|The quick and easy way to pamper yourself in Lebanon's capital
|'A Hedonist's Guide to Beirut' may sound detached, but this book published in London is actually user-friendly
Visitors to the Lebanese capital eager to soak up the atmosphere of Beirut have a new guidebook to turn to. As part of the London-based series "A Hedonist's Guide to ...," a book on Beirut has now joined the list of existing titles on Berlin, Madrid, Marrakech, and more. Ramsay Short - who is, in the interests of full disclosure, the arts and culture editor for The Daily Star - spent four months taking stock of how to eat, drink and party throughout the city.
The result is a classy little guidebook that will satisfy first time visitors and transitory Beirut residents alike.
With its black cover and minimalist design, "A Hedonist's Guide to Beirut" might seem to be just another book that would look good on your desk or coffee table but which nobody would actually use. It is, however, worth walking around with. Unlike most tourist guides, it does not try to decide for the reader what makes a perfect stay in Beirut. Rather, it provides all the information visitors need to create their own Beirut experience.
Tourists who need turn-left-then-look-right-style walking tours to feel like they're on vacation might want to look elsewhere for another guidebook. But those who would rather get insider advice from a like-minded local than having to read through densely written pages on indigenous flora and fauna will be perfectly happy. Why? Because this guidebook will actually save them time for enjoying their trip. The descriptions of venues and locals are to the point, so you won't spend hours wandering through the streets of Beirut just to find a plausible spot to spend your Saturday night. Using "A Hedonist's Guide," it will actually take you less than five minutes to discover "the one" restaurant, bar or nightclub in a given neighborhood that suits your mood, musical inclination and attire.
Thus, the guidebook is as practical as it is stylish. All sections (titled "Sleep," "Drink," "Snack, "Party," "Culture," "Shop" and "Info") consist of extensive reviews and photographs that reveal the spirit of each particular place. And this not only concerns the color of couches and cocktail prices. "A Hedonist's Guide" also tells you whether you'll mingle with a crowd of artists and intellectuals or rub shoulders with Beirut's rich and beautiful. In short, the guidebook makes you feel you know the city even before you've ever been there.
The only letdown comes from the fact that real hedonists are often also low-budget travelers. For them, the guidebook focuses a bit too much on gourmet food and elegant hotels. Especially since the guidebook is written for a young and mainly Western target audience, it would have been a good idea to include some of Beirut's more affordable hotels. (Admittedly, reading the hotel section is fun for those who are not jet setters and would never dream of spending $500 a night on a room anywhere in the world, but it leaves them wanting other sources of practical information to find a place to stay.)
In the restaurant and nightlife section, the balance between hedonism and unashamed decadence works well. With reviews of such places as Gemmayzeh's Le Chef and Hamra's De Prague, the guidebook features solid value-for-money options for people who appreciate an authentic atmosphere over fancy drinks.
"A Hedonist's Guide" is not particularly strong on culture or tourist sites, but then again, that's not the purpose of the overall series, either. Given the few pages dedicated to excursions out of Beirut, it covers the essentials of traveling in Lebanon and outdoes other guidebooks with precise descriptions of private beach resorts.
The most enduring problem addling guidebooks of this sort which focus on restaurants and nightlife - ie, the limited longevity of venues - has been dealt with intelligently here. Even though the pace of change in Beirut makes it difficult to stay up to date, readers of "A Hedonist's Guide" need not fear that everything will have changed by the time they arrive. For every buyer of the book, free and regular updates are available on www.ahedonistsguideto.com, a Web site dedicated to keeping the guidebook series current.
"A Hedonist's Guide to Beirut" is great reading for Westerners who still tend to associate Beirut with sniper fire and guerilla fighting and who rarely imagine a city hell-bent on restoring its title as the Middle East's premier party capital. If you're coming to Beirut because you're a political scientist studying deeply divided societies, this guidebook will give you an occasional break. If you're coming because you fancy pampering yourself with great food and glamorous nightlife, it will become an accessory of choice.
Ramsay Short's "A Hedonist's Guide to Beirut" is available now at Virgin. For more information, check out www.ahedonistsguideto.com
The Daily Star