As founder and CEO of the members-only travel company, Indagare, Melissa Biggs Bradley is constantly on the road scouting up-and-coming destinations and revisiting favorite ones (she traveled 118 days last year!). When she is in the office, Melissa works hands on with her team to curate Insider Journeys—special, immersive travel experiences around the world to places like Egypt, Lisbon, and Havana. Recently back from Beirut, Lebanon, where she was scouting for an upcoming journey in collaboration with Architectural Digest, we sat down with Melissa to learn about her favorite trips of the past year, travel go-tos, and the beautiful and complicated city of Beirut, which thanks to her, has risen to the top of our travel wishlist.
Tell us about Indagare.
Indagare is a members-only, boutique travel-planning company offering curated content, customized trip-planning and bespoke group trips around passion points. We help our members realize their travel visions by designing special journeys and unlocking behind-the-scenes access and exclusive perks.
What inspired you to start the company?
When I founded Indagare, I wanted to create a new platform for exchange between like-minded, passionate travelers. My aim was to bring together an engaged community and a top-notch booking service to allow for more memorable journeys and meaningful global connections.
What is your role there today? What does your day-to-day look like?
As Founder and CEO, I am constantly on the road scouting up-and-coming destinations and revisiting favorite ones (I traveled 118 days last year). When I am in the office, I’m working hands-on with my team; right now with our Insider Journeys team we are developing and planning special, immersive experiences around the world in places like Egypt, Lebanon, Lisbon and Havana.
Three most memorable trips in 2018?
I began last year with a trip to Saudi Arabia, where I was moved by the destination’s larger-than-life cultural treasures (such as Al-Ula), and the fact that we were some of the few tourists to experience them. There is a real magic to visiting a destination on the cusp of change.
In the fall, I traveled to one of my favorite cities in the world, Marrakech, on Indagare’s Insider Journey with Architectural Digest. The trip offered behind-the-scenes tours of private homes and gardens, including Villa Oasis, the former home of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. We had cocktails at Marisa Berenson’s villa and meals at other private homes and clubs and lots of shopping, of course.
Then in November, we took over the best boat on the Nile, the Oberoi Philae, for an Insider Journey. Our group was able to meet with the legendary Dr. Zaha Hawassi to hear about the latest archaeological discoveries and also to get a hard-hat tour of the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is not yet open. We got to go into the labs where conservationists are restoring all of King Tut’s more than 5,000 treasures so we were within inches of some of the boy king’s personal belongings, which was amazing. The crowds still have not returned to Egypt, so it is a place that I think people should rush to now before it becomes overwhelmed with visitors. We are offering a number of trips there this year for that reason.
Any tips to beat jet lag?
Many flight attendants swear by this trick: eat something healthy and easy to digest before your flight, then stick to water while in the air. The idea is that avoiding salty airplane food prevents bloating and lethargy, while drinking only water keeps your digestive system from having to work extra hard once you land, reserving your body’s energy for helping you stay awake.
Name three items always in your carry-on.
Serum to hydrate my face and neck before the flight, a cashmere wrap to keep warm, and pouches of different sizes for jewelry, tech accessories, toiletries and documents.
Lately, you've been dreaming of a trip to...
Uzbekistan. I’ve been to Samarakand and loved seeing the intersection of Asian, Persian and Mediterranean civilizations along the Silk Road, but would like to spend more time there. Indagare is hosting an Insider Journey there this fall with textile designer John Robshaw hosting it, and I would love to be able to join.
On to Beirut. When did you visit? How many times have you visited if more than once?
I was there in January for the first time to scout the Insider Journey trip that we are offering with Architectural Digest this spring. I had planned a trip in 2012 and had to cancel because of tensions in the region but it surpassed my very high expectations and I am looking forward to returning soon.
Describe it to someone who has never been.
Beirut is a modern and multi-layered city with many cultural paradoxes; it’s a place where you’ll find precious ancient ruins that span civilizations juxtaposed with bullet-riddled buildings and sleek modern architecture by Zaha Hadid and Herzog and de Meuron. Religions coexist and have for centuries and you find the melding of cultures in its food, architecture and the fact that most people are trilingual, speaking English, French and Arabic. The city sits on the Mediterranean with the mountains behind it but there are scars of its many wars that are also present. The food and hospitality are legendary. And thanks to a newly formed government, the city is rising again and embracing creative energy fueled by its inhabitants’ heritage, innovation and serious grit.
What time of year would you recommend visiting?
Beirut has a relatively mild climate; even in winter, the temperature does not drop much below 50°, but summer can be muggy and hot. Spring and fall are the best time to go, when temperatures are in the 60s and 70s.
Describe a perfect day in Beirut. (*for a first-time visitor)
I would spend the morning exploring the historical city and archaeological sites and Ottoman mosques, ancient churches and Roman baths, before lunch at Tawlet, which serves delicious regional recipes prepared by female home cooks. Then you can spend the afternoon museum-hopping (see recommendations below) or delving into the city’s shopping scene, with a tour of a few innovative local boutiques. Finish the day with dinner at Liza, one of the most stylish restaurants in Beirut, with a fashionable crowd to match.
