x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Le Gray, Beirut

Beirut's first design hotel is a fabulous place to stay, and just about as swish and slick as you could imagine. It remains to be seen, however, if ironing out the early imperfections can justify the hefty price tag.

The heated, chlorine-free infinity pool on the Le Gray's roof offers a view of Mount Lebanon.
The heated, chlorine-free infinity pool on the Le Gray's roof offers a view of Mount Lebanon.

A Lamborghini with Abu Dhabi licence plates is parked outside Le Gray when our less-than-glamorous transfer bus drops us outside; still, bags are seized and inside the lobby before we are. There's a group of us, so there's a slight scramble to get bags and bodies through the X-ray security system and into the otherwise chic reception area. A very pretty backlit white metal wall panel with the shapes of flowers and dragonflies cut through it hangs at the front of the lobby. The check-in area is welcoming, with two low desks and comfy chairs at each. A small elephant made out of multicoloured buttons, by local artist Nadim Karam, sits in front of the check-in area.

Le Gray is a brand new, purpose-built, seven-storey modern building on the edge of Solidere, the newly rebuilt and reconstructed downtown area of Beirut. The hotel fronts onto Martyrs' Square: behind is the scrubbed Al Amin mosque, St George's Cathedral and the Roman Cardo Maximus; the other side of the hotel is on the smart Rue Weygand; rooms on this side offer fleeting views of the sea and port. It's an almost perfect location, with the new cafes, restaurants and shops of Solidere on your doorstep and the Corniche and Achrafiye within five minutes' walking distance. There is, however, still a lot of building work and traffic around, and the patch of land behind the hotel is an eyesore - though a scenic "Garden of Forgiveness" is in the pipeline.

Most of the hotel's visitors are Lebanese - young, old, smart and casual - some women with dark glasses in heaps of make-up, but overall, not too blingy. However, the hotel pitches itself internationally, and guests staying in the hotel (as opposed to just using its bars and restaurants) hail mainly from the Gulf, Europe and the Far East, as well as Lebanon. Business travellers for the moment at least outnumber holidaymakers.

Le Gray has 87 rooms and suites; most are executive suites, which are 60 square metres and come in a range of three colour schemes - purple, blue and green - each with matching carpets and curtains. The first room I was allocated was on the noisy corner of Rue Weygrand and Martyrs' Square - the windows didn't close properly so I moved to a quieter room at the back of the hotel. All the hotel's interiors are by Mary Fox Linton - a British designer who has styled all of Gordon Campbell Gray's hotels including Duke's and One Aldwich in London. I liked the grey textured wallpaper on the wall behind the bed, the sturdy but elegant Perspex and stone bookshelf beneath the television and the sumptuous brown marble bathrooms with rainbath showers and mosaic floors; also the easy-to-adjust lighting system. The Loewe wall-mounted television was slow to load, however, and one of my bedside lamps wasn't working - teething problems no doubt, but irritating if you're paying the rack rate of US$539 (Dh1,979) per night or more.

Generally warm and attentive, though it took over an hour to move me to a different room after I complained about the road noise and the non-closing windows. Reception dealt directly with small requests that could have been directed to housekeeping, which was a nice touch. Reception staff were helpful without being intrusive or subservient; the staff in the bars and restaurants were available without being oppressive or over-the-top - almost the perfect combination - and there were plenty of them.

There are three restaurants and two bars. Gordon's Cafe is an informal coffee shop on the ground floor that serves organic Lebanese food including salads, fish and home-made pasta; Indigo on the Roof is a formal but relaxed international fine-dining restaurant and the Pool Lounge is a trendy cafe serving breakfast and light snacks. A three-course meal at Indigo costs $90 (Dh330) per person and there is plenty of choice: I had an endive, Roquefort and walnut salad, cod with vegetable cous cous and sticky date pudding. The bread is excellent, and baked on-site.

The views from the four bars and restaurants - and their terraces - at the top of the hotel. Watching a lightning storm over the sea from the newly opened Bar ThreeSixty, swimming in the heated, chlorine-free rooftop infinity pool with views of Mount Lebanon in one direction and the Warhol-esque Pool Lounge in the other; the snug Cigar Lounge, still with views of the Al Amin mosque, and Indigo, with its hugely spacious yet intimate eating areas and great views out over downtown Beirut. I loved the offer of free laptop rental (and free Wi-Fi) - allowing guests on short trips to leave their laptops at home and still work from their rooms. The spa, with its dark American cedar wood corridors and thick, heated massage beds - as well as the treatments themselves - was excellent. A 30-minute Jet Lag Recovery treatment costs $55 (Dh202).

I thought the exterior of the hotel, designed by Kevin Dash, was dull, and I didn't like the dark carpet or the piano and accompanying singer in Bar ThreeSixty - it reminded me of an airport. The rooms on the second floor at the front of the hotel seem to suffer from road noise - so triple-glazing or better-fitting windows would be necessary to ensure a good night's sleep - telling customers like me that it can't be helped because of the hotel's location just doesn't cut it. As with the rest of the city, the hotel suffers from daily power cuts - a generator kicks in almost immediately, but on one occasion I was left in darkness in the bathroom for several minutes.

Beirut's first design hotel is a fabulous place to stay, and just about as swish and slick as you could imagine. It remains to be seen, however, if ironing out the early imperfections can justify the hefty price tag.

Prices start at $539 (Dh1,980) for a 40 sq m deluxe room to $6,050 (Dh22,220), for the two-bedroom, 220 sq m presidential suite; both including taxes. Le Gray, Martyrs' Square, Central Beirut District (www.legray.com; 00961 1 971 111).