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Welcome to Colombo, Sri Lanka, the capital of the island of Serendipity. Here's a quick guide to Colombo business hotels, leisure digs, restaurants, bars and sights. There's enough in this Colombo guide for a languorous holiday or a busy business trip. Business travellers and vacation planners, dive right in.
|Tintagel: 1930s villa/ photo: hotel|
Colombo Airport and airport hotels
The peak time for arrivals at Colombo's international airport is between 5am and 10am and for departures, from 7am to 8am. The airport has recently undergone massive extension work with the happy result that queues flow smoothly. Good duty-free shops are available, but smokers be warned – there’s no duty-free allowance for bringing cigarettes into Sri Lanka.
Beyond customs is a hall of counters for currency exchange and tourist and taxi assistance where no hawkers linger. Hotel representatives with name boards greet guests outside this hall and direct them to hotel cars. Expect to pay from US$30 in Sri Lankan rupees for a hotel car to Colombo (US$1=SLRs114).
On departure, all passengers must have their luggage x-rayed before they can enter the airport. Consider hiring a porter (Rs50 a bag) who will steer you through and then guide you to the right check-in desk.
|Room at Cinnamon Grand/ photo: hotel|
The great news for departing business class passengers (or those in transit) on SriLankan Airlines (the main carrier serving Colombo) is the pleasant business class lounge with engrossing runway view after passport control. It has hot and cold buffets, a selection of wines and draft beers and ice-cream, eight free Internet stations, a smoking room, three sleeping rooms, toilets with showers, a TV with the volume turned off and headphones provided, and a free ayurveda (local herbal oil) massage parlour. There are VIP lounges for other airlines and a British style pub, The Hangar Bar (open 24/7), and two coffee lounges as well as a restaurant, so waiting to board a flight is a comfortable experience.
While there is no hotel within the airport perimeter, the Taj Airport Garden is 10 minutes away by free shuttle. With 112 rooms in a lagoon-side garden, this hotel has Broadband access in rooms as well as public areas. These include a Chinese restaurant and the Cricketers' Arms pub and swimming pool. Another option is the Jetwing Beach Hotel, 20 minutes away on the beach at Negombo. A five-star property with 75 spacious rooms and extras like a CD/DVD player and kettle. The hotel has a great wine list although the bar is more like a dispensary counter than a place to await or recover from a flight.
Drag queens and alcohol restrictions
While office and apartment blocks have sprung up, new hotels have only recently opened. These are in the boutique mould with stunning, designer-smart conversions of colonial villas, providing a pleasant place to stay cocooned away from the hustle and bustle. Recently a few restaurants (many in British-built bungalows) have opened – and closed, including those presided over by one of Colombo’s favourite characters, a master chef who doubles as a drag queen known to everyone as “Koluu”. He now does private catering and teaching while being consultant for such fun restaurants as Barefoot. Koluu can be seen as a symbol of Colombo's split personality. It wants to be trendy and daring but remains really rather old-fashioned and respectable. It has swanky boutiques, posh lifestyle stores and a modern office infrastructure, yet beneath its bustle old mores hold sway.
|Tall pints at Cricket Club|
Every full moon day (known as Poya Day) is a holiday which, added to statutory holidays, means Sri Lankans have more holidays in a year than working days. Poya days are legally "dry days" and bars can also be closed unexpectedly on other holidays too, even on Christmas Day. On dry days, hotels endeavour to keep resident guests merry by providing mini-bar or room service. While some city banks are open seven days a week, and some supermarkets and casinos 24 hours a day, restaurants and bars can only serve drinks from 11am to 2pm and from 5pm to 11pm. This rule is a hangover from colonial days and had been pretty much forgotten until late 2005, when the police decided to crack down on transgressors. With very few exceptions, in most restaurants anyone who lunches or dines outside those hours must do so without wine, a small pity. However, Colombo's restaurants are top-notch and fine dining is no longer confined to five-star hotels.
