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beirut libanon skyline sea promenade view

Beirut: Best Party City of the World

To the Lebanese, pleasure is the greatest commandment. Cigars are affordable, in demand – and everyone’s celebrating with them.

 

Beirut is lit up beneath us, and we are very amused. A crazy idea comes to us as we relax in the Hotel Phoenicia’s elegant cigar lounge, where stylish leather sofas are separated by an abundance of gleaming fabric straight out of 1001 Nights. Shining fiery purple-red, then in muted tobacco tones, the curtains are both separées and harbingers of a distinctly Oriental atmosphere.

Our imaginations wander as we smoke a Romeo y Julieta Exhibición No. 4, leading us to agree: If a city’s seductive atmosphere is able to convince you to compare the erotic qualities of women’s shoes with cigar formats – even betting on the heights of certain stilettos – it’s got to be Beirut.

In Lebanon, we have the world’s strongest cigar culture, after Cuba, and the best Habanos selection at top prices.

Shoes and cigars – a frivolous comparison? Not in this trendy metropolis, which, having had to constantly reinvent itself under the long shadow of civil war, tends provocatively to the west and was deemed “best party city in the world” by CNN reporters in 2009.

In this city of non-stop nightlife, you won’t just encounter Lebanese beauties teetering on vertigo-inducing high heels. You’ll also see many passionadas smoking very long formats – but is it just for show? By no means!

Lebanon’s population of four million smokes (proportionally) the world’s most Habanos. Makram Salha, a high-living passionado and owner of the iconic Hotel Phoenicia, warns, “If you don’t offer our female cigar smokers puros, they’re downright disgusted!” Salha frequents Beirut’s best cigar locations; a collector of specialties, he’s considered one of the world’s cigar luminaries. He counts 700 boxes of rare and unusual cuban cigars to his name, among them the “Presidencia”, created specially for heads of state.

georg weinlaender austrian director phoenicia beirut with colleague lounge

Photo: Gabriela Greess

“In Lebanon, we have the world’s strongest cigar culture, after Cuba, and the best Habanos selection at top prices. That’s why puros are so popular here”, says the Lebanese proudly, glancing at the Phoenicia’s extraordinary walk-in humidor. An illuminated bookshelf, stocked with over 200 fine single-malt whiskies, separates the climate-controlled area from the chic Eau De Vie lounge and restaurant, where recent diners included rock stars Tom Jones and Shakira.

Beirut loves extravagance. Georg Weinlaender, Austrian director of the Phoenicia, reports, “Our most expensive whisky costs $50,000; guests from the Emirates have been known to enjoy it.” The friendly Viennese takes the time to enjoy a Partagás Series D No. 4 with us in the lounge, seated across from the hotel’s unique pool table, which features an artfully designed plinth recalling an ancient Phoenician ship. “The Phoenicians’ cultural heritage still dictates Lebanon’s identity. As a seafaring merchant people, they once laid claim to the entire Mediterranean”, says Weinlaender, and we realize why the legendary Phoenicians have become a kind of patron saint of Beirut’s one-of-a-kind world of the fine smoke.

The Eastern Mediterranean city is home to six Casas del Habano, and Cuban cigars are sometimes over a third cheaper than in Western Europe. The Beirut airport’s duty-free area (three casas) boasts many spectacular deals, for which some international cigar lovers have been known to specially book a layover.

These passionados can also participate in a lottery in which the prize is a humidor from the legendary auction of the Festival del Habano, then retreat to the 100-square meter lounge, with whose luxury, size, and service no other airport on the globe can compete.

Fine Smoke on Bonita Bay Beach

Beirut’s Habanos fortresses aren’t afraid to show their teeth and demonstrate a little well-dosed patriotism. Have you ever seen an ancient victory arch in the display window of a Casa del Habano? Victorious Phoenicians say hello! We’re standing astonished in front of the Casa located in the wealthy Ashrafieh district, south of the harbor.

beirut libanon phoenicia eau de vie cigar lounge pool billard

Photo: Gabriela Greess

“Large formats sell best here”, sales manager Kamaf Hassan informs us. He has many customers from France and the Emirates.

But passionados from Germany, the USA and exiled Lebanese also frequent the shop. “We offer a box of 25 Cohiba Esplendidos for US $636, a Cohiba Behike for US $38”, says Hassan, rattling off the unbelievable prices in impeccable English.

Like many Lebanese, the highly-qualified salesman is fluent in three languages and lived in Cuba for 18 years to boot. Beirut’s Casas del Habano emphasize excellent service. And behind many of them is the magic word “Phoenicia”, glinting silver from the shop windows.

We learn that the Phoenicians are also namesakes for a Lebanese Habanos distributor that operates out of Cyprus and supplies over 70 countries with Cuban cigars. Phoenicia Trading now offers limited Habanos as well as regional special editions available only in the Beirut airport’s duty-free area.

Hence, immediately after landing we made a pilgrimage to the Casa del Habano in the West Arrival area and settled in with a box of 25 of the top-rated Edición Regional Beritus Ramón Allones 2009 (US $425). Their name is an homage to Beirut (ancient name: Beritus), risen like a phoenix from the ashes of civil war to a new life – and the first city to lend its name to an Edición Regional.

