This article originally appeared in the latest September issue of Foodie: Cooking with Jamie Oliver. Read it here!
Serendib, Ceylon, the Cinnamon Island - these are just some of the names used by the myriad of conquerors over the centuries to describe the tear-shaped island of Sri Lanka. Rich in biodiversity and microclimates, the beauty of Sri Lanka spans from lush rainforests to misty tea plantations, to endless beaches. Tucked in between, are ancient frescos, decadent palaces and charming colonial villas that whisper stories from a time long past. Known as the jewel of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has been the Holy Grail for traders for eons, with wars waged to gain possession of her valuable commodities of tea, cinnamon and gemstones. Come along as we weave through the chaotic traffic of Colombo, sip tea in English manors perched in Hill Country, meander past rivers crowded with bathing elephants, and immerse ourselves in the rich history of the last Sinhalese kingdom of Kandy.
2 Alfred House Road, Colombo 03
Tel: +94 112582162
The Gallery Cafe opened its doors in 1998, constructed on the bones of the former office of Sri Lanka’s world renowned architect, the late Geoffrey Bawa. Created by design icon Shanth Fernando, the founder of lifestyle brand Paradise Road, the venue is not only an eatery but also an art gallery featuring changing exhibitions of established and emerging local artists. Fragrant frangipani trees flank reflective pools while the dining alcoves twinkle under the flicker of candlelight. We munched on rich, aromatic lobster curry and fresh buffalo curd drizzled with nectar-like treacle before our midnight flight. And if you haven’t yet satisfied all your shopping cravings at the main Paradise Road store, there’s a smaller boutique inside the gallery!
Old Dutch Hospital, Colombo 01
Tel: +94 112342722
What do you get when you combine cricket legends and succulent Sri Lanka crabs? A bulletproof formula for success! Founded by culinary guru Dharshan Munidase alongside star cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, the stylish restaurant, with its soaring ceiling and exposed beams, is set in the refurbished historical Dutch Hospital. Dharshan, a celebrated restaurateur, is also the founder of Japanese eatery Nihonbashi, which placed 31st on this year’s Asia’s Top 50 Restaurant List. The Ministry of Crab followed at number 43. Sri Lankan crabs are famous worldwide for their sweet, succulent flesh, and ironically, most of the top quality supply is marked exclusively for export. The Ministry of Crab changes this by using the same export quality crabs for its local audience, in time-tested dishes such as chilli crab, curry crab and baked crab. These plump crustaceans are available in a range of sizes, including the “crabzilla” at a whopping two kilograms and above!
2 Station Ave, Wellawatta, Colombo 06
Tel: +94 112588568
Situated across the train tracks by a quiet beach, this unassuming little restaurant is perhaps one of Colombo’s best-kept secrets. Judging by the looks of its thatched roof and simple plastic furniture, it’s hard to believe that this little eatery has hosted numerous celebrities, politicians and royalty. Guests are usually not shown a menu, and instead, the waiters narrate the day’s fresh catches. Seafood is the centerpiece, with grilled fish and deviled crabs and cuttlefish being some of the time-honoured favourites. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy the best of Sri Lanka’s seafood while listening to the waves with your feet in the sand. If you’re lucky and bump into Hector, the eccentric owner, he will happily whip out his album full of famous visitors to share some of his memorable stories.
Amunugama Walauwa, Gunnepana, Kandy
Tel: +94 814921394
In 1804, Ratwatte Adigar, the last Chief Minister of the Kandyan Kingdom, constructed his lavish ancestral manor house in an act of “defiant decadence”, using roof tiles decreed only for the royal family. Two hundred years later, the palatial villa was reborn as a designer boutique hotel filled with modern creature comforts while retaining its captivating Old World charisma. Our stay on the elegant estate, filled with exquisite antiques and rich history, came accompanied with a private butler, who catered to our every whim, be it setting up afternoon tea in the garden, or overlooking the infinity pool perched over rice terraces. We began each morning with the delicious Sri Lankan specialty of runny egg hoppers, alongside spicy coconut sambal and caramelized onions. The decadent curry dinner, which features 12 different kinds of the addictively aromatic dish, is not to be missed. This is where we had our first taste of breadfruit, a silky starch that reminded us of a lighter, yet creamier version of the potato.
