If it wasn’t for the dodgy government this place would be a paradise.
The Cinnamon Grand (A), 77 Galle Rd, Colombo 3, Tel: 011 2437437
One of Colombo’s best and most modern hotels, ask for a corner room as these have the most space. What the Grand lacks in character it makes up for in terms of facilities with seven restaurants and two bars. The Health Spa has one of the best equipped gyms in the country, a heated 20m rooftop pool and an Ayurvedic health centre. There is a second pool on the Ground Floor, outside the Breakfast room.
Of the seven restaurants, Tao on the bottom floor is the best. The Italian is best avoided and Chutneys (Sri Lankan) is ok but you can get better elsewhere. The English pub sells horrible food and flat draught beer but the Breeze Bar out the back door by the breakfast room could be a nice spot for an evening cocktail, although their Margherita (my barometer) is too sweet, if only a reasonable Rs.650. On Fridays you can get really cheap drinks during happy hour 5-8pm and there’s live music Wed/Thurs/Fri.
As you would expect, internet at the Grand is pretty expensive, however there is an internet place next door in the Creskat Shopping Centre that only charges Rs.100 for30 mins. To get there, turn left as soon as you get out of the front door. Follow the pavement round and go in the double doors to the shopping centre, the internet place is over to the left on the same floor.
Conversely, laundry is surprisingly cheap, it only costs Rs.300 to have a shirt laundered and pressed.
Galle Face Hotel (A-), 2 Kollupitaya Rd, Colombo 3, just down the road from the Grand
Another must is an evening cocktail sitting on the sea front at the Galle Face Hotel watching the breakers roll in. A margherita is about Rs.600 including tax. It’s a lovely place, one of the oldest hotels in the world (over 145 years) and everyone from Harold Macmillan to Cole Porter has stayed. Only one wing has internet though and it’s very slow. You would be favouring character over facilities if you stay here. You may also see the odd rat scamper across the lawn, but it’s to be expected really, given the age of the place. The Seaspray restaurant in the hotel is apparently very good.
Mount Lavinia Hotel (A-), 100 Hotel Rd
Located on a promontory overlooking the sea, this is the second oldest hotel in town, since 1806. The original building was built for the last British governor for his mistress Lavinia, a beautiful local dancing girl. Apparently it had a secret tunnel that lead to his house. It’s a nice place for an evening cocktail, and perhaps dinner, on the beautiful terrace. It’s at the other end of town though, Rs.450 in a three-wheeler. Head Chef Publis is one of the most venerated chefs in the country and was interviewed by Rick Stein on his Far Eastern Odyssey on the telly. It seemed a good place to try some local classics so I had lamprais (five curries and rice steamed in a banana leaf) and wattalapan (curd and palm sugar dessert) which were both pretty good. However my companions were not too enamoured with their choice of Rogan Josh which they found pedstrian. There are lots of other good restaurants along the beachfront apparently.
According to my dinner companion, there is a reputable gem dealer just on the left as you drive out of the hotel. Sri Lanka is famous for it’s gems which can make great take home presents. Apparently too, if you want to make a few bob, you could buy a good sapphire and sell it back in the UK. Going to a reputable dealer is essential however, be very careful you don’t get burnt. Don’t blame me if you do!
Expect your vehicle to be constantly stopped on the approach to the hotel zone in Colombo due to the perceived threat of terrorism from the Tamil Tigers. Once they see a tourist’s face however you will be immediately waved on.
Raja Bojun (B), 90 Galle Face Rd, Colombo 3, Tel. 4716171/245 2657
Located directly over the road from the Cinnamon Grand, this buffet restaurant is a good place for an introduction to Sri Lankan food. For Rs.990 you can choose from a wide range of Sri Lankan classics, such as hoppers (pancake style or red or white string), red rice, curries (chicken, fish, crab, cabbage , egg, mushroom), tempered dishes (dahl, beans, potato), sambols (pol, seeni, katu), pol pittu (coconut and rice flour cakes), pol roti (similar but dry fried?), kiri hodi (mildly spiced coconut milk), kottu (fried noodles), popadoms, and various desserts including wattalappam (egg and coconut pud, flavoured with cardamom and jaggery (palm sugar)) or buffalo curd with syrup. This was the choice for dinner, the menu changes at lunch time. Beers are a very reasonable Rs.283. Raja Bojun is a successful chain with over 15 outlets nationwide, although the one in Kandy was shut when I went.
