For getaway from Beirut, Lebanese Christians head for the slopes

High on Mt. Lebanon, a group of businessmen is offering a multimillion-dollar haven to war-weary Lebanese -- the ski slopes of Faqra. Beirut looks deceptively tranquil from the snow-covered mountainside -- a cluster of concrete and stone buildings beside the bay, bathed in the still-warm sun of the Mediterranean winter.

``Faqra is the only ski resort in Lebanon where you can see the capital,'' says Nicholas Cattan, manager of the Faqra Club. ``But it is good to be up here and not down there with the bombs.''

Faqra, which opened in 1981, was fully booked Christmas weekend by wealthy Lebanese. They were getting away from a capital racked by sectarian violence.

Most of the investors who developed the resort and the majority of club members, who pay an annual fee of 2,000 Lebanese pounds [about $250], are Christians. Christian Phalangist militiamen stationed less than a mile away often turn up at Faqra's disco on weekends.

Once, years before the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Mr. Cattan says, Israeli Cabinet minister Ariel Sharon lunched with then-Phalange militia leader Bashir Gemayel at the cozy restaurant near Faqra's slopes. Cattan himself briefly belonged to the Phalange militia. He left Lebanon after the civil war began in 1975 to attend a Swiss hotel school.

Before the war, Mt. Lebanon was a favored retreat of all Lebanese. Now, few Muslims or foreigners go there any more.

``You're the first tourists I've seen in years,'' Cattan told a pair of reporters.

Most guests come only for the weekend. Waiting at the end of their two-hour car trip from east Beirut, they find a complex whose owners envisioned in 1973 as the first planned resort community in Lebanon. Faqra was the brainchild of Lebanese banker Raymond Audi, who, with a group of Lebanese businessmen, bought 2 million square meters of land on the slopes above the village of Fahriya.

Audi and his fellow investors wanted to build something different, Cattan says, a resort village where members would buy plots of land and build private villas.

The Faqra hotel was intended to serve only as a promotion for land sales, according to Cattan. But as war shattered Lebanon, the dream of Faqra retreated.

Today, only 12 villas have been built around the hotel, and most of those have been built by the original investors. Development is stymied, Cattan says, by the lack of governmental authority on the mountain. All roads, power stations, sewage systems, and communications systems in the area must be built by the resort itself. Cattan says that some $15 million has been spent on Faqra so far.

Indeed, every detail seems to have been attended to: There is a squash court, sauna, workout room, billard and game room, TV room, restaurant with a view of the mountains, bar, lounge, and disco in the hotel itself. Outside are a swimming pool, four tennis courts, and a pub built stone by stone by an elderly craftsman. The hotel's 20 rooms are rented to nonmembers for about $100 a night.

Why did the businessmen keep pouring money into a resort while war raged around them?

``You know they are fond of this place,'' Cattan says. ``When people come here, they don't speak about politics, they come here to have a rest from it, to have fun. The owners believe in it.''

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