Off Mahamaya Mawatha, Kandy
Tel: +94 812234571
Perhaps Helga’s biggest folly was decorating while under the influence of hallucinatory drugs. Helga de Silva, a socialite who hails from Sri Lankan and British heritages, is the grande dame that reigns over this topsy-turvy “hotel”. The old house is equal parts extraordinary and frightening. The 35-room estate is decorated in a kaleidoscope of colours, with almost every available surface cluttered with memorabilia and quirky artwork. There’s a “blue room” filled with spooky dripped wax candlesticks, a creepy bedroom with black mosquito netting, and a chaotic “red room” filled with mind-bending colours. Plenty of celebrities have stayed here over the years, although the whole construction is a bit shabby by today’s standards. We recommend a quick tour for the unusual experience, but wouldn’t suggest staying for a drink or dinner. We were still rubbing out goosebumps hours after our visit!
Hellboda Estate, Katukitula, Pussellawa
Tel: +94 11522259928
As our car wove through tea plantations and meandered into the long driveway of Lavender House, all we could think was how well the British colonialist used to live. Built in the 1890s, the stunning estate was a tea planter’s residence and overlooks seven acres of beautifully landscaped gardens in the heart of tea country. The very private estate sits on top of a working tea plantation, with the pièce de résistance infinity pool overlooking the tea fields. With its relatively cooler temperatures, Sri Lanka’s Hill Country is the land of jungle and mist, interrupted by sudden blooms of English roses and temperate plants heralding back to its colonial past. The estate comes fully staffed with a team of butlers, as well as a chef to whip up Western and Sri Lankan delicacies. Sipping local tea with egg hoppers in the mornings as the mist blankets the plantation was a surreal experience, as was the decadent curry dinners in the red formal dining room by candlelight. On quiet evenings, we played songs on the ancient grand piano in the teak-lined foyer and imagined what life must have been like during the colonial days, while the howl of the resident gecko in the billiard room reminded us that despite the English manor surroundings, we were very much deep in the jungle.
39 Pedlar Street, Galle Fort
The Fort Printers Hotel is built upon a foundation as tumultuous as Sri Lanka’s history. The harbour city itself was discovered more than 500 years ago by a Portuguese ship that blew off course. Since then, Dutch merchants and British colonialists have each claimed Galle Fort for their own countries, as reflected by the foundation stones of the hotel, which bears the Dutch coat of arms while the British crest hangs over the main archway. The elegantly restored hotel now holds 13 suites, and a courtyard dining room overlooking a frangipani flanked pool. Since Galle Fort is a seaside town, there’s plenty of local yellowfin tuna and various shellfish to stock the kitchens. We adored the grilled lobster and prawn curry, paired with juicy pops of sweet corn fritters.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is a nursery and captive breeding ground for wild Asian elephants. Visitors can bottle feed baby elephants at designated times. Make sure you check the website for when the elephants are led down to the river for their daily baths!
Mackwoods, founded in 1841 by a British naval captain, has been producing some of the finest Ceylon tea with its 27,000 acres of plantation. Sip a cup in their onsite cafe, and take a tour of their fragrant tea factory.
Mama’s Guest House is famous for curries in Galle Fort, but since a marital dispute, the “mama” has moved on to her own enterprise a block down from the original venue. The new address for the real deal - 67 Church Street, Galle Fort. Half day cooking classes available.
Shopping! Some of the most beautiful home decors can be found at Paradise Road and Barefoot, so fill your luggage with intricately painted bowls and dazzling fabric!