Beach Wadiya (A-), 2 Station Ave, Wellawatta, (Galle Face Rd but on the other side of the tracks), Colombo 6. Tel. 258 8568/451 4477
A cult place for seafood lovers, it’s frequented by celebrities (Branson, Princess Anne) but is very simple and down-to-earth. You can sit outside with the sand under your feet watching the breakers roll in. If you only have a short time however be warned the food can take some time to prepare. In the daytime the waiters are armed with catapults to keep the crows at bay. It’s much more atmospheric in the evening, with a group of friends.
The first meal I had here in the afternoon was a bit disappointing; my starter of three fresh oysters (cost £1) with a squeeze of lime were sublime but the fried seer fish (similar to tuna) was tough and overcooked. On the second visit however, the devilled prawns and steamed red mullet were fantastic, and with rice, a green spinach-like vegetable and drinks, the total came to about 5 pounds a head. Incredible value, if you choose wisely. The local crabs don’t have much to them apparently but the steamed fish was great (Rs.400) and Lobster Thermidor was good and only Rs. 1600. It can be variable, perhaps depending on the catch of the day and the moods of the head waiter, but if the stars are in the right configuration and you order well, you will enjoy this place. Be careful as you cross the tracks at the entrance, trains can appear at a moment’s notice and don’t sound their horns. A trishaw is Rs. 350 from the Cinnamon Grand.
Rick Stein visited a good seafood place near here called The New Yarl Eating House and was raving about the Coconut Chilli Crabs. I couldn’t track it down till the last day and was too full to go! The address is 46/1 Station Rd, Wellawatta. Let me know how you got on.
There are lots of dirt cheap places all over town for lunch, the following places are fairly typical. The shop at #200 Galle Rd looks fairly clean and does a Biriyani, thali-style, with two veg curries for about Rs.150. Over the road, Hotel New Vivekananda at #19 does the best Biriyani thali but the tables don’t look that clean. No bad reports from any colleagues who have eaten here though. (Getting the bug is fairly inevitable though, even from the bottled water at a posh place like the Grand as one colleague did). Meat curries cost double, i.e. about £1.50. In all cases it’s all-you-can-eat with free refills. If you don’t like curry and rice though, you may be a bit stuck at lunchtime.
Chettinad (B), 293 Sea St, Colombo 11
The perfect spot for lunch after checking out the Pettah bazaar, located in one of the oldest areas of town. Delicious South Indian food served in an air-conditioned room. The food comes thali style, in this case with a papad, a dahl, a shorba (soup) and three smaller curries (potato, cabbage, bitter aubergine) all served in small dishes. I had a spicy Vegetable Jalfrezi, which with the rest of the thali and rice and water, came to a paltry Rs. 490. Veg dishes are around Rs.300 and meat Rs.450, they also serve Chinese food.
The Gallery Cafe (A),2 Alfred House Rd (off Paradise Rd), Colombo 3, Tel: 258 2162
Located in a historic building, once the home of George Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most famous architect this really is a lovely spot and perhaps my favourite restaurant in Colombo. There are water pools in the entrance area and out back, a large atmospheric courtyard with terracotta tiles and coconut wood columns, sheltered under large awnings. The menu displays a huge variety of international dishes (from Rs.775 for Phad Thai to Rs. 3855 for Grilled Lobster) but I stuck to the couple of solitary Sri Lankan dishes I found and wasn’t disappointed. The Fish Head Soup (Rs. 495) had a superb intensity of flavour that just got better by the mouthful and the delicious Black Pork Curry (Rs. 895) was beautifully presented, with raita, brinjal pahi (aubergine pickle) and gotukola sambol each wrapped in their own little banana leaf cones. There is an extensive wine list too, none of it looking particularly great. Beers were a reasonable Rs.295 and a good Margherita a pricey Rs.770. Service was friendly if possibly a bit too over-attentive at times. The walls are adorned with modern art and there is a great little shop selling homewares of all kinds. Rs.200 in a tuktuk from the Grand.
