There are some holidays I remember for the sheer indulgence they allowed my otherwise frugal soul. Then there are those that remain etched in the mind for their bounty of natural sights and sounds. And then there is Sri Lanka, a potent mix of both.
To be entirely honest, despite its regular appearances in lists of cool tropical destinations to visit, I had never given this tiny island nation near the southern tip of India much thought. In my head, Sri Lanka registered as the navy blue jersey-clad cricket team that played against India all too frequently (and, to my delight, lost most of the big matches).
I was forced to reconsider my opinion, of both country and cricket team, on a recent visit. The 40-minute drive from Bandaranaike International Airport to the recently opened Shangri-La in the heart of Colombo took us through verdant fields on both sides of a smooth highway. The hotel is a towering 32-storey presence on the coastline, overlooking the Indian Ocean and the Galle Face greens. Spread over 10 acres, the Shangri-La complex is set to feature an office tower, two residential buildings and a high-end shopping mall–all in the making–apart from the hotel.
We were greeted by a spectacular dinner spread, replete with local and international flavours, at Table One, the hotel’s all-day dining restaurant. It featured live counters for kottu (local street food) and egg hoppers to extensive salad spreads, Japanese delicacies and Indian curries. The daily breakfast buffet here was equally overwhelming.
In typical tropical fashion, I spent the afternoon lounging by a shimmering pool on the sun terrace with a book and a wine cocktail. Swaying palm trees, panoramic views of the Indian Ocean and a persistent sea breeze made this spot ideal for some quiet time alone. Between soothing dips in the water, I happened to make acquaintance with the hotel’s guest singers, Oana from Romania and Kathryn Farmer from NYC. Later in the day, Oana would swoon us all with her piano rendition of Sam Smith’s ‘I’m Not The Only One’–the perfect accompaniment to Ceylon tea and towering platters of finger food in the Sapphyr Lounge. The view of the ocean from the floor-to-ceiling windows here could send anyone into an introspective spiral. But there was no time for brooding that sunlit evening, as we were swept away to the Old Colombo Fort for a two-hour city walk.
The area around the fort, a 10-minute walk from the hotel, is peppered with colonial architecture, the centrepiece being the Dutch Hospital Precinct. The space originally hosted military barracks for the Portuguese before they surrendered to a Dutch siege in the mid-17th century. The hospital, purportedly the oldest standing structure in the fort area, was built by the Dutch East India Company, hence the name. The British later transformed it into a commercial hub for tea traders. The post-colonial years saw it house apothecaries and local police departments at different times, and suffer many body blows in the civil war. In 2011, the erstwhile hospital was restored to its colonial-era glory and opened to the public. Today, the colonnade structure with its tiled roof, teak beams, five wings and two courtyards is a popular dining and shopping destination among the city’s youth and tourists alike, but its original name has persisted. Among its many restaurants is the Ministry of Crab, a world-famous venture by celebrity chef Dharshan Munidasa and Sri Lankan cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, which ranked 29 in the top 50 Asian restaurants of the world.
Other attractions on the walk included a unique clock tower that once doubled as a lighthouse for ships arriving at Ceylon (old name for Sri Lanka), a currency museum (Central Point) with a 72-foot-high brass chandelier, a post office dating back to 1895, the former presidential residence, the Senate of Ceylon partly consumed by an invasive banyan tree, and an HSBC building that sported a historical logo featuring floating wooden chests of opium, the British coat of arms and chained unicorns (you can’t make this stuff up). Thanks to its narcotic provenance, this logo was relegated to oblivion and is not found anywhere else in the world. The delightful walk ended, aptly, with pints of Lion beer in a harbour-facing balcony of the 180-year-old Grand Oriental Hotel.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan lions had mauled the Indian tigers on a cricket pitch in Dharamsala in the first match of a three-ODI series. Ego bruised and appetite lost, I sat down for dinner at Shang Palace. One of Shangri-La’s signature restaurants, it offers ‘authentic regional Chinese cuisine’, something I’ve come to dread since a week-long visit to China in 2015 introduced me to their (mis)interpretations of vegetarian food. But the chef had some decadent surprises up his sleeve. While the meat lovers on the table enjoyed king prawns, wok-fried crab, kung pao chicken and Peking duck cooked in a guest-facing oven and carved by the table, I hogged on the veggies– marinated cucumber with garlic and sesame dressing, vegetarian dumplings, mapo tofu and more. Named after a Chinese dynasty, Shang Palace serves regional cuisine from the provinces of Sichuan, Dongbei and Canton. Its architecture is inspired by traditional siheyuan houses and features old wooden beams merged with modern furnishings.
Lunch the next day, however, was not as sympathetic to the vegetarian cause. The Ministry of Crab in the Dutch Hospital Precinct has precious little to offer those who don’t eat seafood. As I munched on chunks of garlic bread and endured a serving of garlic rice with kankung (water spinach) and mushrooms, I admired the painstaking details of the restaurant’s dÃ©cor. The tablemats are orange in keeping with the Dutch history of the premises; crab-claw plants dot the tables; oysters are served in sets of six on a bat-shaped platter, in honour of the co-founding cricketers; the walls declare “Not all crabs are made the same”, with X-rays of the shellfish to prove the point; and the customer aprons urge you to “Keep Calm And Crab On”. The crabs themselves come in 10 sizes– from ‘small’ to ‘crabzilla’ (over 2kg)– and in a variety of recipes. Though the restaurant’s ‘no refrigerator’ policy limits its capacity, it goes through nearly 200 crabs a day. Chef Dharshan, who heads Shangri-La’s contemporary Kaema Sutra restaurant as well, sneered at the Indian invention of the term ‘non-vegetarian’ as much as at my suggestion of including more vegetarian options at the Ministry. To be fair, a vegetarian shouldn’t have ventured into an eatery named after crustaceans in the first place. In a stroke of irony, though, the chef’s daughter Shanaia, a marine biologist in training, told me she is allergic to all shellfish, and gave me company in ordering every dessert and beverage on the menu.
