Captivating Colombo

(PHOTO: Getty Images)


It's my third trip to Sri Lanka but I'm still as excited as a schoolgirl to explore this beautiful island nation fringed by the surf-tipped Indian Ocean. On my itinerary this time are five exciting cities — Beruwala Galle Hikkaduwa Yala and Colombo. I drive through them savouring local cuisine soaking in spectacular sights experiencing fine local hospitality and interacting with the genteel and friendly Sri Lankans.

The capital city of Colombo is where I begin my sojourn. The city has been constantly reinventing itself since the culmination of a 25-year civil war in 2009 to shrug off melancholy and embrace the future with optimism. Today it is a sprawling megapolis of 5.6 million people charming colonial era buildings modern office blocks spiffy malls trendy lounge bars atmospheric eateries and classy hotels.

The best way to explore any great city as they say is on foot. But as I'm scrunched for time I opt for an inventive mix of a car ride plus a walking tour. My affable guide-cum-driver Saradh a veteran who knows Sri Lanka like the back of his hand expertly guides me around the city's main sights — eye-catching Portuguese Dutch and British architecture pretty parks shopping districts.

We begin our city tour with the Pettah Market. Pettah or Colombo 11 is an experience in itself a sensory overload of sights and sounds. The vendors here peddle all manner of wares — from fabrics and fruit to watches and handicrafts. Even if you're not enamoured of shopping the place is worth a visit. Each street in the market has its own specialty. For example in 1st Cross Street you can find electrical items 2nd Cross Street has jewellery and so on. At Pettah you also get to experience Sri Lankan entrepreneurial energy at its zealous best. Want a suit made in two hours? No problem! Looking for saris electronics and ayurvedic medicines at bargain basement prices? Coming right up!

Modern face

Colombo's modern face is characterised by the glitzy World Trade Centre and the revitalised Old Dutch Hospital. Its British Raj era manifests itself in the Gothic pink-and-white Cargills Building on York Street the Old Parliament building 1930 the old GPO 1891 and the Lighthouse Clock Tower built two years before London's Big Ben in 1857 now dwarfed by skyscrapers. Fort is the heart of Colombo named after the 17th century Dutch-built ramparts demolished by the British in 1879.

After a couple of hours of sightseeing we pause for lunch at The Dining Room at Cinnamon Lakeside a beautiful hotel overlooking Lake Beira. The restaurant serves international cuisine. But my meal is a toast to the coast — crumb fried fish squids and chicken sandwiches. The fish red mullet is so fresh it smells of the ocean while the sandwich is crafted from soft bread succulent protein and a wallop of sambol. I wash it all down with delicious cinnamon-honey iced tea!

In fact Sri Lanka is a haven for tea lovers. Some of the world's finest teas can be found at its tea centres and boutiques. If you can ignore lacklustre service at government outlets you'll find a whole repertoire of teas here — from working-class brews to the elaborately packaged expensive ones at bargain prices.

Food is the glue that binds Sri Lanka's diverse and multi-ethnic population. Start your day I'm advised as the locals do with quot;string hoppersquot; discs of rice flour noodles commonly eaten by hand for breakfast. Servers will bring a plate to the table ladle on yellow dal and pol sambal Sri Lankan salsa based on grated coconut from metal buckets. Finish off with a steaming glass of chai and you're in for a heart-warming breakfast for under Rs 200.

One evening I headed for dinner to Nuga Gama at Cinnamon Grand Hotel a delightful restaurant serving authentic Sri Lankan delicacies. quot;Nugaquot; means banyan tree in local dialect while quot;Gamaquot; is a village. The eatery's highlight is a 200-year-old sprawling Banyan tree festooned with fairy lights.

The popular eatery is the only one of its kind in the country and recreates a rural village setting with local entertainment reflecting a village lifestyle tradition and culture. There's even a kiosk here selling local handicrafts. The food at Nuga Gama is a feast of flavours rustled up by village women invited by the hotel from different parts of the country.

"We offer regional cuisine in rotation from different parts of Sri Lankaquot; Assistant Manager Dhammika Liyanage tells me as I soak in the beautiful ambience. quot;The sheer variety and diversity not only keeps our regulars engaged but also generates employment for women from far-flung regions."

The village women cook at mud fireplaces behind the buffet counter offering hot breads and other sizzling fare that makes my mouth water. There's not only great food here but also food theatre to partake of! Post dinner I'm treated to quot;pulled teaquot; or quot;metre teaquot; a local specialty. The server pours the delicious ginger-infused brew from a tea kettle from a height of about metre into a tiny glass giving the beverage its moniker.

Post dinner I contemplate upon exploring Colombo's nightlife. But soon banish the thought as I've an early morning flight to grapple with. For night owls though Colombo pulsates with a slew of establishments offering decent music and drinks served in a pleasant atmosphere. Even without the nocturnal experience though my trip to Colombo is a thrilling one. And I raise a toast to this mesmerizing metropolis with tea of course!

SIDEBAR:

Cinnamon Lakeside Colombo

Located in the heart of Colombo's business shopping and entertainment district and 35 minutes from the airport Cinnamon Lakeside is the epitome of indulgence and elegance.

Overlooking the glassy Beira Lake this Best Luxury Hotel offers a blend of luxury and personal attention giving you the opportunity to operate at your own pace regardless of whether you're a business or leisure traveller hosting a wedding or dropping by for a quick bite. My own room is an oasis of luxury accoutred with a work desk a well-appointed bathroom a turndown service with orchids — the works.

The hotel also offers multiple F and B outlets like The Dining Room for international cuisine Royal Thai for Thai cuisine a Pool Bar and a sushi and sashimi bar as well. Politicians celebs and the movers and shakers you're likely to rub shoulders with them here.