Colombo is the quintessential insider’s destination. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much to keep travellers in the country’s main business centre, but peer beneath the layer of traffic and commerce and you will discover a vibrant city in the midst of a profound transformation – if you know where to look.
Downtown Colombo’s resurgence rests on the transformation of its architecture. Unlike other Asian capitals, this island city is virtually devoid of large malls and entertainment precincts. But what it lacks in glass and concrete, it makes up for in a wealth of beautiful colonial-era buildings which, after years of neglect, are now coming into their own.
The 400-year-old Dutch Hospital (Hospital St) and the 123-year-old Colombo Racecourse (Philip Gunewardena Mawatha, District 7) – both revived as shopping destinations – as well as the iconic Galle Face Hotel have given the city some spectacular showpieces.
Besides the well-known landmarks, Colombo is also home to an extensive but lesser-known catalogue of fine colonial mansions. These are now being converted into boutique hotels, bars and other trendy venues worth a stop on an informed traveller’s itinerary.
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Within Colombo’s most upscale residential district, the Cinnamon Gardens, Tintagel (below) epitomises the city’s revival. Once the private home of the Bandaranaikes, the country’s pre-eminent political family, it has been turned into an opulent boutique hotel.
The 1920s home was built to project power and wealth, with ornate marble columns and high arches within an imposing black-and-white colonial facade. Local designer and entrepreneur Udayshanth Fernando, the man behind the heritage property’s rebirth, has left the original structure intact, but put a modern spin on its interior – think Italianate vases, sharply patterned rugs, and lacquer accents that contrast with trompe l’oeil ceilings. “I wanted to create something that reflects today without changing the past,” he says. “It represents Sri Lanka’s modern outlook.”
The result is a lavish 10-suite hotel with dining areas that transport visitors back to the glamour and intrigue of 1920s Ceylon. Sit back with a drink at its opulent Red Bar or sample modern fusion delicacies such as slow-braised pork belly topped with poached egg and pickled ginger at its al fresco restaurant, The Courtyard. Round off on a sweet note with a pot of caramel cream served with cashew bread for dessert.
In an unassuming corner of Colombo, hotelier Lalin Jinasena has turned the neglected but once extravagant home of an Indian trading family into one of the city’s pioneering boutique hotels, Casa Colombo (above). The 200-year-old building also functioned as a low-key government-tax office at a point in time.
“When I found the building, it was in a terrible state of disrepair,” says Jinasena. “The roof was caving in, allowing rain to pour through, and the external facade was blackened and falling off. There were even trees growing inside the bathrooms. However, I realised that behind the grim veneer was a magnificent building with a great history,” he says.
Custom-made fixtures and fittings, including oversized wooden ceiling fans, pink vintage hanging lamps and murals depicting floating spiritual gurus, gives the 12-suite property its trendy cachet, while enormous copper baths and an ornate salmon-pink swimming pool hark back to its former grandeur.
Its fusion-Mexican eatery Mex serves dishes such as tuna and pol-sambol (chilli and coconut paste) empanadas, or try the arrack (spirit distilled from the nectar of coconut flowers).
Uga Escapes in the city is a pavilion-style manor of a rich barrister and his socialite wife, who lived here more than a century ago. The couple invited the British and local upper crust for evenings of poetry and fine food. Staying true to its heritage, the hotel serves as the backdrop for some of Colombo’s more exciting evenings, with its restaurant Rare leading a new wave of modern Sri Lankan cuisine.
In the ’40s and ’50s, the creative energy of the city was fuelled by Harry Pieris, a London- and Paris-educated Sri Lankan artist. At a young age, he inherited a tiled-roof bungalow – now preserved as the Sapumal Foundation (32/4 Barnes Pl) – and turned it into the city’s premier bohemian space. It houses the works of renowned local artists, such as Marie Alles Fernando and Swanee Jayawardena, among others.
Sartorial elegance may not be the first thing an outsider would associate with the laid-back island of Sri Lanka. But one man, Fouzal Hameed, owner of the country’s reputed menswear and tailoring chain, has been on a decade-long mission to change that. From bespoke slim-fit suits and locally crafted ties to cravats, his brand Hameedia brings cosmopolitan flair to the tropically clad locals on Colombo’s streets.
Until recently, the flourishing business had lacked a flagship space. But now, Hameed has moved his label to one of the last 19th-century mansions that have not yet made way for an office block, on the busy thoroughfare known as Duplication Road.
The building is similar to the classic black-and-white colonial bungalows of South-east Asia, but the merchandise display is modelled after Milanese concept stores and London’s Savile Row shops. Inside, tuxedos, shoes and ties are artfully showcased in what were once reading rooms, pantries and garages.
At the busy Thunmulla Junction, the mansion of the 108-year-old Dutch Burgher Union serves as a gathering place for the city’s Eurasian Dutch Burgher community. It’s made up of Sri Lankans who trace their paternal ancestry to the members of the Dutch East India Company.
It’s a place from another time – 1908 to be exact – lovingly and near perfectly preserved today. The club still holds the records of paternal lineage that determine who is, and is not, a Dutch Burgher.
The two-storey colonial building boasts a sprawling lawn and a low-lit chandelier ballroom, along with wooden deck balconies and a bar replete with high ceilings and an ancient snooker table.
The upper floor and bar are reserved for members only, but visitors can have a meal at the ground-floor cafe VOC, which serves excellent lamprais (rice and meat curry). Its frequent themed nights, such as jazz and ballroom dancing, as well as various food festivals, offer string hoppers (rice noodles) and curries. These are ticketed events that are open to the public.
In the 19th and early 20th century, community clubs formed the cornerstone of every colonial outpost, and swimming clubs were the nerve centre of social activities. They were secluded and housed in grand buildings, where the elite could practise their backstroke in between gin and tonics.
Colombo Swimming Club harks back to this era – with chequerboard floors, immaculately liveried waiters and a long-standing tradition of sundowners with awe-inspiring views of the Indian Ocean. The 80-year-old institution was formed by a group of amateur swimmers, who purchased the imposing Storm Lodge building in 1938 and added a 30m swimming pool – at the time, the city’s longest and most modern.
Today, the premises occupy arguably the most prime real estate in Colombo between the sea and the prime minister’s official residence, flanked by the city’s ever-rising skyline.
Foreign visitors can pay for day membership to enjoy access to the complex which, in addition to swimming, offers tennis, squash, badminton and table tennis. The best way to enjoy an afternoon post-swimming? Head to the Sundowner restaurant’s outdoor terrace area and order a plate of battered prawns or hot butter cuttlefish, paired with drinks to soak up a fabulous slice of Colombo life.
– TEXT BY SUREKHA YADAV
PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES, INMAGINE, PARADISE ROAD TINTAGEL COLOMBO FACEBOOK
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.