COLOMBO-TO-GO

Tripoto
10th Apr 2014
Photo of COLOMBO-TO-GO 1/5 by Siddharth Dasgupta
A lazy breakfast at the Barefoot Cafe & Gallery
Photo of COLOMBO-TO-GO 2/5 by Siddharth Dasgupta
Plenty of hidden charm to Sri Lanka's Capital
Photo of COLOMBO-TO-GO 3/5 by Siddharth Dasgupta
Quiet contemplation at the Gallery Cafe
Photo of COLOMBO-TO-GO 4/5 by Siddharth Dasgupta
Geoffrey Bawa's unexpected footprints
Photo of COLOMBO-TO-GO 5/5 by Siddharth Dasgupta
Picture-postcard sunset over Marine Drive

The Buddhist enclave of Gangaramaya Temple

Photo of Gangaramaya Temple, Sri Jinarathana Road, Colombo, Western Province, Sri Lanka by Siddharth Dasgupta

Pristine Buddha statue towering above 55 feet

Photo of Gangaramaya Temple, Sri Jinarathana Road, Colombo, Western Province, Sri Lanka by Siddharth Dasgupta

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Colombo-TO-GO

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Colombo, often overlooked by tourists in a mad dash for Sri Lanka’s fancier addresses, popular beach Paradises and prettier towns such as Galle, has plenty of charm up its sleeve. It’s time for a bit of exploring.

There is a beautiful rhythm to Sri Lanka. Nothing too overbearing or clichéd, but a rhythm that marks itself out in small, surprising facets of everyday life. You’ll hear this rhythm in the precise chop-chop-chop of meat, onions, spices and dough being double-sliced to create a sumptuous helping of Sri Lanka’s favourite street staple – the ubiquitous kottu roti; you’ll smell it in the air courtesy a sweet vibe that persists despite the staggering humidity; and most pertinently, you’ll sense it in the ocean and the waves all around you, as an endless coastline weaves its way from north to south, flanking a generous east and a magnificent western coastline dotted with dreamy little bohemian dives, lost coastal villages, secluded surfer Paradises and plenty of full moon fever.

But just as it makes no sense to rush through large parts of a country without fully experiencing any of it, so it makes no sense to fill this article with random experiences plucked out from arbitrary spots in Sri Lanka. In that spirit, this review concentrates itself on Colombo and its neighbouring beach haunts. There is most certainly a rhythm at play here. And these are a few places where it plays out to full effect.

THE FOOD

Barefoot Café & Gallery | This delightful space is pretty much the perfect spot for breakfast in the Capital. A verdant central courtyard lies flanked by an interesting gallery space to the right, as prone to showing paintings from Sri Lanka’s rising stars as it is to putting on a showcase of vintage film posters of Bollywood and Hollywood cult classics.

Barefoot also features a library and a fairly eclectic boutique, punctuated by lost spaces where old artifacts and cobweb-ridden relics lie strewn around quite nonchalantly, resigned to their fate. The café is an open-air affair, surrounded by sunshine, friendly staff, quirky poster-art and a small but fairly robust menu consisting of deliciously fresh fruit juices, excellent egg preparations, and hearty sandwiches – standout being an open tuna-on-multigrain grilled and caressed to perfection. {706 Galle Road, Colombo 3 | +94 11 258 9305}

The Gallery Café | Large canvasses on the walls and central gallery pathways, calming fountain spaces, quaintly neglected wood frames and art projects – you’re in a gallery, all right. And an address which once played home and host to Geoffrey Bawa, one of Asia’s most decorated architects.

All the above mentioned open out to a tastefully-decorated outdoor café that merges elegance with bohemia, and functionality with a free-flowing sense of aesthetics. The Gallery Café is a wonderful spot for lunch, and the food is spot-on. You are in Sri Lanka of course, so whenever possible, try and go for the seafood.

Here, grilled fish, fresh prawns and squid, fried calamari, and fusion seafood risotto are given large garnishing of European flair. Just one thing though: have oodles of patience for the shoddy staff and the grumpy manager, both of whom need to be sent right back to finishing school. {2, Alfred House Road | www.paradiseroad.lk}

Hotel De Pilawoos | Don’t be put off by the fancy title. Lying smack-dab in the middle of hectic Galle Road and one amongst an empire of restaurants, Pilawoos is a down-to-earth experience to both cherish and savour. If you aren’t accosted by a bunch of drunk dudes, that is. This is the sort of address every city needs – a place that’ll stay open no matter what the hour, serve you no matter what you prevailing levels of intoxication, and not give a damn about how it looks while doing so.

The food here is genuine wholesome fare dished out Sri Lankan style, with very few allowances made for foreign travellers, as it should be. While the Sri Lankan biryani is a good option, look no further than the Cheese Kottu – a quite awesome mish-mash of cheese-laden roti dough, chicken, onions and a truck-load of Sri Lankan spices, all topped off by an iced milo. {417, Galle Road, Kollupitiya, Colombo 3}

Others | 35kms north of Colombo lies Negombo, famed for its lagoon of the same name and a beach road stretch dotted with bars, cafés and many a lost hippy. Drop in to Dolce Vita (27, Poruthota Road, Ettukala.) for some tasty, hugely-sized Italian and European favourites; back in Colombo, Green Cabin (453 Galle Road, Kollupitiya, Colombo 3) is an institution, with its outdoor garden leading to fronds of swaying palms.

