Travel: Lebanon

Strolling along the Corniche, which runs along the northernmost stretch of Beirut's Mediterranean seaboard, on a warm Saturday evening, dodging power walkers, promenaders and soignée women with dogs in their handbags, it was striking how very good-looking so many Beirutis are.

Not perhaps the fishermen hoping to catch supper with a spindly rod balanced on the parapet wall; the narghile (or shisha-pipe) smokers huddled close to their cars from whose radios blasted loud Lebanese pop; or ka'ik vendors, peddling discs of hot bread with fist-sized holes, through which locals thread their arms in order to "wear" them home, like giant bangles. But many of the women – some in hijabs, a few in sweats, others in Saturday-night best – had the demeanour of models. Even the mothers of children en route to the giant Ferris wheel at Lunapark looked more serene than their western counterparts might in similar circumstances.

This is most likely thanks to cosmetic surgery. Even in these credit-crunched times, Lebanon's First National Bank is offering loans of up to 5,000 to "cover all your plastic surgery operations", under the banner "Beauty is no longer a luxury". The reason has its roots less in vanity than in Lebanon's war-torn past. Twenty years ago, when the civil war still raged, 90 per cent of surgeons' work was reconstructive; today it's almost all cosmetic.

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Three years on from the Israeli bombing of southern Beirut, and despite what the UK Foreign Office calls a "fragile" peace and a visible military presence, Lebanon feels reborn. Take the vibrant pedestrianised downtown district known as Solidre, a risen-from-the-rubble development of offices, shops, bars and cafes, stylistically a little too polished and post-modern, perhaps, but its faux rue-de-Rivoli arcades keep the sun off shoppers concerned for their complexions.

This was the part of town I was staying in, at the city's smartest, newest hotel, Le Gray, a sophisticated, efficient 87-room boutique that opened in November last year. A more stylish alternative to the two InterContinentals on the Corniche – hitherto Beirut's best hotels – it's already made the city a more alluring destination for European weekenders.

Le Gray's location on Place des Martyrs is close to the cafe-encircled Place d'Etoile (they don't call Beirut the Paris of the East for nothing) and Beirut Souks (more a mall than a medina). It's also convenient for the city's three main mosques – its proximity to the landmark 21st-century Mohammed al-Amin mosque ensures you never get lost – and the city's three cathedrals.

Not that there aren't myriad secular sights, too, ranging from Roman baths and colonnades to the Sursock Museum of modern Lebanese art (Le Gray, too, has more than 500 contemporary paintings and sculptures), by way of Byzantine mosaic pavements, crumbling Ottoman mansions and the National Museum.

Le Gray is metres from the Quartier des Arts, aka Saifi Village, a redevelopment of the area once bisected by the Green Line, the barricade that divided Muslim west Beirut from the Christian east side during the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

On Saturday mornings, Saifi hosts a terrific farmers' market, Souk el Tayeb, where locals buy organic veg, aromatic spices, flatbread brushed with herb-infused oils, the deep-fried lozenges of minced lamb and cracked wheat they call kibbeh and exquisite home-made marzipan.

That said, it would be a shame to spoil your appetite for lunch, especially if you've booked a table at, say, Casablanca, an old villa on the Corniche with modern interiors, sea views and a menu rich in slightly Asian takes on local fish. Beirutis dine late, after which the beautiful people gather in the bars of Gemmayzeh, immediately east of Saifi and ten minutes from Le Gray. With Bar ThreeSixty – glass-walled, blue-lit, and with jaw-dropping views – now opened on top of Le Gray, Beirut's beau monde are making it their own.

The facts BMI flies daily from Heathrow, returns from 429.40 ( Le Gray has doubles from 215 ( Casabla-nca Ain el-Mreisseh, Corniche (00 11 961 1369 334) Myu Rue St-Antoine (00 11 961 334 476) Black Tomato offers a Beirut-based package from 1,105pp that can include skiing from January to March, and visits to Baalbek and Byblos (,

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• This article was first published in The Scotsman on 23 January, 2010