Wanderlust with Cynthia Rosenfeld

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I’m standing in the mirror considering an early Donna Karan inspired one-shoulder evening dress in a warm capuccino hue, draped with my just-purchased handcrafted necklace of semi-precious stones and Swarovski crystals when it hits me, the not-so-long-ago impossibility of such a stylish scene here in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. Two days later, in the old Colombo Fort, I run out of fingers counting elegant colonial era buildings under impressive restoration, including the Cargills Building dating to 1906, now in play to be reborn as a Raffles hotel, and the 400-year-old Dutch Hospital that re-opened in 2011 with fine dining outlets like Ministry of Crab (ministryofcrab.com), the first eatery in the country to serve export quality, just-caught Sri Lankan crabs.

This is definitely not the Colombo that I know. On my first arrival in 1996, the capital of this resplendent isle, rich in history and artisan traditions, offered just two shops worth a stop: Barefoot (barefootceylon.com), for kaleidoscopic hand-loomed textiles, and tropical chic homeware store Paradise Road (paradiseroad.lk). Beautiful booty to be sure, but what to do on one’s second, third or 30th visit to the city? Back then, Colombo was little more than the landing strip between the country’s northern cultural treasures and its idyllic southern beaches.

I’m pleased to report that promising change is afoot, turning this one-time pitstop for souvenirs into a welcoming city worth exploring. Since ending his nation’s 26-year-old civil war in May 2009, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been leveraging that definitive victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to clean up Colombo. In place of checkpoints manned by machine gun-toting, fatigue-clad kids and high-wall barriers along the city’s grand avenues, visitors can now meander down landscaped sidewalks lined with blossoming trees and admire revitalised colonial buildings – as I do in the old Colombo Fort and Pettah market with historian Mark Forbes of Colombo City Walks (colombocitywalks.blogspot.com). 

I even check in for the night at one of those revamped timewarps. Housed in a 250-year-old bungalow constructed for Gujarati trader Salehbhoy Moosajee, The Park Street Hotel (parkstreethotel-colombo.com) has been updated for 21st century guests with an alluring swimming pool and 10 sprawling accommodations of polished concrete floors, photogenic interiors and rain showers which are hung from 15-foot ceilings that feel refreshingly monsoonal.

My high fashion moment happens when I decide to wear my Ayne Nalir necklace (by appointment at ayne.co) to Melaché (melache.com) along the coastal Galle Road, where sexy viscose jersey frocks finished off with local textile touches by Dimuthu Sahabandu hang alongside hippy chic dresses from Deneth. This 2012 Colombo Fashion Week winner incorporates the flora chettha fabric of her native Kurunegala village, a two-hour drive into the island’s lush interior.

The island’s rising artistic talent can be seen on the walls of Saskia Fernando Gallery (saskiafernandogallery.com). The stark white box-shape space fringed by elephant ear palm fronds incubates budding indigenous talents like sculptor Prageeth Manohansa, whose scrap metal animals are collected by jetsetters like Amanresorts architect Kerry Hill. Nearby, in the Cinnamon Gardens neighbourhood, Hempel Galleries (hempelgalleries.com) showcases ‘art beyond the decorative’ – including 2010 Sovereign Asia Art Foundation Prize winner Pala Pothupitiye, whose intricately re-drawn Sri Lankan maps speak of the enduring post-war displacement among ethnic Tamils.

Those searching for Asia’s next capital hotspot need only alight on these lush tropical shores where modern Sri Lankan masters in hotels, food, art and fashion are mixing things up afresh. Times certainly do change. For the better…

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