Cricket Club Cafe (B-), 34 Queens Rd, Colombo 3
Just over the road from the Gallery, this old bungalow is great if you want a sociable sports bar with TV’s, or are into cricket memorabilia, but otherwise there’s no real reason to go. The menu is mainly burgers, pies, pasta, and displays such classics as Spinner Spinach, Wicket Wedges and the Ganguly Grill. There is a garden but it’s not much to speak of. I got a small but strong Margherita for Rs.500.
The Mango Tree (A), 82 Dharmapala Mawatha, Colombo 3, Tel: 011 5879790/ 5879791
This midtown curry house is a clean, bright, modern establishment with good food at a good price. It’s very popular with tourists and better-off locals, so it’s a good idea to book ahead. The food is North Indian, and included many biriyani and tandoori dishes, as well as shorbas (soups) and over fifty curries, many of which are vegetarian. I had papadoms and pickles to start, followed by Jhinge Ke Saath Lasoon (king prawns in a mild gravy) and Safed Chawel (cashew nuts and veg) with an excellent garlic naan, and basmati rice but the portions were large and I only managed to get halfway through. This was washed down with a dry fruit lassi (sweet with nuts). With water, service charge and tax, the bill came to a very reasonable Rs.2200. Most items cost the equivalent of a pound except the prawns which were a fiver. Best to go in a group so you can share, no thalis here.
Ginza Hosen (Japanese) (B), Hilton Hotel
Tiny nigiri but the tuna and prawn were delicious, the cucumber maki less so. A hefty Rs. 500 for five pieces of cuttlefish sashimi, beers nearly Rs.400.
Sakura (Japanese) (B-), 14 Rheinland Place, Colombo 3, Tel. 11 257 3877/472 3973
A Colombo institution for nearly a quarter of a century, the atmosphere is much more authentic than Ginza Hosen and it’s cheaper too. Open 11.30-2 for lunch and 5.30-10.30 for dinner it’s recommended to reserve at the weekends. There are several rooms with tatami mats or you can sit on chairs if you prefer.
I had Ten Don (tempura on a bed of rice, Rs.560) which could have been in a crispier batter but was still good, and Negima (pork and spring onion in salt, on skewers, Rs.440) which tasted ok, but nothing like the equivalent in Japan. Feeling greedy, I finished with a plate of Nigiri Sushi (eight pieces of tuna, tai, cuttlefish, prawn, roe, egg for Rs.590) Sadly though the undersized nigiri fell to pieces upon the first dip into the soy, which tells me they don’t use Japanese rice. The fact that the servers forgot the wasabi, soya sauce, fresh chopsticks and gave me a hugely oversized dipping bowl didn’t boost my confidence much. Beers however are a reasonable Rs. 280. Maybe I caught them on a bad night, but then maybe not.
Barefoot Cafe, 704 Galle Face Rd
This wonderful shop is a must for your take home pressies, even if most of them turn out to be for yourself. Particularly famous for woven fabrics (sarongs, bedspreads etc) there is also a bookshop, kids and kitchen departments. The cafe in the courtyard outside is a great place to relax for lunch (international dishes), and has jazz on Sundays.
Odel Unlimited, 5 Alexandra Place
Colombo’s poshest department store. Good for clothes and homewares.
The lagoon here is famous for its crabs and prawns. The fish market is good for photo ops but a bit smelly due to the lack of refrigeration. Tarpaulins are all that protects the seafood from the sun.
This is mosquito territory so bring defences.
Lords (A). 808 Porutota Rd
Probably the best place to eat in town and very popular with tourists. Run by a very friendly, hands-on British owner, the food is a mix of international cuisines, all beautifully presented. Starters are around Rs. 500 and mains about Rs. 1000. I searched for a local dish had a good if mild Prawn Curry (B+ for Rs.950) decorated with purple and orange popadom flowers and Apple & Mango Crummmble with icecream (Rs.450) to finish. Lion beers are Rs.300. The restaurant seems to double as a modern art gallery and the cricket references are quite low key.
The cultural capital of the Sinhalese, it has the famous Temple of the Sacred Tooth next to the lake in the centre of town, apparently housing one of Bhudda’s teeth seized from the funeral pyre. You should also try to see a Kandyan dance show. Be careful at night though, apparently it can be a bit dangerous if you are by yourself and don’t know where you are going.
