AN INDIAN OCEAN SONATA | Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo
Big player luxury meets seafront finesse at Sri Lanka’s most buzzing new address, the Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo
A water lily is keeping my gaze occupied. This isn’t your garden-variety water lily either, but a small army-sized interpretation of Sri Lanka’s national flower, spread out across the foyer ceiling of the Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo. Fabricated through an assortment of material and accented with shimmering crystals, the art installation has been my point of welcome to this, Colombo’s most talked-about new hotel and one of the latest to join Shangri-La’s global empire bouquet.
“This is a constant feature of the hotel,” Mahika Chandrasena, Director of Public Relations, informs me as she receives me. She’s right. During my stay, I will go on to discover this and other flowers, either spread out across ceilings in their light blush avatars, accented on to fabric and linen, or shaped into a piece of décor. I also notice that another Sri Lankan mainstay – the elephant – has found its way into the grand lobby. This metal and stainless steel creation, fashioned by artists Man Fung-Yi and Mok Yat-San, has further made its presence on coffee mugs and teacups.
I usually have a love-hate relationship with large hotel chains, at times discomforted by a sprawling sense of homogeneity. Here at the Shangri-La, Colombo though, I find the art and sense of restraint to be soothing antidotes and instant points of connection. The hotel lobby, branching out into the Sapphyr Lounge, would’ve been an intimidating point of entry, if not for these crucial artistic flourishes. My gaze slowly finds another point of fixation: spread out beyond me, the Indian Ocean and sunlight come pouring in through floor-to-ceiling windows that magnify the space to even greater dimensions.
It’s this same view, albeit from a dramatically different vantage point, that greets me at my 29th floor Horizon Club Ocean View Room. This is a beautiful address, draped in rich tones of subtlety and elegance. There are 61 of these rooms, occupying the hotel’s top three floors. From my window, the Indian Ocean sweeps across the horizon, cradling the Sri Lankan coastline nearer to me, beckoning fables and ships miles off into the distance. The perfection of this view is marred somewhat by the large-scale construction that is currently beleaguering Colombo. Large amounts of Chinese money and the upcoming Port City – a behemoth meant to act as a seafront city unto itself – means that reclamation of land, dredging of the ocean, and large-scale industrial activity can’t be escaped.
I remind myself that this is the Shangri-La, though. I breathe. I meditate. I immerse. My lavish room – adorned in the soothing warmth of soft teals and browns, marble and silk, coastal wood, and contemporary languor – gives me access to the Horizon Club Lounge on the 32nd floor. This is to become my go-to spot for evening cocktails and canapés, a wide selection of newspapers and magazines, and a choice of freshly brewed teas to help me witness the orange blaze of sunset in lofty style.
All in all, the hotel comprises 541 rooms, including 34 suites and 41 serviced apartments, together with access to a bespoke collection of cultural and historical experiences for the curious traveller. If you have dollars to burn, the one Presidential Shangri-La Suite pours on the exclusivity with a palatial living room, three spacious guest rooms, and, but naturally, personal butler service.
I’ve been to Colombo before, and I recognise the fact that the hotel occupies the city’s most coveted address – 1 Galle Face, caressed by the Galle Face Green promenade. I’m also aware that one of my favourite neighbourhoods – the Dutch Hospital Precinct – lies a short walk away. This is the sort of historical heritage I’m usually keen to wade into by myself, but this morning, the hotel has arranged for an insider’s tour, courtesy Mark Forbes - brainchild behind Colombo City Walks. I’m introduced, thus, to some of the precinct’s most storied buildings and lesser-known addresses, traversing Art Deco and Victorian flourishes, old hotels and department stores frozen in their decrepit elegance, and diplomats’ homes bathed in wide and manicured in greens.
It’s to the Dutch Hospital’s courtyard’s inventory of restaurants and bars that I return to later in the night. Sri Lankan Celebrity Chef Dharshan Munidasa and I are trading stories over bottles of red at his much-loved Ministry of Crab. “It’s a proud moment for me to be entering your land,” he tells me, alluding to the restaurant’s imminent India arrival. Dharshan holds a grouse about having to wait so long to enter the country. But he’s fairly confident that his newest baby will find quicker acceptance.
And it’s Kaema Sutra I’m savouring as our conversation continues. A partnership between Dharshan and Sri Lanka’s most famous export to India, the actress Jacqueline Fernandez, this stylishly furnished affair is an ode to contemporary Sri Lankan cuisine. A wall of folkloric masks stare down at you, while a breezy alfresco setting sits beautiful in the gentle dapple of tiki torches. “I want to take the island’s spice heritage and merge it with age-old cooking techniques,” Dharshan tells me. I nod, tucking into a humble appam that has been given the black squid ink treatment and a generous dollop of buffalo curd (The Black Hopper). Another Sri Lankan street favourite, kottu, arrives next, blending fleshy crabmeat with a peppery gravy. As my cocktail count goes up, Kaema Sutra’s signature dessert appears in the shape of a treacle hopper holding whipped curd, strawberries, and gooey treacle. This has been a lovely meal, but I feel Kaema might need to take its game up several, spicier notches if it is to make headway into an India buzzing with cosmopolitan adventurism.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo will be the city’s focal hotspot for gourmands and party hoppers though. Its dine/play assemblage, conceptualised by Bond Design Studio, includes a further five restaurants. Shang Palace, the Group’s signature restaurant, extends its legacy in authentic Chinese cuisine by serving up a range of traditional delicacies from Sichuan and Canton. The traditional Siheyuan house setting is the perfect accompaniment to custom-made duck preparations and tea from a tea sommelier. I’m certain, too, that the Capital Bar & Grill will become a socialising nucleus; its steak and seafood grills, alfresco dining on the terrace, a bar-focussed lounge that plays to the sounds of live smooth jazz, and the Capital’s finest selection of whiskies being the perfect ingredients for a celebration.
I sense an air of freedom at the Shangri-La. Breakfast is taken at Table One, an all-day restaurant that eschews messy buffets for the warmth and finesse of cooking stations themed around cooking techniques and an artistic vibe fed by tree structures and cinnamon stick detailing. I peek into wedding preparations at a ballroom capable of banqueting up to 1,500 guests; I gander through the hotel’s expectedly enormous selection of spaces catering to the MICE industries; I stroll through the property’s 10 acres, soon to accommodate an office tower, two residential buildings and a high-end shopping mall; I sip, slowly, on cocktails at The Pool Bar that graces the sun terrace. At Chi, The Spa, I’m only too happy to be slathered and pampered by the Ceylon Indulgence Therapy.
Appreciating another drink and another sunset at the Horizon Club Lounge, I wonder whether the view before my eyes will have changed beyond recognition at me next visit. I wonder how the ocean will hold on to its purity. Here at the Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo though, the Indian Ocean persists with its undeniable melodies.
1, Galle Face, Colombo 2 | (94) 11 788 8288 | www.shangri-la.com/colombo/shangrila