Take a fun loving tropical island nation and lock the people up for three decades. Then throw open the doors and let the sun shine in. That is what’s happening in Sri Lanka as the nation gets used to the idea of living without a civil war. The country is busting loose as it throws off its shackles and enjoys life in the 21st century. Named by Lonely Planet as the number one tourist destination for 2013 and cited by the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveller and National Geographic Traveller as a top holiday destination, the country is experiencing a 50% year on year increase in tourist arrivals. As the winter chill grips London and New York, I chased the sun and escaped to Sri Lanka.
The ride from the airport to Colombo is hair raising. Some countries drive on the left hand side of the road, some countries drive on the right. In Sri Lanka they appear to drive in the shade. Driving in Sri Lanka is a contact sport.
Arriving at my mother’s house an hour or so later, I needed a tipple. What to drink?
The national brew is distilled from the unopened flowers of the coconut palm. Each morning at dawn, men walk between coconut palms on tight ropes, collecting the nectar. The liquid naturally and immediately ferments into a milky coloured, mildly alcoholic drink called toddy or palm wine. On beach vacations my parents would give us kids fresh toddy – guaranteed to make sure we fell asleep and didn’t bother the grown ups. Get your beachfront hotel or local friends to procure toddy for you – it should only be drunk fresh and isn’t commercially available. Local toddy taverns are grotty working men’s drinking holes where you squat on the ground and drink out of coconut shells. Don’t.
To make a more refined brew, toddy is poured into wooden vats made of teak or halmilla where the natural fermentation continues. Pot stills enter the process at some point resulting in a beverage called Arrack (about 35% alcohol by volume). The drink has a golden whiskey hue. It’s flavour falls somewhere between whiskey and rum, sweeter than scotch but with a powerful aftertaste. Arrack is widely available in Sri Lanka and is usually drunk with soda or ginger beer. Old Reserve remains my favourite brand. Harvey Nichols sells Sri Lankan arrack in London.
The local beers, made in the hill country in breweries established by the Brits are good strong lagers. Lion Lager is a personal favourite. The Victorian Brits also distilled gin in Sri Lanka. The quinine in the tonic water in a G+T protects against Malaria. A good reason to imbibe. Rockland’s Gin is a delightfully aromatic gin – in London you can find it at Purl and the Worship Street Whistling Shop (for a review read Maggie Thatcher and Drinking Baby Milk Formula).
For a non-alcoholic beverage, stick to king coconut water. It costs £3.00 (US $5) for a can at my gym in Notting Hill. A few pence will get you the fresh stuff in Sri Lanka. Drink it straight out of the coconut, for an authentic if slightly dribble ridden experience.
No trip to Colombo is complete without sipping a cocktail at the Galle Face Hotel. Established in 1864 this is the oldest hotel east of the Suez. Its guest list includes Mark Twain, Anton Chekov, John D. Rockefeller, Yuri Gagarin, Richard Nixon and various members of British royalty. It’s listed in the book 1000 Places to See Before You Die. On arrival, waiters padding silently in bare feet greet you. On my last visit a purposeful looking security guard prowled the garden armed with a slingshot to chase away crows. Anything fancy will test the bartenders here – ask for a simple Gin and Tonic or Arrack and Soda. Hang out by the salt water pool naturally refreshed by currents from the Indian Ocean and enjoy the sunset.
Sticking to the colonial theme I usually meet friends at the Colombo Rowing Club (it is a member’s only establishment so get a local friend to take you). Racing sculls are stored on the ground floor. Upstairs is a wonderfully atmospheric teak paneled room, open on three sides, overlooking the Beira Lake. Wooden plaques commemorate long forgotten rowing victories against colonial rivals. Fan blades churn the air overhead, moving the air and keeping the mosquitos at bay. The draft Lion Lager is excellent here as is the spicy devilled seafood.
The hottest venue in Colombo currently is Qbaa where I listened to live jazz and blues while sipping a margarita. Financed by cricket legend Sanath Jayasuriya, it offers a sophisticated drinking and dining experience. There is an extensive cocktail menu, but I find that sticking to standard summer cocktails is generally advisable in Sri Lanka – mixologists are thin on the ground. Margaritas, Cosmopolitans and Mojitos are generally safe. If you want to push the boat out on cocktails try the Floor by O overlooking the cricket pitch at the Colombo Hockey and Football Club. They are seeking entry into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most number of cocktails on a menu – they currently boast over 1500. I love the tamarind martinis at The Gallery Café, served in the former office of Geoffrey Bawa, the premier South Asian architect of his generation.
Sri Lanka is firmly entrenched in the South Asian tradition of dynastic rule. Get a flavour for it at Tintagel, the former residence of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, his wife Sirima (the world’s first woman prime minister) and their daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga (a former President). In a macabre twist you can walk on the spot where Mr Bandaranaike was fatally shot by a Buddhist monk. That’s the problem with holy rollers – you never know when they are packing heat under their robes.
The Bandaranaike’s were ardent socialists and nationalised many private enterprises, effectively destroying them. At the height of his campaign MPs avoided the Men’s Room at the House of Parliament, worried that they might bump into the rather fay prime minister who was known to nationalise anything big…
It is ironic that the home of socialists is now home to an upmarket French/European hotel and restaurant catering to a very capitalist clientele. If you really want to eat European food in Sri Lanka or impress a local lass, go. The food is good, the decor is divine. Bring your own booze however, since the last time I visited, Tintagel couldn’t get a liquor license on account of being located near a school.
This is the time to visit Sri Lanka. The most expensive cocktail I could find cost only 980 rupees (about £5 or US$ 7), but prices are rising fast as the country finds its feet and gets firmly onto the tourist circuit. Watch some cricket, lie on a beach, catch some rays, sip a cocktail. No wonder Horace Walpole coined the word Serendipity (finding something good without looking for it) after visiting Serendib, the ancient name by which Arab traders referred to Sri Lanka. Go!
My boyhood friend Nishad Wijetunge and his wife Budeni run the excellent Wayfarers boutique travel agency whom I use to arrange all my holidays in Sri Lanka. Tell him I sent you.