Mahaweli Reach, 35 P.B.A. Weerakoon Mawatha, Kandy. Tel. 94 81 4472727
Located about 6km from the centre of Kandy, Mahaweli Reach is located in an idyllic spot next to the river of the same name. The architecture is in the old colonial style with white balconied buildings running around a central botanical garden and an intricate swimming pool. The rooms have a slightly faded feel but are spacious and comfortable, although the windows should be kept closed to prevent the monkeys from making themselves at home. You can take your meals sitting outside by the gardens, as white-clad barefoot staff attend to your needs. I also recommend a cocktail next to the lit up pool at dusk, listening to the evening chorus of the nearby jungle inhabitants, and watching the huge fruit bats swoop about in the fading light of the sun as it sinks behind the baobab trees.
To be honest, the food could be better for the price, especially in the evening, but a three-wheeler into town only costs Rs. 400 one way. An evening margherita was an extortionate Rs.825. Internet too is rather expensive at Rs. 800 for thirty mins but there is an internet cafe on your immediate right as you turn off the main road which costs Rs. 50 for the same time, albeit in rather less salubrious surroundings. It’s just a few minutes’ walk from the hotel.
The Pub, (fka The Bakehouse), Dalada Vidaya.
A nice spot for an evening meal in town, you can sit on the balcony watching the bustle of the town pass beneath or in the air-conditioned room inside which has a large video wall. The food is pretty good, mainly Western dishes, but I had delicious mixed vegetable rice with dahl, chicken and brinjal (aubergine) curries and the banana fritters with syrup and ice-cream have won an award.
Another good spot for curry apparently is the Muslim Hotel just a few doors down but this was closed for Ramadan when I was there.
Flower Song Chinese Restaurant (B), 132 Kotugodella Vidaya, Tel.222 3628
If you fancy a change, the Chinese and Thai food here is pretty decent. Lots of locals like it so may be busy at the weekend. Beer is sold until 10pm (liscensing laws are strict in this sacred town).
Free time activites:
There are several places in Sri Lanka where you can get close to elephants, but if you are sensitive to animal rights you might want to do a bit of research first. I went to two, the first was the Millenium Elephant Foundation for injured or retired elephants on the Karandupona/Kandy road where, after a talk on elephant biology, you can take a short elephant ride, if you don’t mind feeling like John Wayne afterwards. The boat-hook carrying mahouts know all the pressure points to hit to make the animals move, so if you don’t like seeing this, this might not be the place for you. Personally what I enjoyed most was watching the elephants taking a nap in the river after the walk, eyes closed and with their trunks coming up occasionally for air.
Best pay cash though as there is a Rs.300 charge for using credit cards and my friend later found his card had been charged Rs.6000 rather than Rs.600 for admittance.
The second place was the popular, government-run Pinnewalla Elephant Orphanage, where there is a herd of about 40 elephants you can get close too but not ride. The name is definitely intended to play on your heartstrings as there were only two orphans when we were there and apparently the facility is also used for breeding. If you don’t mind seeing hungry elephant orphans chained up and fed milk from a bottle in front of a large camera-toting crowd then by all means go. Admission was Rs.2000.
A fantastic day trip is Sirigiya, the ‘lion rock’, an ancient Bhuddist monastery complex which later became the royal palace of King Kasyapa. It’s one of seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka and is considered by locals to be the eighth wonder of the world, with some justification. It is located on a seemingly unassailable rock, the magma plug of a now eroded volcano. After walking through beautifully landscaped water gardens, you climb up to the lion platform, so called because the path once continued to the summit between the lion’s forepaws and gaping mouth. Today only the paws remain. Halfway up the rock is a gallery of frescoes painted on the sheer rock face. At the summit you can see the remaining walls of the palace and enjoy magnificent views in every direction. There is an issue with hornets who sometimes attack people if disturbed, which should be a consideration if you are allergic, but it was fine when we went. It’s also advisable to leave early to beat the afternoon sun as the drive takes two hours from Kandy and you will probably need another two to negotiate the round trip which involves hundreds of steps. Entrance costs around Rs. 3000. Beware hustlers; official guides carry a card round their neck. On the way back you could take in a spice garden or the famous monastic caves at Dambulla.
Road trips were probably the most exciting experience of the whole trip, not just because of the hairy driving, but for all the sights you saw along the roadside.
