20 reasons to visit Colombo, Sri Lanka

Colombo classic: The historic Galle Face Hotel.
Colombo classic: The historic Galle Face Hotel. Photo: Getty Images

1 PETTAH
Brave the streets of Pettah to pick up everything from
fabrics and fruit to watches and wedding invitations. “It’s utter
chaos,” the locals cheerfully admit. “You can get a suit made in two
hours, though it may last only three.” The streets are crammed with
saris, electronics and ayurvedic medicines, while the fruit and
vegetable market heaves with sacks of outrageously fierce-looking
chillis.

2 GALLE FACE GREEN
 It’s easy to forget Colombo is a seaside city when you’re
stuck in a 1pm traffic snarl on the Galle Road. The best way to
reconnect with the Indian Ocean is by making like a local and
promenading on the Galle Face Green. Sundays are a big day for local
families, kite flyers and food trucks serving deep-fried snacks.

3 SRI LANKAN CRAB
Singapore’s famed chilli crabs actually come from Sri Lanka,
so go back to the heart of it all at Ministry of Crab, one of
Australian-Sri Lankan chef Peter Kuruvita’s top picks on the Colombo
dining scene. It may be the priciest place in town, but chef Dharshan
Munidasa’s cooking is worth it (ministryofcrab.com). Crab gets the Tamil
treatment on Sundays in a Jaffna-style crab curry at Yarl (56 Vaverset
Place, Wellawate, Colombo 6) or little sister Yarl Eat House (Cnr Galle
and Station roads, Wellawatte).

4 OLD DUTCH HOSPITAL
Until recently, the Old Dutch Hospital was a crumbling ruin.
Dating from 1677, it’s the oldest building in town and now its long, low
courtyards are Colombo’s new heart. It’s a one-stop shop for clothes
and gifts, spa treatments, chic dining, serious tea drinking at Heladiv
Tea Club or more relaxed pizza and steins of beer at Colombo Fort Cafe.
Come nightfall, it’s a buzzy hotbed of locals and tourists.

5 CLOTHES SHOPPING
Odel is Colombo’s fashion house of choice (5, Alexandra Pl,
Col 7) and KT Brown its designer, with ethnically inspired designs (7
Coniston Place, Col 7, ktbrownstudio.com).
For leaner budgets, Cotton Collection (143 Dharmapala Mw, Col 7) has
fab finds and nearby Kelly Felder (117 Dharmapala Mw) employs only local
designers with new stock every Tuesday. For cool beachwear, check out
the super-colourful Arugam Bay label, in Odel, Barefoot and their
showroom (32 Ward Place, Col 6), which is also home to contemporary
Buddhi Batiks. Grab a tuk-tuk and skip between ’em.

6 BAREFOOT
It’s a cafe, an art gallery, a performance space and shop.
Established 40 years ago by Sri Lankan artist, entrepreneur and
philanthropist Barbara Sansoni, its signature style is hand-woven,
hand-dyed yarns made into brightly coloured children’s toys,
free-flowing clothing and fabrics manufactured ethically by women across
the country. Also one of the best places for books on Sri Lanka (704
Galle Road, Colombo 3 and Old Dutch Hospital, barefootceylon.com).

7 BOUTIQUE HOTELS
It’s a small country and Sri Lanka has embraced the small,
boutique hotel concept. Lovers of classic interiors head to style guru
Shanth Fernando’s 10-room Tintagel (tintagelcolombo.com) while Casa Colombo is a playful (some would say over-the-top) 12-suite remake of a 200-year-old mansion (casacolombo.com). Park Street Hotel mixes minimalism and antiques (asialeisure.lk) while Lake Lodge’s 13 rooms overlook South Beira Lake (taruhotels.com). Newcomer Colombo Courtyard doesn’t have the design pedigree but it’s small and centrally located (colombocourtyard.com). Because of a government tariff, Colombo hotels aren’t cheap. They also book up quickly, so get in early.