Unfortunately restaurants struggle to attract custom, as Colombo’s party-crowd, deterred by sudden vehicle checks by police searching for arms or drunks, party at home. A new organisation, Room Service (www.roomservice.lk), has a hotline telephone number (Tel: 011- 5768768) and delivers meals from the menus of a score of popular restaurants to anywhere in Colombo within an hour (11am-11pm daily, delivery charge Rs175 per order per service outlet). Menus and meal prices are listed in the free magazine Room Service.
Colombo guide to dining and nightlife
Probably the lead independent restaurant in Colombo is The Gallery Café (2 Alfred House Road, Colombo 3; tel: [94-11] 258-2162, open daily 10am to midnight) in the courtyard of what was once an architect's residence. Tables are packed into a pavilion under shady trees while all comings and goings are monitored by the "in-crowd" enjoying Mediterranean-style dishes. Prices are around US$20 per person for a meal. More informal and popular with the city’s intelligentsia rather than the fashionistas is the garden café at Barefoot (701 Galle Road, Colombo 3; tel: 258-9305; open daily) guided by the aforementioned Koluu and offering innovative dishes in a peaceful atmosphere despite its main road location.
|Party time at Bistro Latino|
In complete contrast, Chesa Swiss (3 Deal Place, Colombo 3; tel: 471-2716; open Tuesday-Sunday, dinner only) caters for serious diners at the top end of the market (expect over US$20 per main course). For food prepared and served quickly in a friendly ambience, there is the Cricket Club Café (34 Queens Road, Colombo 3; tel: 250-1384; open daily 11am-11pm) where a meal for two costs from around US$20, and drinks flow in its backroom pub. Opened to cater for Colombo 's cognoscenti, Bay Leaf (79 Gregory's Road, Colombo 7; tel: 535-9653, open daily 11am-11pm) is housed in a magnificent mansion complete with verandah and balcony tables, private dining rooms and party garden. With its own bakery and swish cocktail bar, this locally-run restaurant serves prettily presented, delicious dishes and has a gentle, cosmopolitan flair.
There is a restaurant for members at The Royal Colombo Golf Course (Model Farm Road, Colombo 8; tel: 269-5431) where temporary membership for visitors is Rs16,000, plus five percent service charge per person.
Sri Lanka is the source of Ceylon tea and Colombo has at last got a dedicated tea bar, Tea Breeze (68A Dharmapala Mawatha, Colombo 3; tel: 474-1311, open daily 9am-8pm). Close to the Liberty Plaza shopping complex, this is on the first floor of Arkipelago, a gallery selling imported statues and artistic furniture. Behind showroom windows overlooking the traffic, pots of exclusive estate-grown leaf teas, unusual tea milkshakes, delicious pastries and sandwiches are served elegantly by smart stewards in dark green livery. Packaged tea can be purchased here and from the Mlesna Tea Counters at the Crescat, Liberty Plaza and Majestic City shopping malls and from the Dilmah outlet at Odel.
|Galle Face greens|
Restaurants featuring Sri Lankan cuisine are scarce, with reasonably priced rice and curry buffet lunches only available in some of the major hotels (for example Rs1,242 nett at the Hilton's Spices restaurant). The Hilton hotel's garden restaurant Curry Leaf is a romantic place for local food in the evenings. Enjoy cheap (Rs750 nett lunch, Rs950 nett dinner) and justifiably popular rice and curry buffet meals at Raja Bojun (Ceylinco Seylan Towers, 90 Galle Road, Colombo 3; tel: 471-6171; open daily 12 noon-3pm, 7pm-midnight). Thambapani (496/6 Duplication Road, Colombo 3; tel: 250-0615 open daily 11am-11pm) is more sophisticated, specialising in "island cuisine" and seafood in a garden setting. The Palmyrah restaurant (Hotel Renuka, 328 Galle Road, Colombo 3; tel: 257-3598, open daily for lunch and dinner) is renowned for its north Sri Lankan (Tamil) specialities at good prices.