A trip to a spice garden is a must. We went to The Island #25 on the Kandy to Colombo road. The number is the government authorisation reference as the gardens are supported by the state and Sri Lankans can get free Ayurvedic treatment by going there, here homeopathy is part of the NHS. The one we went to involved a tour of the plants, which included cocoa, sandalwood, aloe vera, cardamom, cloves, pandanus, nutmeg, pepper and vanilla, and an explanation of their homeopathic properties. This was followed by a near full body massage with ‘red oil’ (like deep heat) from some of the trainee homeopaths, which was excellent. We gave them each a tip of Rs. 1000 and it was worth every penny. Next was a trip to the spice shop, where they will try to sell you the expensive stuff like sandalwood oil (still much cheaper than home) but I took the opportunity to load up with nutmeg, raw chocolate and vanilla pods. Finally we had an excellent meal of several dishes (we had pre-ordered the three mains when we arrived) which was one of the best meals I had during the trip, and only cost Rs.400. Memorable dishes were the tempered green beans and the cabbage curry.
A visit to a tea plantation is also fun. We had a guided tour of the factory and an explanation of all the different varieties. And yes, it’s true; tea bags are made with the dust from the factory floor. Gold and silver tips are the best stuff. We finished with a visit to the shop, great for pressies to take home, and a complimentary cuppa.
So, how to describe Sri Lankan food? Simplistically it can be seen as a cross between Indian and Thai, due to the key ingredients of coconut and lemongrass, but in truth the cuisine contains many other examples of fusion. For example, there is the input of the Burghers (Sri Lankans of Portuguese or Dutch origin) whose influence can be seen in dishes like Lamprais (five different curries with saffron rice, baked in a banana leaf). Their influence can also be seen in the meat curries which are not eaten by strict Hindus and Buddhists. Chillies are of course ubiquitous, but if you like a curry at home, you shouldn’t find it too hot here.
Another famous dish is the street food Khottu (chopped veg with short broad noodles) which is Malay in origin. You will hear the chopping sound of cooks preparing it wherever you go. Ask your tuktuk driver to take you to a good place
The Sri Lankan breakfast typically consists of Hoppers (a rice flour pancake) often cooked with an egg or alternatively String Hoppers (a Chinese influence, looking like beanthread noodles), which you can accompany with Pol Sambol or Seeni Sambol (sambols being a kind of relish or chutney), and orange pekoe tea.
The tourist information can tell you what the standard fare is for taxis into town (Rs. 1500 to 2000 depending on the time of day). It’s in the second departure hall, after customs. Money changers at the airport were fairly reasonable, about a couple more rupees to the pound better than the banks or hotels. However, you can get about ten more rupees to the pound by going to the money changers on Chatham St in the fort area. I went to Rafeek’s at #109 twice and got a good deal, about Rs.190 to the pound ( all stats from Sept ’09).
If you are hungry, the food at the Pagoda next door at #105 is basic but edible. Apparently Duran Duran shot the video for Hungry Like The Wolf here although I couldn’t see why, it’s just a big peeling room with no character.
Whilst on the subject of money, be careful when using your plastic as credit card fraud sadly seems to be rife in Sri Lanka. In 2008, three colleagues staying at the Cinnamon Grand had money stolen on their cards, whilst in 2009 another colleague I was with was massively overcharged on a visit to the Millenium Elephant Foundation (see above). It’s probably best to take a second card in case the first gets stopped and I used cash wherever possible.
Haring around in an uninsured tuktuk can be a bit scary at times, and accidents do happen. Therefore a good driver is worth his weight in gold and I was recommended this one by a friend who has been to SL about 30 times. Tarika 077 914 3582 will pick you up at the front door of the Creskat shopping centre (next door to the Grand, they don’t like trishaws waiting) and drive you at a safe and sedate pace without cheating you. Pay him what he wants without bargaining because he’s an honest chap. Just ask the other drivers what their names are till you find him. If you say ‘Are you Tarika?’ they’ll just say yes. He’s fairly short, has a moustache and speaks B1 English. Otherwise, you should bargain for the best price. The rate is about Rs.50 per km.
If you do get a dicky stomach, one of the best natural remedies is to have a King Coconut.
My return flight on Air Lanka (12 hours) called in at Male airport, so you could conceivably stop off in the Maldives for a few days before the final leg home, possibly at little extra cost.