I am always asked what my first impressions are in any destination that I visit. My most recent visit to Sri Lanka was my third visit, so I can only say what my “third impression” is: the teardrop shaped island in the Indian Ocean is poised on the brink of a huge tidal wave. It will sweep away everything in its wake and nothing will be the same again, so Sri Lanka would do well to take note of what they want to change, and what they need to save.
Like a few parts of India – the Kashmir Valley springs to mind – Sri Lanka has been in a war-like situation for decades. Now that the problem has been eradicated permanently, peace has returned. And where there is political peace and the promise of economic stability, there are always international investors waiting in the wings. My first and third visits to the island have been ten years apart, and besides increasingly well-paved roads and the occasional highway, the country has largely been the same for the past decade. Now that peace has arrived, there’s no doubt that Sri Lanka is poised on the brink of change.
First off the mark has been the enormous John Keells group with a presence in virtually every industry from shipping to cold drinks! They have invested in a chain of hotels that shows signs of becoming the foremost one in the country. There are, to date, two Cinnamon Hotels in Colombo and one in Habarana, in the south central region. Each has its individuality.
Cinnamon Lakeside, in a quiet spot in the heart of the capital has an optimum blend of local and inbound business as well as an enviable mix of cuisines. While the all-day diner is famous for its Sri Lankan breakfast dishes, there is a Thai restaurant with a Thai chef, as well as a Chinese restaurant with two expatriate chefs. There is a small tapas bar called 7 degrees. Aptly named, because Colombo is situated 7 degrees north of the Equator! The Spanish chef, Juan Mario Marrero, does a creditable job of providing Spanish tapas in a corner of Asia where there are not too many ingredients, but he “is confident that once more players enter the food and beverage space in Colombo, more suppliers will start operations, so that more ingredients will be available at a more competitive price.”
The one area where the hotel shines is in its Indian food. Ably headed by Chef G S Rana, neither is there a problem obtaining ingredients or spices, nor is there a dearth of customers. Chef Rana spoke to Travel and Hospitality. “The single most popular cuisine in Colombo is Indian. A couple of dishes of North Indian food is laid out on every buffet setup in the coffee shop; it is the most popular cuisine at Muslim weddings in the hotel “The Muslim community, being known for their wealth and lavish weddings, always want an entirely North Indian spread consisting of mutton roghan josh, biryani, qorma, butter chicken and tandoori chicken in addition to roomali rotis.” The other thing that makes its appearance at every banquet is, according to Rana, mince samosas.
Says Denis Gruhier the General Manager of Cinnamon Lakeside Colombo, “Colombo is a cross between a business and a leisure destination. It is the natural entry point into Sri Lanka, but many tourists do elect to head straight out to the forests, temples or beaches, depending on their interests. Others spend a day in the city and then make their way across the island.” I myself could have spent at least two days more browsing around the unmissable shops. Sri Lanka is a popular manufacturing base for several big clothing brands from the western world. The rejects and extras are sold locally and are snapped up by stores like House of Fashion. Prices are unbelievably low and you could end up buying Gap look-alikes for Indian Rupees 500. Then, there are the lifestyle stores like Paradise Road and Barefoot Gallery, departmental stores with a difference like Odel and upmarket brands that are made in Sri Lanka like Noritake.
Thus far, Sri Lanka is pristine with people who are truly humble. Single storey buildings, a village atmosphere, lush greenery – they’re all intact thus far. What “progress” will wipe out is anybody’s guess. Which is why some soul-searching is in order. Some developments are welcome: beautification drives are on in full swing and highways are being built.
Sri Lanka is so close to some of our South Indian cities that, as Ghazali Mohideen, General Manager of Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana says, “It is longer to get to the airport from mid-town Chennai than it is to actually fly to Colombo”. Indeed it is!