Large formats sell best here.

“Lebanon is the most stable country in the Middle East”, emphasizes Georg Weinlaender, who has worked on all five continents. The Vienna native feels right at home. “There are small fishing villages near Beirut and bays like Bonita Bay that remind me of the Côte d’Azur; I like to enjoy my weekend smoke there. Not to mention that Lebanon is blessed with wine estates of the highest quality.” Weinlaender praises the country’s pleasure culture, strongly influenced by French colonial rule, and is happy that he has an influence over the favorite locations of many local passionados in “Petit Paris” Beirut: “In Le Vendôme, our luxury sister hotel, we have Sydney’s Club Bar & Restaurant, an establishment that offers top service around the clock to cigar lovers.”

He’s telling the truth. At Sydney’s, sommelier Wissam Masri gallantly lights a Cohiba Siglo I. (US $18, including tip), accompanied by a local Château Ksara top wine, while we enjoy the sunset over the yacht harbor and the atmospheric corniche.

Afterward, we walk through Beirut’s happening nightlife district, Gemmayze, and land in Beirut’s “Bodeguita del Medio”: true to its Cuban namesake, its wall humidor alone exceeds all expectations. And on Mondays, passionadas get a free puro. Directly opposite, at Restaurant Paladar, a chandelier of luxury brand bottles swings over a roomful of happy, dancing international guests.

Super-Passionado Salha: “Puro Pleasure without Boundaries”

After midnight, partygoers flock to the Sky Bar, drawn to its spectacular panoramic views and nightclub Pier 7, a kind of quirky Black Box that embodies the wild and crazy Beirut by night. As hermetically sealed from the onslaught of night owls as a gigantic table humidor, the structure’s minimalist, windowless black façade doesn’t just appeal to fans of purist architecture.

libanon beirut eau de vie lounge phoenicia walk in humidor samer sokhon largest collection middle east single malt whisky

Photo: Gabriela Greess

“Open sesame!” A red door signals the gates to swinging Beirut; despite the passing in 2012 of an anti-smoking law, it remains a paradise for passionados, although the legendary Buddha Bar accommodates with a nonsmoking section. But Lebanon’s own super-passionado Makram Salha, who owns a second home in London, a city not known for its smoker-friendliness, seems unworried.

“In both of our Beirut hotels, cigar lovers will continue to find every conceivable comfort, because here we’re used to puro pleasure without boundaries. I doubt that Lebanon will strictly enforce a rigorous anti-smoking law.”

Georg Weinlaender, too, seems downright nonchalant as he describes his last weekend off: who doesn’t dream of sunbathing by the pool in the morning, cruising down a lovely ski run at lunch and turning in for the evening with a cigar and a crackling fire?

We put it to the test an hour outside of Beirut, at the Intercontinental Mzaar Lebanon Mountain Resort & Spa. At the hotel, Lebanese as well as guests from around the world smoke water pipes and puros harmoniously side by side – like everywhere else in the liberal Arab country, which recognizes 17 distinct religious orders.

libanon beirut downtown casa del habano sandy awad ahmad el mawla aiport

Photo: Gabriela Greess

We also relish the Intercontinental’s lovingly redesigned Cigar Lounge. It’s now nested in the hotel’s cozy library, thanks to the initiative of charming hotel director Andrea Wrba, also an Austrian native. She had beverage manager Chuckry Nemnon, who had previously worked for a long time in the US, train as a Habanos sommelier.

The small alpine republic has styled itself as a global pioneer for policies that remain smoker-friendly, serving as the best example of these policies in practice.

“Lebanese love Cuban cigars; for them, they’re simply the best longfillers”, Joe Hayeck explains to us the next day back in downtown Beirut. His tobacco shop, “The Merchant of Venice”, is decorated with classic English touches. Hayeck worked as a finance manager in Dubai and Doha before realizing his life’s dream by moving to the well-situated Saifi Village area in late 2010. In his shop, you’ll find cigars from Honduras and the Dominican Republic as well as Davidoff Tubos 2000 (US $15); most popular is the Montecristo Edmundo (US $11). Another great thing about Beirut: you can buy puros until one in in the morning in the downtown Casa del Habano, and then enjoy them right there in the luxury lounge. The lounge itself is a Habanos temple, spacious and light, with a giant portrait of Fidel Castro on the wall. One eye looks out on patrolling security forces; Parliament is close by.

Charbel Tannous, the shop’s young manager, accompanies us to the exclusive upper story of the Casa and its top-end walk-in humidor, where Habanos are available for purchase only in boxes. In the lower level, there’s a brisk business from 5 p.m. on; the city’s hottest nightlife district begins just around the corner.

libanon beirut sydney club hotel vendome smoker lounge

Photo: Gabriela Greess

Early the next morning, we return to the atmospheric rooftop bar at Sydney’s, where we meet Nabil from Texas. “Lebanon has become a top destination for entertainment, and as a cigar smoker it’s my El Dorado”, says the jet-setting expat Lebanese.