The first leg of our Lanka journey concluded at Capital Bar and Grill in the hotel, where we downed whiskey cocktails, while Kathryn doled out jazz songs in a shimmering gold dress and Jimmy Sax blew us away with his saxophone singles.
The next day, a five-hour drive along the coast took us to Hambantota, a small fishing town that has been in international headlines over the last few years. Its port has been leased out to China for a 99-year period to settle debts with Beijing, which has obviously caused security concerns in India. Consequently, India has reportedly made a bid to buy out some of the said debt in exchange for a 40-year lease of the Hambantota airport, frequently called the ‘world’s emptiest airport’.
While the Colombo hotel was draped in an urban sophistication with its pillar-less ballroom and sparkling chandeliers inspired by water lilies (the national flower), Shangri-La’s Hambantota Golf Resort & Spa is soaked in an earthly sentiment, reflected in its bamboo-mat wall hangings and omnipresent elephant sculptures made of recycled material. But the resort does not cut down on luxury. Its three sprawling pools, kids’ recreation zones, lavish spa and 18-hole golf course are redolent of the mythical paradise the hotel chain is named after. I spent my first morning there taking putting lessons from the director of golf, Romain Pourveer. The Frenchman was generous enough to lose a putting duel against me as a sly means of encouragement.
It doesn’t hurt that the resort is close to wildlife sanctuaries. My most vivid memory of a wild elephant is that of a mother charging at my jeep in Corbett. So, during our early morning safari of the Udawalawe National Park, when big herds with multiple calves strolled past our vehicle within touching distance without raising so much of a trunk, I tossed all my tusker presumptions out of the proverbial window. There were so many peacocks performing the mating dance, their iridescent feathers unfurled, that you would be forgiven to think it was their national bird. Such was the idyllic mood of the day that water buffaloes shared lake waters with crocodiles that refused to move an inch. I wondered if a water truce had been pronounced, like in Kipling’s Seonee.
More elephant sightings followed, albeit in captivity, at a nearby camp where orphaned baby elephants and injured adults are sheltered before they can be released into the wild. Their delirious feeding sessions provide tourism fodder thrice a day. A chorus of “Awws” filled the air as the babies made a beeline for the giant funnels that poured milk into feeding tubes. Dusk held another treasure of wild sightings as I hopped on a rickety boat in Ambalantota for a safari on Walawe River. From various types of herons, hundreds of dormant bats and five species of eagles to a dozing fish owl and flocks of egrets blanketing whole trees in white, the river safari was an open-air exhibition of wings. The route ended at the mouth of the river, separated from the ocean by a thin sandbank in Godawaya. From atop adjoining rocky cliffs, I witnessed the blazing sun set behind a coastal forest and the roaring ocean swallow the mouth of the river in a wild embrace. Maybe Milton was right: the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. It often does. But paradise is never entirely lost. Not in Sri Lanka.
Multiple airlines fly to Colombo. A direct flight takes just over 3.5 hrs. A Cinnamon Air flight from Colombo to Hambantota- Weerawila Domestic Airport costs upwards of $230. Another option is to take the road, and explore Galle Fort on the way (hotel taxi from LKR 57,000).
Formalities for a 30-day tourist ETA ($20 for Indians) can be done at eta.gov.lk/slvisa.
Where To Stay
>Shangri-La Colombo offers 500 guestrooms and suites, and 41 serviced apartments, all with spectacular views of the Indian Ocean, Beira Lake and the city’s skyline. A Horizon Club Room grants you access to the Horizon Club Lounge on the top floor and other privileges (from approx. $280 per night; shangri-la.com/ colombo/shangrila).
>Shangri-La’s Hambantota Golf Resort & Spa offers 300 spacious rooms, including 21 suites, surrounded by tropical gardens and in close proximity to the beach (from $129 per night for a 4N stay; shangri-la.com/hambantota/ shangrila).
What To See & Do
>COLOMBO: Take a stroll through the city’s colonial history with a guide from the Colombo City Walks team. Or take a colourful tuk tuk around the main sites, including the bustling outdoor bazaar of Pettah. Other ‘urban safaris’ on offer include a tour of the Art Street of Colombo, a visit to gemstone shops, and a trail covering four Buddhist temples around the city. A Discover Colombo stay package starts from $245 per room per night and includes any one of the tours.
>HAMBANTOTA: Tee off at the 18-hole golf course spread across a coconut palm plantation, a sapphire quarry, small lakes and sand dunes (from LKR 12,300).
The resort facilitates visits to nearby nature and wildlife sanctuaries, including Yala, Udawalawe, Lunugamvehera and Bundala National Parks. A river safari on Walawe can be taken from Ambalantota.
Shangri-La’s signature spa, CHI, offers a range of treatments in both properties. The Hambantota resort also has a 7m-high trapeze, and a water park. An artisan village within the resort lets you interact with local craftspeopl