Befitting a city known for its acquisitiveness, the start of the Beirut summer is annually announced with the Garden Show and Spring Festival, held this year from May 29 to June 2. This showy extravaganza of competitive floral arranging, gardening demonstrations and Edenic bowers filled with designer flowers imported from around the world is the city dweller's answer to the great outdoors. But Lebanon isn't all about expensive hothouse blooms. For those seeking inspiration in green shoots rather than in what greenbacks can buy, Beirut and its environs offer plenty of urban (and close to urban) oases. All it takes is a sense of adventure and a sturdy pair of shoes.
Almost entirely mountainous, Lebanon offers some fantastic hiking opportunities, from lazy strolls along deep river canyons to summits of biblical proportion. (Literally: 2,814-m-high Mount Hermon, which straddles the border of Syria and Lebanon, marked the northern boundary of the Promised Land.) But you don't have to be an experienced outdoor person to partake. LIBAN TREK (libantrek.com) offers regular daylong group hikes to some of the country's most extraordinary destinations. It caters to a slightly older crowd, not because the hikes are easy the regulars are quite fit but because younger folks are less likely to make it to the weekly 7:30 a.m. Sunday departure if they have been enjoying Beirut's famously late-night party scene.
Liban Trek's multilingual guides offer varied trails and sights; one recent excursion took in plunging waterfalls, deep swimming holes and a 16th century stone bridge buried deep in the forest. Wild cyclamen, more ethereal and leggy than their potted city cousins, are the hallmark of the Lebanese late spring, but wild roses, poppies and purple thistle can be found all summer long.
For a quicker green fix, head over to SOUK EL TAYEB ( soukeltayeb.com ), Beirut's only farmers' market, on Saturday mornings. Along with locally grown vegetables and fruits, you can pick up Lebanese mouni traditional preserves that mountain villagers once relied on during the harsh winters. Try local wild honey, salty soft cheeses in olive oil, flavorful tomato pastes, pomegranate molasses and za'atar, the blend of thyme, sesame seed and sumac that is an essential element of any Lebanese breakfast. The farmer-vendors are always eager to share a taste of their wares, offering passersby samples of home-cured olives and fig jam. Don't be alarmed by the piles of surreal-looking wild rhubarb now in season. They may look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, but the crisp, sour stalks are a refreshing snack that will whet the appetite for lunch.
Inspired by the array of local produce but lacking a kitchen? Head over to TAWLET (tawlet.com), a restaurant operated by the same outfit that runs the farmers' market. It's a leafy green refuge incongruously tucked at the back of a strip-mall parking lot in a nondescript part of town where the ethos of the Slow Food movement is ascendant. The lunch-only buffet menu changes daily and features the cuisine of different regions, cooked by visiting chefs from all over the country. Recent offerings included a divine dish of sautéed local greens with almonds, pumpkin-stuffed kibbe (minced bulgur, corn, onion and beef croquettes), and organic chicken braised in a stew of onions, tomatoes and local broad beans, all washed down with copious cups of the local arrack. For those who prefer a clear head after lunch, minted lemonade is an equally tasty accompaniment.
This being Beirut, it's possible to combine fashion and fresh air at the newly opened Zaituna Bay marina in downtown. Once a refuse dump, this elegant esplanade takes pedestrians past multimillion-dollar yachts toward a hotel-and-entertainment complex due to open next year. In the meantime, the chic restaurants lining the teak-and-basalt walkway offer alfresco dining at its people-watching best.
If you can tear your eyes away from the spectacle of women attempting to board yachts in 12-cm-high Louboutins, look up the coast, past the umbrellas, the champagne bar and the imported palms, toward the 8-hectare construction site hugging the shoreline. Another high-rise condo project? Nope. In 2017, the city of Beirut plans to open a massive waterfront park and outdoor recreation area with unobstructed views of both the sea and the snow-covered mountains that have helped put Lebanon on the map. In a city chronically short of green space, this will finally be an urban oasis that residents can call their own.