As the mango shaped island of Sri Lanka emerges from a two-plus decades civil war, hope and optimism prevail since the 2015 open election when Maithripala Sirisena became president. This is most evident in its commercial capital of Colombo where foreign investment is high, building is at breakneck speed and tourism is on the rise. The cultural polyglot of various Colombo neighborhoods resulting in great cuisine, coupled with impressive architecture – both Colonial-era and modernist – and warm Sri Lankan hospitality, makes Colombo a wonderful stop in South Asia.
The newest shining star in Colombo’s skyline is the Shangri-La Hotel Colombo that opened in November 2017. Located in the city’s northern Fort section – originally the site of the 16th century Portuguese fortifications – is within walking distance to the area’s main historical sites.
There are 541 beautifully appointed rooms, suites and fully equipped one and two bedroom apartments (with an adjacent, mixed-use tower currently under construction). It has a state-of-the-art fitness center, swimming pool with large, dreamy daybeds overlooking the Indian Ocean, and signature Chi Spa, where highly skilled masseuses will utterly decimate any jet lag remains. It also counts several restaurants from which to choose, serving expertly prepared Western, Sri Lankan and Chinese cuisine, rendering it very difficult to depart. Book a room with access to the Horizon Club Lounge on the 32nd floor with great breakfasts, hors d’oeuvres, happy hours and those striking views. Make sure and look up while in the lobby and other public spaces There are gorgeous, lily-shaped, massive Czech crystal chandeliers that grace the ceilings. No. 1 Centre Road Galle Face, Colombo 2.
The Old Dutch Hospital, originally used to care for Dutch East India Company employees, has been carefully restored and now houses shops, cafes and the Ministry of Crab restaurant. On the 2017 list of Asia’s top 50 restaurants, you’ll dine on delicious crab, but will probably need your shirt laundered afterwards. No. 4, Old Dutch Hospital, Colombo 1.
Have lunch or cocktails at Tintagel Colombo, the magnificent former Prime Minister’s residence, now a 10-suite boutique hotel in the fashionable Cinnamon Gardens area. Built in 1928, this refurbished Colonial-era building has dark woods, period pieces and a gleaming balustrade. Here one can easily channel their inner lordship. 65 Rosemead Place, Colombo 7.
Meander the grounds of the iconic Galle Face Hotel once known as ‘The best Hotel East of Suez.’ Built in 1864, it’s been gloriously restored. Then have high tea in Victorian style or a sundowner at sunset along the seafront facing the Galle Face Green. 2 Galle Road, Colombo 3.
At Shangri-La Hotel Colombo’s Capital Bar & Grille, there’s live jazz six nights a week. At its signature restaurant, Shang Palace, I gorged on more crab – is there ever enough crab? – and a variety of expertly prepared Dim Sum that you can watch being made in its expansive open kitchen. At its Sri Lankan themed bar and trendy restaurant Kaema Sutra, a wall of colorful traditional masks are a great backdrop to watch the hip sip, admire ocean views and enjoy delectable new takes on traditional cuisine. Try the roti pizza where curries replace tomato sauce and for dessert enjoy ‘What the Hopper,’ a large flour shell with whipped curd, sliced strawberries and palm treacle.
To get my bearings, I took a five-hour city tour in a trishaw, a three-wheeler, 150cc motorcycle with a covered rear carriage. My kind driver, who inexplicably went by the name Donald Duck, deftly negotiated Colombo’s crowded streets with Job’s patience and skills of Mario Andretti.
Our first stops were Simamalakaya Temple along the Beira River and Gangaramaya Temple, one of Colombo’s most important shrines. In the main hall with its several Buddhas, look upwards here too to see the intricate ceiling frescoes reflecting old Colombo.
At Royal College Park and at nearly every park or other public space, one can see cricket being played. As much national obsession as sport, it is enthusiastically played even during the steamy midday heat.
Just next to Independence Hall is Independence Arcade, a Colonial-era building once used as an insane asylum and now impeccably restored. You’ll want to browse here if you’re in dire need of a Hugo Boss or Tommy Hilfiger shirt or other upscale item.
Nearby, the National Museum is housed in another magnificent Colonial-era building built in 1877. The best exhibits are in halls seven, eight and 14, housing respectively, the painting gallery with rare copies of ancient murals, textiles containing palanquin covers and ceremonial clothing and Sri Lankan masks.
The late architect Geoffrey Bawa is thought to be one of Asia’s most important. Originally trained as a lawyer, Bawa had a long and distinguished architectural career completing more than 200 projects, including the new parliament. At No. 11, 33rd Lane, one of his signature homes can be visited on pre-booked tours.
At Paradise Road The Gallery, Café, Bar & Shop, once used as Bawa’s offices and owned now by the same group as Tintagel, has wonderful installations that change monthly and feature talented Sri Lankan artists. Housed in yet another lovingly restored Colonial-era set of buildings, it’s interior is complete with a large koi pond.
Wanting more, the next day I joined Mark Forbes, a local Colombo expert for a walking tour of Colombo’s Fort area. Stopping at the Chatham Street Lighthouse Clock Tower, designed by Lady Steinberg Ward that opened in 1857 and used until 1952, it’s touted as the only lighthouse clock tower in the world. Another lovely Colonial-era building, the red-facade Cargill’s department store – now empty – was once the grand dame of Colombo retail. Nearby, the Grand Oriental Hotel, known as GOH, once boasted in its heyday that it had “The best modern system of drainage.” Anton Chekhov once stayed here among other notables, and while the views of the landing stage from the restaurant are good, it no longer possesses its old panache.
Meandering through the colorful Pettah Market, there are four main streets: textiles, flowers, bling and spices. It’s a crowded, colorful Mecca of commerce in all of its chaotic forms. According to Mark, “One can have a suit made here in two hours, but buyer beware, it will probably last just for three!”
If while perusing Pettah you hear someone yell, “side, side, side,” get out of the way quickly because those heavy carts carrying all sorts of wares have no brakes. Within Pettah, the massive Grand Red Mosque can hold 16,000 worshippers.
The best way
Flying from Los Angeles, San Francisco or Vancouver, the best way to Colombo is on award-winning Cathay Pacific Airways. Cathay Pacific offers non-stop service from those cities to Hong Kong, including three daily from San Francisco with one flight a day using its Airbus 350-900 XWB, three daily flights from Los Angeles, and 17 flights per week from Vancouver, also using the Airbus 350-900 XWB. Following a brief layover in Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific has non-stop service onward to Colombo. Or one can stop in Hong Kong for a few days and enjoy that world class city as well.
For comprehensive tailor-made travel in Sri Lanka, award-winning Scott Dunn Private Journeys can arrange custom trips, including accommodations, meals, activities and knowledgable, English-speaking driver/guides. Based on 10-night itineraries, rates start at $4,000 per person, excluding international air. Tel 858/523-9000.
The lesson learned
Few places in the world have the historical, cultural, and architectural diversity of Sri Lanka. Nowhere is perhaps this more true than in the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ and its commercial capital of Colombo.
Julie L. Kessler is an attorney, legal columnist and travel writer based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book: Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight. She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.