What are the must-see sights?
The city center’s many mosques, the Pigeon’s Grotto rock formation, the Grand Serail (the headquarters of the Prime Minister of Lebanon)—not to mention the museums. Byblos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is located roughly 20 miles north of Beirut. The ancient Roman ruins at Tyre and Baalbek are in areas that are currently not considered safe to visit but when that changes, they would be on my list for day two.
Name 2-3 best restaurants. What would you recommend ordering?
Em Sherif, for a big night out with shisha and music; Liza, for glamorous rooms and memorable mezze; and Falafel Sahyoun for the best tahini to takeaway. Order classics, such as falafels, hummus, tabbouleh and shwarma, and don't miss knafeh, a cheese-filled semolina dough soaked in sweet syrup.
Any great places for cocktails or coffee?
Be sure to visit a rooftop bar to take in the views. Hotel Albergo has a charming rooftop restaurant with views over the city and lantern-lit tables. Another favorite is Skybar, which overlooks the sea on the waterfront. For coffee, go for a warm latte from BackBurner Coffee Shop.
Where would you recommend staying while visiting and why?
Le Gray is a sexy modern choice located in the heart of downtown. The Four Seasons is the city’s largest luxury hotel, a gleaming skyscraper overlooking the harbor.
What are the best stores unique to Beirut and what can you find there?
Bokja for embroidery that highlights the talents of refugees; Nada Debs, for eclectic furnishings; Sarah’s Bags for hand-crafted accessories with a social impact; Rabih Kayrouz, for timeless statement pieces. Artisans du Liban also highlights the work of local artisans.
Any antique stores you'd recommend?
Bokja is a treasure trove of antique textiles and reclaimed furniture.
Anywhere you would avoid (like a touristy spot that people recommend that you think is overrated)?
Luckily nowhere in Beirut is over-touristed, but don’t expect to find an old souk. The historical market place was leveled during the civil war. It has been redeveloped into a glitzy area with streets filled with luxury labels like Hermès that is called the souk but is more of a fancy mall.
Anything a visitor should be aware of prior to visiting?
Beirut is again in the midst of rebirth, and so visiting now is like getting to see a destination during dress rehearsal for its return to the world stage. The kinks are not all worked out, so you get to witness the creative process, the mistakes and the recoveries, the blunders and the brainstorms. It is currently listed by the State Department as a Reconsider Travel destination so you should be fully aware of travel advisories.
Name three favorite cultural institutions (museums/galleries/foundations)?
Sursock Museum, one of Beirut’s best modern and contemporary art museums; the National Museum of Beirut, the principal museum of archaeology in Lebanon; and the Archaeological Museum at the American University of Beirut, which also has beautiful grounds that have been declared a botanical garden.
Any notable neighborhoods you wouldn't miss?
Corniche, the seaside promenade connecting eastern and western Beirut. It has spectacular views and the popular Sporting Beach Club, an outdoor pool and restaurant that has been managed by the same family for the past half-century.
Any insider secrets to share?
If you’re visiting on a Saturday, stop by the Souk el Tayeb, the weekly farmers’ market, where you can try fresh mannoush, a type of Lebanese pizza normally eaten for breakfast.
Any songs, albums or playlists that remind you of the city?
I highly recommend everyone watch the film Capernaum, directed by Nadine Labaki. Set in Beirut, the documentary tackles a new form of social activism and is the first Lebanese film to be nominated for an Oscar. Oprah even tweeted that everyone should watch it.
Bokja. Photo Courtesy of Melissa Biggs Bradley.
If someone wanted to combine Beirut with another destination, where would you recommend?
Beirut is a destination in its own right, as there are so many day trips to take beyond the city. However, Paris or Istanbul have regular flights to Beirut and make great complimentary stopovers since both have influenced Beirut.
When are you next returning? We hear you are doing a trip with AD.
I am returning in April, leading an Insider Journey with Gay Gassmann, AD's contributing editor based in Europe. This inaugural Lebanon journey will include expert-guided touring, private visits to top design houses, cultural activities like a cooking class with locals, and festive meals at palaces and restaurants.
Favorite memory of the city.
There is not one memory that stands out beyond the extraordinary people I met. There are many traits attributed to Lebanese, but perhaps the most universally acknowledged are a zest for enjoying life and a welcoming attitude toward guests. When you visit, you will frequently hear the Arabic greeting “ahlan wasahlan,” which means Welcome, but is literally translated, “you’ve come to stay with family.”
To you, Beirut is... a lesson in life with lots of beauty but also tragedy. Anthony Bourdain said it best when he visited: “The food’s delicious, the people are awesome. It’s a party town. And everything wrong with the world is there.”