At night, the well-heeled head for the five-star hotels, some of which have nightclub-cum-discos open at weekends, and all have live music each evening in their lobby bars. Having started small as an insiders' hangout with drinks patio, Rhythm & Blues (19/1, Daisy Villa Avenue, Duplication Road, Colombo 4; tel: 536-3859; open nightly) has blossomed into the city's swing-joint that doesn't get into its stride until after 10pm and continues with non-stop bar service and revellry until the last guest staggers home the next day. The food is pretty good too. Bistro Latino (Duplication Road, Colombo 4; tel: 258-0063) throbs with Latin American music (and dancing) until 11pm. There are several casinos open 24 hours with Bally's (near Liberty Plaza) almost exclusively for visitors, the MGM (near Majestic City) for locals and visitors, and Bellagio (Duplication Road) a glitzy and vast venue, popular with all comers.
Colombo shopping tips
Colombo's reputation for trendy fashion shopping stems from the success of Odel (5 Alexandra Place, Colombo 7, open daily 10am-8pm), now a fully-fledged department store after starting out as a cut-price local garment outlet. The Wine Bar serves New World wines by the glass (from Rs350) and is next to Nihonbashi (tel: 471-8758) for counter service of super sushi and sashimi platters (from Rs650). Crowds flock to House of Fashion (28 Duplication Road, Colombo 5; tel: 250-4639) in search of imported items (not just clothes) at low prices.
|Bay Leaf restaurant: Mansion moods|
Colombo has an amazing number of shops with unusual household goods and artefacts for stylish modern homes. Barefoot specialises in fabrics in gorgeous hues, while Paradise Road (213 Dharmapala Mawatha, Colombo 7, tel: 268-6043, open daily 9am-7pm) is ideal for ingenious gifts and upmarket décor. Hermitage (28 Gower Street, Colombo 5, tel: 250-2196) has an Indian antique ambience.
The air-conditioned Colombo shopping malls of Liberty Plaza, Majestic City and the more upmarket Crescat Boulevard with its designer-label stores, all have shops selling the latest DVDs (you'll be assured they are "genuine copies"). There are inexpensive (from Rs300 a plate) food counters with different cuisines (Sri Lankan, Chinese, Thai, Korean, etc) in the basements of Majestic City and Crescat, as well as a supermarket in Crescat's basement for shopping as the locals do and buying local produce like devilled cashews and pickled quail eggs.
Colombo business hotels review
Crescat has the advantage of adjoining the hotel with the most action, the Cinnamon Grand, formerly the Lanka Oberoi, now expanded and modernised as one of the local Keells' group of hotels. For years Colombo hotels have soldiered on with low occupancy as tourists usually head straight for the beach or a round-island tour. Hotels have now branched out with lots of restaurant options. Cinnamon Grand leads the way with the most popular seafood market restaurant in town, The Lagoon; an elegant Italian restaurant, Echo; a genuine 1970s vintage steak house, London Grill; a saloon-bar pub with great grub, Cheers; a verandah Asian fusion restaurant, Tao; a South Indian restaurant (Chutneys); and Sequel champagne bar serving dinner as well as caviar and oysters with premium wines and spirits against a background of romantic music (open from 6pm, closed Sunday and Monday). All the hotel's 501 rooms offer Broadband access (US$12 a day) and full five-star hotel amenities. There is also a premium executive floor with an exclusive, dedicated bar lounge (and smoking room). This is a dependable Colombo business hotel choice.
|Galle Face Hotel: Colonial echoes|
The Keells’ newly owned Trans Asia awaits its new name but meanwhile the restaurants have improved and it is challenging its sister property, Cinnamon Grand, for business. It has a seafood market at night as well as specialist restaurants The Royal Thai, Saffron (Asian) and Long Feng (Singaporean) by the Beira Lake, and a sushi bar in its lobby. Facing the sea, the Taj Samudra has 300 rooms with Broadband access and a stylish coffee shop, Latitudes, as well as traditional Indian, Chinese and steak restaurants.
