If you, like me, are a fan of the après-hike meal, there are local restaurants in the lower part of the village. Just keep following the one main road that cuts through the town and you’ll find my favorite restaurant, located right on the banks of a creek, where waiters serve the Lebanese version of tapas: small plates of meat pies, fresh cheese, kebabs, and salad with a tangy lemon and olive oil dressing.
How to get to the Tannourine Cedars Forest Nature Reserve: From Beirut, drive North on the Beirut-Tripoli Highway towards Byblos. Take the exit for Byblos, but instead of heading West into the town, drive East towards St. Charbel Monastery, then towards the resort Laqlouq. Continue East past Laqlouq, to Tannourine. Drive through the town and follow signs toward the Cedar Reserve.
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