It takes a village
Maasser el Shouf offers natural wonders amid the spectacular wilds of Mount Lebanon
Maasser el Shouf is a storybook village. Its white stone houses, with red tile roofs, arched windows and wooden shutters, all set against a stunning backdrop of pine-forested mountains, hark back to an idyllic era when life was filled with simple pleasures: waking up to the sound of a rooster crowing, visiting villager friends who live two houses down the road, picking peaches and apricots off the trees in summer, taking walks in blissfully shaded forests and sipping lemonade on the veranda while cool breezes sweep away the summer heat.
The picturesque town is located just after Moukhtara, about a 90-minute drive from Beirut, along the windy mountain road that snakes its way through some of Lebanon’s most scenic villages, like Deir el Qamar and Beiteddine.
Like other towns in Lebanon’s Shouf mountains, Maasser el Shouf fell victim to sectarian tensions during Lebanon’s Civil War, resulting in the mass exodus of Christians in 1983, many of whom left the area thinking they would never return.
But roughly a decade ago, the Christians did start to trickle back to Maasser el Shouf, and many have since restored their ancestral homes, breathing life back into this region of Mount Lebanon. Two such people are Yola and Charles Noujaim, who not only rebuilt their family home, but also decided to resolutely turn the page of the past by encouraging a reconciliation between the village’s Druze and Christian communities and by giving them a new project to work on together: ecotourism.
The Noujaims understood the ecotourism potential of Maasser el Shouf and its surrounding area. First of all, the town is minutes away from the Shouf Cedar Reserve, Lebanon’s largest nature reserve and bird area, featuring a considerable diversity of fauna and flora, and, of course, Lebanon’s majestic cedar trees. The area holds such incredible natural diversity that it was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2005.
Maasser el Shouf is also home to appealing local establishments, like St. Michael’s boutique winery, which in addition to red and white wine produces arak, rose and blossom waters, and vinegar.
Most importantly, Maasser el Shouf has a number of establishments providing great accommodation right in the center of town. Two of them, Beit el Hana and Auberge St. Michael, were created with support from the Noujaims, in an attempt to move the town past its tragic history and into a prosperous future.
Beit el Hana, which was launched in association with the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT), is a beautifully restored, traditional mountain house with six comfortable, roomy suites (each with a private bath), and a spacious terrace featuring arm and lounge chairs, and, yes, a hammock, all perfect for unwinding, napping and enjoying the fresh mountain air.
Breakfast, which is included in the price of the room, is a traditional Lebanese feast of white cheese, labneh, bread, olives, tomatoes, zaatar with olive oil and locally made apple jam. The morning meal is served at the adjacent Auberge St. Michael, either on the open-air terrace or inside in the main dining room. Housed in an old monastery that has been transformed into a 90-bed hostel, Auberge St. Michael (like Beit el Hana) is operated by Arc en Ciel, a Lebanese NGO working with and for persons with handicaps, with a particular focus on youth and their development. A historic old convent, Auberge St. Michael was converted into a hostel in an attempt to breathe new life into old village institutions that have lost their traditional functions in a modern era. When it opened a few years back, it was Lebanon’s first hostel dedicated primarily to ecotourism.
This year, Auberge St. Michael, with support from the European Committee, has also added eight new stand-alone, one-room bungalows, each equally spacious, similarly furnished and ideal for a couple, and located a few minutes from the Auberge. Named Ecolodge Maasser, the development features wood bungalows, each with a small private patio facing the village’s public park, with stunning views overlooking the valley.
After breakfast, it’s time to discover the stunning surroundings. The best way to explore the village itself – the main and off roads – is on bikes, which are available for rental on-site. For the more adventurous, the area also boasts great hiking through the nature reserve along the LMT, with breathtaking views of the Shouf region. The reserve’s program lists a number of other ecotourism activities, including snowshoeing (when there’s snow, of course), donkey back riding, animal observation, stargazing and mountain climbing. And, there are numerous benches throughout, where the only muscle activity required is to sign in disbelief (at the magnificent trees, your surroundings and the view of the world).
A short drive from the reserve to Jabal el Maasser, and you’re at a wonderful spot for more hiking and exploring. From here, there are more breathtaking views, this time of the Eastern Bekaa, the road to Hasbaya and the Ammiq wetlands, which are also part of the reserve. Ammiq is where Lebanese restaurateur Kamal Mouzawak, with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Shouf Cedar Reserve, just opened a second outpost of his traditional Lebanese eatery Tawlet.
In the heady summer season, Maasser el Shouf comes alive with a number of eco-friendly festivals, like the Masser Festival (Jabalna), which celebrates organic products, during the month of September.
With its face now resolutely turned to the future, Maasser el Shouf can easily serve as a model for other Lebanon mountain towns, inspiring them to overcome the wounds of the recent past and look to a new beginning.
By May Farah