8 AYURVEDIC SPAS
The subcontinent’s traditional ayurvedic medicine morphs into
a sublime spa experience at the Siddhalepa Ayurveda Spa (33 Wijerama
Ma, Col 7, siddhalepa.com) or Spa Ceylon, with its scents of white tuberose, red sandalwood and jasmine (Dutch Hospital, Park Street Mews, spaceylon.com).
A warning: be prepared for days of oily hair or plenty of hair washing
if you’re signing in for Shirodhara, where warm oil is continually
dripped onto your third eye (forehead).

9 ART MARKET
Support local artists with a visit to Colombo’s kala pola
(art market) on Sunday mornings, where affordable artwork is hung around
Viharamahadevi Park (Col 7). If you miss the market, Saskia Fernando
Gallery exhibits Sri Lanka’s top artists (61 Dharmapala Ma, Col 7) or
cool down at artist Harry Pieris’ serene Cinnamon Gardens mansion, the
Sapumal Foundation (34/2 Barnes Place, Col 7). Barefoot and Paradise
Road Gallery and Cafe (2 Alfred House Road, Col 11) show and sell the
country’s greats.

10 GEM & JEWELLERY SHOPPING
Sri Lanka is most famous for its blue sapphires, as worn by
the British royals. Slip in to premier gem dealer Colombo Jewellery
Stores for a quick education and check out the well-priced men’s watches
while you’re there (1 Alfred House Gardens, Col 3, also Old Dutch
Hospital, Galle Face Hotel, cjs.lk). Ridhi is a good stop for affordable silver jewellery (74 Lauries Road, Col 4, ridhi.lk).

11 SUNDOWNERS
The verandah of the Galle Face Hotel, looking over the Indian
Ocean, is the place to be seen for a sunset cocktail or dinner
aperitif. The grand dame has been swizzling sticks since 1864. Budget
alternatives include the sleepy rooftop bar of the Colombo City Hotel
beside the Dutch Hospital, or join the locals on Galle Face Green with a
bottle of pop.

12 CRICKET
Go to a cricket match. “There’s no sledging here, it’s just a
big party,” swear the locals. Catch the internationals at the R.
Premadasa Stadium. For more slap of leather on willow, pop in for lunch
and current matches or old classics on the many big screens at the
Aussie-owned Cricket Club Cafe, (34 Queens Road, Col 3, thecricketclubcafeceylon.com).

13 TEA TASTING
Taste some of the world’s finest teas at Mlesna Tea Centre
(89 Galle Road, Col 3) or the Australian favourite, Dilmah Tea Shop (5
Alexandra Pl, Col 7). If you can endure the seriously lacklustre service
in the government-owned Sri Lanka Tea Shop, you’ll find a broad range
of teas, from working-class brews to elaborately packaged gifts.

14 WALKING TOUR
Colombo local Mark Forbes takes you by the hand through the
Portuguese, Dutch and British architecture and influences on Colombo.
Pause for a cuppa, butter cake and harbour views at the Grand Oriental
Hotel, which dates from 1837, before continuing on through the Pettah
markets and into the ramshackle 180-year-old mansion that is the Dutch
Period Museum (colombocitywalks.com).

15 SHORT EATS & HOPPERS
Colombo’s short eats are a vast collection of pastries with
such fillings as curried chicken, seeni sambol (caramelised onion) and
fabulous fish rolls. Kollupitiya, in Colombo 3, is fertile hunting
ground for short eats cafes: try Perera & Sons’ modern, super-clean
branches (2 Dharmapala Mw), stalwart The Fab (474 Galle Road), Cafe on
the 5th (108 5th Lane) or Sponge, which many rate the top short eatery
in town (347 Galle Road). Hit local fave Green Cabin for hoppers, thin
pancakes made with coconut milk, designed to scoop up curry sauces (453
Galle Road). Don’t expect gushing service.