It’s a lovely spot for some home-style Sri Lankan food, including the ever-present white hoppers and devilishly hot curries and concoctions, including Achchi’s Chicken; staying in Colombo, 41 Sugar (41 Maitland Crescent, Colombo 7 | +94 11 268 2122) is a hip rooftop café that opens in the evening, and walks fashionably towards the night with a fine cocktail selection, lovely views, reasonable tapas collection, and a grown-up vibe; finally, Curve (1 Park Street, Colombo 2) serves up some mean cocktails, a sufficient variety of tapas, and memorable ice cream liqueur shots.

THE DIGS

Tintagel | If you’re searching for a gracefully refined experienced when in Colombo, look no further than Tintagel. In a city devoid of too many boutique choices and languidly luxurious spaces, Tintagel leaves its mark.

An old colonial mansion that manages to retain its air of silent sophistication from days gone by, Tintagel is a treat for the eyes and an elixir for the senses.

You’re greeted with a cobblestone entrance, a historical verandah, and a central fountain, which set the tone for an experience accentuated with stunning rooms and painfully attentive staff. Happily, Tintagel’s vibe extends to its restaurant as well, which has got to be one of the most stylish affairs in a city sometimes lacking chic ambience. If you like your hotels with a touch of historical intrigue, you won’t look past Tintagel. {65 Rosemead Place, Colombo 7 | (94) 11 460 2121}

Hempel Art Gallery | If affordable exclusivity is your thing, the rooms at Hempel Art Gallery are a lifesaver for your crowd-weary soul. There are just two double-rooms on offer here, both a pleasure for the senses with their tastefully artistic décor, intimately welcoming feel, and blissful vibe.

Each room is vast, with an atmosphere borrowed straight out of a silently elegant pre-world war apartment building. The fact that you’re part of an actual art gallery is a nice addition to the been-there-done-that ethos, as is the fact that you’re in one of Colombo’s prime locations. With breakfast on the house as well, this is a Colombo gem you don’t want to miss. {Colombo 7 | +94 77 548 8769}

The Others | Ever wondered what it would be like to bump into Liberace and Liza Minnelli’s secret, highly unlikely love child? Your answer lies in Casa Colombo, a wildly OTT hotel that lays on the colour, pizzazz and frills as though there were no tomorrow. Aside from being an assault on the senses, it’s also a whole lot of fun. Tread with caution. {231, Galle Road, Bambalapitiya, Colombo 4 | +(94) 11 452 0130}

THE MOMENTS

Marine Drive Sunsets | Don’t worry, I haven’t switched cities on you. This isn’t Bombay, we’re still in Colombo. As with its namesake, one experience you’re bound to treasure here is lingering sunsets. Head towards the Beach Road area, where old homes, small cafés and well-established hotels line an avenue opening out to the Indian ocean. Amazingly, a rail track runs right along the coastline, and your silent meditations on the sunset will often be punctuated by local trains rolling along right behind you at regular intervals.

Grab a coffee from one of the many cafés, skip over the tracks, find yourself a special spot on the beach, and watch as the sun bids goodbye to the city.

Gangaramaya Temple | Another fantastic experience, this time of a more directly spiritual kind, is the Gangaramaya Temple. This expansive ode to religion is one of Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist temple sites, with a bewildering essence of India, Thailand, China, and Sri Lanka coursing through its veins.

Within the complex lie several individual temples and shrines, most notably the Simamalaka Shrine and the Vihara Mandiraya. Break away from the hordes of tourists and explore things on your space. Some of the towering statues and relics, breathing perfection in every curve and stroke of paint, will stay with you for a while, as will the Pagoda, the flourishing Bodhi Tree and the deeply resonant Relic Chamber. {gangaramaya.com/}

THE BUZZ

Shore By O | While Colombo proper has some decent enough bars to its name, a more special experience greets you about half an hour out of Colombo at Mt. Lavinia. This beach haunt features a steady flow of bars, beach hotels, and stand-alone shacks. Shore by O will instantly take you to Goa, its music, crowds, location, and vibe an immediate throwback to India’s most popular beach destination.

The huge “shack” features a never-ending bar for the thirsty, an adequate food selection for the hungry, a constant flow of chill-out and EDM for the itchy, beautiful stretches of sand for the lonely and stunning sunsets over Mount Beach for the lovey-dovey. {College Avenue, Mount Lavinia | +94 11 511 2031}

Buba Restaurant & Beach Club | Another Mount Lavinia destination, ‘Buba’s’ is a favoured beach-drinking haunt of choice for many Sri Lankans.

As a bar, it offers what is surprisingly a rare occurrence for the citizens of Colombo – an actual beach.

This is an almost non-existent element to most bars in Colombo itself, and mostly attributed to the few lining Mount Lavinia’s Golden Mile. If you find it hard to locate the ramshackle address amidst a forest of vegetation past the Mount Lavinia Hotel, keep your ears peeled for the music. At Buba’s beachfront bar, you’re subjected to the ubiquitous torrent of undiscerning EDM as with pretty much every club in the city, but the place redeems itself with a fantastic location and a cheap ’n cheerful vibe that welcomes travellers with open arms. {42/11 Vihara Road, Mount Lavinia | www.bubabeach.com}

Others | Qbaa Bar (2, De Fonseca Road, Colombo 5) is a rarity for Colombo – a bar that doesn’t spew out Euro techno trash and clichéd R&B with mind-numbing regularity. Their live music performances, including a steady staple of blues & jazz, together with a sultry mood, ; the Jetwing Group (www.jetwinghotels.com) has a pervasive presence across Sri Lanka, and with good reason.

Try out Jetwing Sea on the Negombo coastline for size (Palangaturai, Kochchikade – Negombo (+94 31 493 3413-7), where an air of romance spreads across stunning ocean vistas, unspoilt golden sands, and the Jetty Bar where spirits are kept high at all times.

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