He likes to compare duty-free prices and raves about the Montecristo Open Eagle, which is 40 percent cheaper here than in Europe. At the same table, we meet some professors from the American University of Beirut. They recommend the Casino du Liban, located in front of the city gates, where you can enjoy a fine smoke amidst chips and pretty ladies.

In addition, Le Vendôme’s limousine service guarantees VIP transport to the casino in a BMW. “You can’t leave this country without having visited the fantastic Jeita grotto. An American missionary discovered it in 1836”, is their final tip to us. The group of passionados buzzes with excitement: “Lebanon’s fairytale caves are soon going to be inducted in to the seven wonders of the world.”

Saifi District’s French Charm

Beirut attracts an international jet set, with Hollywood stars like Halle Berry outfitted in dream gowns by star designer Elie Saab. If you happen to visit Saab’s downtown showroom with your sweetheart, you can celebrate a cigar in the roof lounge while she cloaks herself in silk and lace. The showroom’s extravagant crystal ashtrays inspire us to embark on a gallery tour through the French-influenced Saifi district. Collecters of unique smoking accessories will be amazed by the extravagant “cigar ashtray-hands” from bronze by the Armenian artist Karen Chekerdjian, who used her own hand as the mold.

Before departing from the International Airport of Beirut, one more highlight awaits passionados: the Casa del Habano in the departure duty-free area, laid out over 450 fabulous square meters, open 24 hours, and containing a lounge whose elegant design and extraordinary comfort will amaze even the most jaded cigar smokers. If you want to explore the open area of the giant Cuban cigar humidor yourself, you should plan accordingly.

There are wonderful bargains like a case of 25 Bolívar Tubos No. 1 for US $195. In the lounge, we meet the attractive Habanos hostess Katia. A former psychology student, she even wrote her thesis about the pleasure motivations of cigar smokers! But Katia’s swinging gait and dead-chic pumps enchant us even more, and we fall back into comparing the height of her heels to a “petit panatela”.

We leave Beirut feeling giddy, knowing that we’ve discovered an irresistible puro paradise with authentic Oriental charm. Cigar Journal will be back soon for the grand opening of the ultra luxurious Lavida Habana.

Smoke Shops with Lounges

Casas del Habano Beirut
Hours: Mon-Sat 9-21

Downtown
Asseily Building
Open till 1 am
T + 961 (0)1 99 69 69
M [email protected]

Ashrafieh District
Casine Square
Notredame Centre
T +961 (0)1 328 55 68
M [email protected]

Beirut-Nord
Zalka Highway
Al Arez Center
T +961 471 26 00
M [email protected]

The Merchant of Venice
Old-fashioned English tobacco shop with lounge
Downtown Beirut/Saifi
T +961 (0)1 334 52 15
M [email protected]

Casas del Habano Beirut
intl. Airport
Cigars available only by the full box
Departure Area
Beirut D. F. Shop & Cigar Lounge
Open 24 hours
T +961 (0)1 62 95 20
M [email protected]

Arrival Duty Free
East Wing & West Wing
M [email protected]

Lounges

Eau De Vie Cigar Lounge
Glamorous with panoramic views and a wine-tasting room
Hotel Phoenicia,
near the corniche;
Open daily, 10-1
T +961 (0)1 35 70 24

Sydney’s Club Bar
Classic British style,
fantastic ocean views;
Le Vendôme,
directly on Corniche Road;
Open daily 24 hours
T +961 (0)1 36 92 80

Bodeguita Del Medio
Cuban décor and music
Damascus Street
T +961 (0)1 21 13 32

Lavida Habana
Luxurious, with cigar shop;
Downtown/Solidere Marfaa/Uruguay Street
T +961 76 88 72 77
M [email protected]

Mandaloun Café
Mediterranean/European style
Achrafieh
Charles Malek Ave
www.almandaloun.com

Hotels

Phoenicia
Beirut’s iconic hotel
Eau De Vie Cigar Lounge,
legendary Whisky Mist Nightclub;
Minet El Hosn
Beirut
T +961 (0)1 35 73 57
www.phoeniciabeirut.com

Le Vendôme
Parisian elegance, Fine smoke at Sydney’s Club Bar &
ostentatious Executive Lounge salons ;
Rafis Al Hariri Street
Beirut
T +961 (0)1 36 92 80
www.levendomebeirut.com

Mzaar Lebanon Mountain
Resort & Spa
One hour outside of Beirut,
the Middle East’s only 5-star Ski Resort Lounge with fireplace
T +961 9 340 100
www.intercontinental.com

Restaurants

The Porter
French Cuisine & top wines
Gemmayze Street
Skaff building
T +961 (0)1 44 34 42

Karam
Lebanese cuisine
Souk Bazerkane Street
Atrium Building
T +961 (0)1 99 12 22

 

This article was published in the Cigar Journal Summer Edition 2012. Read more

Gabriela Greess

Since 2005, Gabriela Greess has been traveling the world to report on top cigar destinations for Cigar Journal’s Travel Corner. She also writes our business features, often interviewing top tobacco industry representatives. Her Tobacco & Arts articles highlight cigar-loving artists and artisans.


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