Checking out the first new 5-star hotel in Colombo in nearly 20 years

The opening of Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo was no small matter – certainly big enough to attract the attention of Maithripala Sirisena, the President of Sri Lanka, who led the hotel’s November 16 inauguration, participating in an eye-dotting ritual with a trio of Chinese lions – each inhabited by two nimble dancers flown in from Malaysia – and the country’s own traditional lamp-lighting ceremony. The bi-cultural customs observed, President Sirisena announced the hotel officially open for business, and Sri Lankan actress and Bollywood star Jacqueline Fernandez, clad in a bright pink sari, became the first guest to check in… though truth be told, I had arrived the day before to give CNT one of the first glimpses of this new skyscraper hotel.

Part of the modish One Galle Face development, Shangri-La Hotel Colombo
is the first phase of the project to open, with residences and a mall to follow shortly. Arriving in a Land Rover (the hotel’s fleet will also include Jaguars, a far cry from the island’s whimsical tuk-tuks), the property is undeniably contemporary and glitzy, yet has managed to retain island vibes: glass walls look out to the ocean, and the design and colours throughout the hotel are inspired by Sri Lanka’s natural wilderness – in particular the national flower, the water lily, which manifests in crystal chandeliers, carpeting and artworks. The look is in keeping with the island-city’s designs on becoming a sophisticated urban centre. This is even more apparent in the guest rooms, where large windows frame the breadth of a city dotted with construction, revitalising itself after decades of civil war. The bustle remains outside the rooms, which feature a sea- inspired palette of soft teals and browns; the thick glass windows are impressively sound- proof – I never hear a single beep from the traffic passing below on busy Galle Face Road.

Eschewing cookie-cutter restaurants, there are plenty of surprises in the hotel’s dining portfolio, with each venue showcasing a unique and well-thought-out concept. Table One, the airy all-day dining restaurant named after the building’s address, feels like a chic jungle, where a chef at a live cooking station whips up egg hoppers, a local speciality, paired with sweet and spicy chutneys. On the ground floor, Capital Bar & Grill touts a 1.3kg tomahawk steak that can be enjoyed in its New York-style setting with four discrete dining areas, including a masculine-feeling bar and an intimate “white room”. Live jazz enlivens the atmosphere throughout the week. Even Shangri-La’s signature Shang Palace gets shaken up in this newest edition, with carpets and white tablecloths swapped for a more funky vibe in a space that’s a modern take on China’s traditional siheyuan houses. What hasn’t changed much, fortunately, is the excellent menu, which includes Peking duck cooked to crisp perfection in a custom-made oven.

One of the most anticipated restaurants on-property is an outpost of Kaema Sutra – kaema meaning “food” in the local language – by celebrity chef Dharshan Munidasa (his Ministry of Crab is on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list). I had the pleasure of dining with chef Munidasa at the outlet’s original location. The contemporary take on Sri Lankan cuisine highlights the country’s range of incredible produce: sashimi-quality tuna cooked into a curry tableside and a spot-on reproduction of buffalo hot wings using only Sri Lankan spices. Designed in tiki-meets- Ceylon style, the new location in Shangri-La exudes a fun sort of energy. (During our dinner, Munidasa let slip that he might bring one of his brands to Dubai – watch this space.)

Scheduled to open this month at the hotel is CHI, The Spa, an 814sqm wellness centre that will offer a mix of traditional Sri Lankan and Asian treatments. Adding to the relaxation is an outdoor pool overlooking the ocean, which proves particularly refreshing after a day out discovering the city.

With its positioning within walking distance to the old Colombo Fort neighbourhood and Dutch Hospital entertainment area, it makes sense that the hotel works with local guides who can share fascinating insights about the city. Left untouched for decades (and in some cases, centuries), in recent years buildings have begun to be restored or refurbished. Rumour has it that a certain Knightsbridge-based luxury department store may take over the grand old Cargills, once Colombo’s upmarket shopping destination in the early 1900s. It would be, in my opinion, a better use of the historic building than the American fried- chicken chain currently inhabiting it.

Although the new Shangri-La soars over these historic neighbours in its brand-new tower, it’s never above them, instead paying homage to the country’s rich past and being an active partner in creating a vibrant future.

This story was originally published in the December 2017 edition of Condé Nast Traveller Middle East, as seen below

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