I've Never Felt Safer Than When I Holidayed In A Former War Zone
'There's trouble there!' is probably the first thought that comes to mind when someone mentions a trip to Lebanon.
And first impressions don't really do much to prove that wrong, with the drive from Beirut-Rafic Hariri Airport taking you past street corners riddled with bullet holes.
But then things change.
All of a sudden there are also lovely new apartment buildings under construction that could be in any suburb of Sydney or Melbourne. You see local shops and people walking on the side of the road, just like any other country.
After an hour's drive from the airport, I arrive at the village Karm Saddeh. I get out and stop for a second to look at this fabulous view. I can't believe my eyes.
Is this really Lebanon?
Once a mainstay of Lebanon's economy, tourism has been challenging, since 2011 when conflict erupted in neighboring Syria.
But Lebanon is hoping for its best tourist season in a decade, due to a rise in European visitors and a return of Saudis, whose government lifted a travel warning this year.
Revenue from tourism will exceed $10.3 billion in 2019, nearly 46 percent more than last year, according to Lebanon's Tourism Ministry.
And like my recent visit, Australia's large (and growing) Lebanese diaspora also contribute to this growth.
In the 1960s, Beirut was considered a popular tourist destination and cosmopolitan city. It was called "Little Paris" and there are still French influences today. People speak up to three languages: Arabic, French and English.
Many people think Lebanon is still in the midst of war when the last major conflict ended in 2006, which is believed to have killed up to 1,300 Lebanese people and more than 150 Israelis. It did not only grievously damage Lebanese civil infrastructure, it displaced nearly one million civilians.
Since The Second Lebanon War, the country aimed to develop and reclaim the beauty of what was destroyed. Lebanon still has a long way to go, but that doesn't stop the people's attitude nor perseverance to enjoy life's simplicities.
Lebanese people are known and appreciated for their diverse culture and hospitable nature. They pride themselves on respect and family and are very generous when it comes to food.
One night I sat down for dinner with family and friends overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. We ordered a three-meal course thinking the quantity would be the same as in Sydney.
That was before three waiters came out carrying platters of food over their heads -- and that was just the entree. They asked if we'd like coffee, but we were too full. A waiter then came out with a massive fruit platter fit to feed an army.
From there I headed to my village at Buhairet Toula where I visited family members I'd never met before. We told them we had already eaten but they wouldn't take no for an answer.
So, we ate again.
Piece of advice: if you visit family members in Lebanon, don't eat the day before.
Go out in Beirut and don't expect to come home before dawn. Lebanon's nightlife scene guarantees a memorable experience, especially at places like Caprice, Al Mandaloun, Music Hall and Sky Bar, where they play the top hits of American, French and even Italian music. And like Sydney clubs Ivy, Marquee and The Carter, the dress code is pretty much the same.
But the best part... no lockout laws.
If you are in Beirut during summer months, then going to the beach is a must. Places like Veer Boutique Hotel and Resort are accessible to the public. With a cafe on site, a live DJ and a bar inside the pool, its stylish atmosphere overlooking the Med will definitely leave you feeling like you're floating in paradise, quite literally as there's so much salt in the ocean.
Any beach you go to in Lebanon feels like a day club. You can drink, smoke apple and mint shisha while relaxing in 40 degree heat, and don't worry about sand -- there are stairs that lead you straight into the ocean. It's like you're on your own private little island.
Lebanon's coastal region was the site of some of the oldest human settlements in the world and is an inheritor to a chain of Mediterranean culture such as Greek, Arab and Phoenician.
If beaches or nightclubs aren't your thing make sure you drive up to Baalbek, the Phoenician city of Lebanon where Roman, Christian and Islamic gods were worshiped during Roman times.
According to UNESCO, Baalbek became one of the most celebrated sanctuaries of the ancient world, progressively overlaid with colossal constructions which were built over more than two centuries.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Lebanon. I even believed some of them. But as soon as I stepped out of that airport onto Lebanese soil, everything changed.
As a woman travelling to a foreign country, I have never personally felt safer or more protected than walking around the streets of what was once called a war zone.
I can't wait to go back next year.