Ever since I read of a celebrity couple meeting here, halfway between their respective homes in England and Australia, I was piqued by the teardrop island in the Indian Ocean. It had always been in full view on the map — a steady constant like the dot at the bottom of an exclamation mark, ritually remembered every year during Dussehra — but it had never quite caught my eye. Until recently, Sri Lanka had been a decidedly unglamorous destination to me: it was too close, too familiar and far too engaged in civil war to encourage Indians to let their hair down.
That changed when I saw the tabloid carrying photographs of the happy couple enjoying the balmy delights of this tropical paradise. Sri Lanka was catapulted to holiday hotspot on my to-do map, and I certainly wanted a spot of that merry-making. And then it seemed it was no time at all and the celebrities were no longer a couple while, as luck would have it, I found myself booked on a SpiceJet flight heading for the iconic Taj Samudra in Colombo.
The hotel sits on the edge of the Indian Ocean, the two separated by a few yards and a strip of cultivated grass famously known as the Galle Face Green. This is the heart of the national capital. Imported cars whizz by and I taste the salty sea breeze carried fresh over the crashing waves. The estate is spread over 11 acres of windswept palms. Nature’s bounty follows me inside the air-conditioned lobby, where I am greeted by a giant orchid centrepiece and a potted palm. Large windows permanently frame the steamy foliage — just in case I forget my exotic whereabouts.
Not that I am likely to — my freshly minted Taj Club room has an uninterrupted view of the ocean. The hotel has recently been renovated at a spectacular budget of $20 million and these rooms crafted by the talented designer David Edwards certainly look like a million bucks. Antique wood floors and dual-tone tapestry cloak each magnificent cocoon of 48 sq m. The room is spacious, yet intimate; decadent, yet functional; elegant, yet oh-so-comfortable. The thoughtful, almost intuitive use of space is uncanny. I sink into the bed, I sink in the bathtub, I curl up at the bay windows, then I curl up on the duvet and I draw a blank — can’t find a peeve, not even a tiny one. It only helps that I get access to the swanky Taj Club Lounge. There are business centres, conference rooms, even a library, though frankly, I don’t make it past the breakfast buffet.
Taj Samudra outdoes itself with its line-up of restaurants and eclectic range of cuisines. Navratna is the Indian restaurant: the cuisine is familiar, yet the spices sourced fresh from the plantations make the food spring to life in an explosion of flavour. The Steak and Grill House is a fine-dining restaurant that serves the finest Continental food, complemented by an exquisite selection of wines, while at the Golden Dragon, Master Chef Bai Ping dishes up Szechuan delicacies. My favourite, however, is YUMI, a vibrant resto-bar as delightful as its name. A live teppanyaki counter, a relaxed vibe, jazz, a menu prepared by the head chef of Wasabi at the Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, and sake to wash down every course and cleanse my palate and work-weary mind — that’s a winning combination from the word go.
I head for the Galle Face in a well-intentioned, if ambitious, attempt to burn off calories and watch the sunset. This strip of green was originally built as a race course by the British, as was the Crystal building, overlooking the Green, originally intended for seating officers and their ladies but in its present avatar, the banqueting annexe of the Taj Samudra. This glorious structure from circa 1871 has a tiled roof, a 20-foot high ceiling and stained-glass windows: a splendid shelter from the tropical sun for the pale faces cheering and clapping as horses thundered down the shoreline of this ancient port city.
The Green is now patchy and besieged by creeping sands, but mercifully it’s being restored as part of a city-wide restoration activity and general sprucing up. Colombo is being buffed and polished to present itself as a cosmopolitan destination at par with more vibrant Asian counterparts. The colonial heritage buildings — the Dutch hospital compound, the Fort (built during British occupation and now a posh shopping district) and other gems — are being converted into treasured legacy. I see sandbags lining the streets in preparation for night motor races. There is no pollution and there are no traffic snarls. The roads are clean, wide and the ubiquitous frangipani is in full bloom.
Keeping pace, Taj Samudra has geared up to cater world-class service in a fast-emerging global destination. The multi-fold ballrooms, banquet halls and landscaped gardens make it an ideal venue for functions and conferences. The hotel has even added a state-of-the-art Tata Suite, designed specifically for heads of states and visiting dignitaries. Occupying the seventh floor, it is spectacularly luxurious and each room has an ocean view. However, their real asset, as with any Taj property, is the hospitality. In my room, I found a handwritten note from the room attendants, expressing their hope that I was having a pleasant stay.
The memory of it made me smile as I stood on the Green watching the sun dip down into the ocean. The flaming ball ignited a watery trail down to the Taj Samudra, which shimmered and winked in the shifting orange light.
Location Taj Samudra Hotel, No. 25, Galle Face Centre Road, Colombo
Accommodation 300 rooms: 154 Deluxe Floor rooms, 60 Luxury Floor rooms, 86 Taj Club floor rooms. 25 of these are suites, available across categories: 15 Deluxe Suites, 3 Luxury Suites, 2 Grand Luxury Suites, 4 Executive Suites and one Tata Suite
TariffRack rates: $265 (Deluxe), $300 (Luxury), $430 (Taj Club), $850 (Deluxe Suite), $1,250 (Luxury Suite); $2,250 (Grand Luxury Suite)
Contact +94-11-5446622; tajhotels.com