Editor's Blog

The Sri of life

How often does a new hotel opening attract a country’s president, prime minister, minister of finance and minister of tourism to its inauguration ceremony? (I can remember the queen attending a ceremony in Southampton once but that was to launch a new ship…)

This extraordinary guest list suggests the opening is regarded as a pretty important event by some well-connected people.  And there were many VIPs in attendance at the slick opening of the brand new Shangri-La hotel Colombo last week. Alongside the traditional drummers – which would make a lovely welcome for an event – there was a colourful and noisy lion dance, marking the auspicious occasion for the Chinese owners and investors.

This elegant hotel occupies a prime position on Galle Face, overlooking the Indian Ocean. A popular stretch of beachfront with locals flying colourful kites and street hawkers selling delicious snacks, it is also the site of huge development.  Land is being reclaimed before your eyes with dredgers, cranes and ships gushing huge quantities of sand to create an area that Sri Lanka hopes will resemble those offshore sites in Singapore and Dubai, all within five years.

The opening of the Shangri-la feels like a landmark moment in the life of this bustling city. With much of the centre a no-go area during the long civil war, which ended in 2009, it is now ripe for development. The traffic is a terrifying mix of careering buses, hazardous tuk-tuks and death-dodging motorcyclists while many of buildings resonate its colonial past. Many are standing empty in varying states of disrepair while others are being refurbished – some to an impressive standard by the military being put to work now the war is over and learning new skills. There are temples, green parks, tropical trees and wonderful restaurants. And all around are tower cranes and new high-rise residences and offices emerging.

The hotel itself offers 541 lovely bedrooms, beautifully designed not just to be easy on the eye but to be user-friendly. Oh joy, there is even a master light switch. The new carpets are so thick and bouncy you want to slip your shoes off even in the ballroom, which is currently the largest in the country. The restaurants are a serious feature of the property with a Shang Palace offering Chinese including fabulous Peking duck,  and Colombo’s celebrity chef Dharshan Munidasa is bringing his Kaema Sutra – steady, that’s Kaema as in food – to showcase Sri Lankan cuisine. The attention to detail in the design of the restaurants is some of the best I’ve seen anywhere.

But the real attraction of this glittering five-star hotel is its staff. Sri Lanka is rightly famous for its welcoming people and the smiles in the large tranquil lobby of the Shangri-la feel very genuine. There is clearly a pride felt in being a part of what could be the ushering in of a new era.

Sri Lanka has emerged from 30 years of civil war. It is a beautiful island with wildlife, jungles, beaches and tea plantations to explore. Serious money is now backing its future as an international event and leisure destination. It could be time to take a look.

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