There is a triangle of hotels in the old part of town under the shadow of the city’s tall twin towers World Trade Centre. The Hilton Colombo, with 384 rooms including two categories of refurbished executive floor rooms with butler service, charges a one-time fee of US$20 for Broadband. Its Echelon pub is a designer bar, and it has a main restaurant (Spices) with extensive buffet meals, as well as Chinese, Italian, Sri Lankan, Japanese and a slick fine-dining restaurant, Spoons. Its neighbour, the Galadari, is a top Colombo business hotel. Galadari’s cocktail bar with sea view (Margarita Blue) and the best doormen in Colombo, suit its dedicated-to-business image. Across the road, the 250-room Ceylon Continental (formerly the InterContinental), retains much of its old style. Its executive floor has a High Tea and Cocktail Lounge with stimulating views of the Indian Ocean while the ground floor Tandoori Indian restaurant gets the family crowd. The hotel works equally well for leisure travellers as well as those on business and all rooms have WiFI access by prepaid cards from Rs250.
The Hilton Residence has self-contained apartments available for long or short lease and is next to a supermarket offering straight-to-the-kitchen delivery. All apartments have high-speed Internet access and WiFi. Not as central and not quite so smart, Global Towers is an apartment hotel on the city's outskirts. Every bedroom has Internet connection.
|Champagne at Sequel|
Colombo heritage hotels and boutique stays
For Colombo colonial hotels with true character – and not just a hint of musk – there are some unique accommodation options. The Galle Face on the sea front has rooms and huge suites in its Classic Wing, and Broadband access in its business centre. It has spawned a stylish 80-room executive-class hotel within its walls, The Regency, where the circa 1864 fine-dining restaurant and wine bar attracts loyal guests. This is a splendid (much-improved under new management) Sri Lanka heritage hotel with a wide following.
At the Grand Oriental, by the old port gates, rooms are smaller but have the atmosphere of bygone days. Among the first Colombo boutique hotel to open was the Havelock Place Bungalow with only six colonial style rooms, restaurant and swimming pool, WiFi access throughout the premises and Internet access included in the room rate. This has been followed by the Park Street Hotel, a huge 12-room bungalow with an atmosphere of discretion. Casa Colombo off the Galle Road in Bambalapitiya is dubbed a ‘retro-chic designer hotel’ and each of its 12 suites is a fantasy (some come with in-room laptops) and it exudes an atmosphere of extravagance and fun in this conversion from a 200-year-old mansion.
Tintagel was created with taste and style from a famous 1930s villa (it was home to three prime ministers) by Shanth Fernando, the designing genius behind the Paradise Road stores and the Gallery Café. A classic and impressive place to stay and a good Colombo boutique hotel choice.
Colombo budget hotels guide
|The stately town hall|
For Colombo budget hotels, an established, lower-rate choice in the centre of Colombo is Renuka City. This has Broadband and WiFi access, and a swimming pool down the street. Occupancy at the centrally-located Juliana often exceeds 100 percent since its 51 huge but basic rooms can be booked for day use too. Its Moon Shanghai restaurant is popular for good cheap Chinese dishes.
The Indra Regent has only 29 rooms but its facilities include a pool bar, a coffee shop and the Hot Rock Lounge. In a similar style, but without the fun, the Pearl has 77 rooms and is located by a busy junction. Overlooking the sea the Westeern (yes, this is Western spelt with an extra "e") has 42 rooms and a friendly informality to match its low rates.
It may not have the style of its more glamorous neighbours like Singapore and Dubai, but Colombo has enough accommodation, eateries and activities to suit every pocket and whim. Dazzling in fact.