16 UNIQUE SOUVENIRS
Resist globalisation and discover unique, locally produced
artisan products: find textural elephant dung paper, ceramics at the
government-owned handicrafts shops Laksala (60 Fort St, Col 1) and
Barefoot’s signature bright woven linens. Sri Lanka’s premier homewares
store, Paradise Road, prints the curvaceous Sinhalese alphabet and
elephant motifs on to household linens in a palette of black and French
beige (213 Dharmapala Mw, Col 7). Find affordable gifts at Casa Serena
(122 Havelock Rd, Col 5) or try Lakpahana (14, Phillip Gunawardena Mw,
(Reid Ave, Col 7), Suriya (39 Layards Rd, Col 5).

17 FEEL-GOOD TOURISM
Shop for fair-trade toys, ethically produced food and craft
at the kid-friendly Good Market, every Thursday from noon-8pm (Water’s
Edge Park, Battaramulla, thegoodmarket.lk). The Warehouse Project gives
good reason to eat more cake: profits from its Wonderbar soul food and
Cakes for a Cause projects help run community programs for the local
Maradana population. Email for a tour of the watta (shanty community).
See warehouseproject.lk.

18 MULTI-FAITH VOYEURISM
Pick a religion, you’ll find an elaborate place of worship in
Colombo: the Buddhist Gangaramaya temple on Beira Lake was designed in
part by the influential architect Geoffrey Bawa. Wolvendaal Church is
the country’s oldest Protestant church, from 1749, while the red and
white striped Jami-Ul-Alfar is open for visitors except during prayer
times. For a hit of intricacy, visit a Hindu kovil: the old and new
Kathiresan Kovils in Pettah were built to appease the war gods. The
Catholic St Lucia’s Cathedral is modelled on St Peter’s Basilica in the
Vatican and the Sambodhi Chaitiya is a shining white dagoba (stupa)
raised so seafarers could see it offshore.

19 THE FORT DISTRICT
Fort is the heart of Colombo, named for the 17th-century,
Dutch-built ramparts pulled down by the Brits in 1879. Its modern face
is the glitzy World Trade Centre (where you can get a decent coffee) and
the revitalised Old Dutch Hospital. Its British Raj face is undoubtedly
the gothic pink-and-white Cargills Building on York Street, the Old
Parliament building (1930), the old GPO (1891) and the Lighthouse Clock
Tower, built two years before London’s Big Ben, in 1857, now towered
over by skyscrapers.

20 MOUNT LAVINIA
Dive into the Indian Ocean at Mount Lavinia, half an hour
north of central Colombo. The waters are far cleaner than off the Galle
Face Green and the beach is lined with seafood restaurants. For a taste
of luxury, check into the five-star British colonial Mount Lavinia Hotel
for colonial-style High Tea overlooking the ocean, from 3.30pm daily (mountlaviniahotel.com).


By Belinda Jackson, published in the Sun-Herald newspaper.

Bill Clinton, Norwegian chess and the depths of the polar night: on the Hurtigruten

The view from the Panorama Lounge on
decks 8 and 9, MS Midnatsol.

This morning was spent eavesdropping on two old fellas from San Diego: from taking photos with Bill
Clinton, to Russia as a re-emerging military power and car parking in downtown San Diego.
On this
journey on the Hurtigruten, from Kirkenes in far northern Norway to Bergen in the south, the guests are predominantly British, American and German. I catch Australian accents more times than I
expected, many drawn by the lure of spotting the Northern Lights.  

There is also a substantial
smattering of Norwegians using the ship for its original purpose: as a means of transportation between the country’s coastal towns and cities.

The
Hurtigruten is a route, not one particular ship (‘hurtig ruten’ = fast route’). A ship leaves Bergen every day of the year and has
been doing so since 1936, interrupted only by wars. My ship is the MS Midnatsol,
(Midnight Sun) built in 2003 and with 644 berths, can take up to 1000
passengers.
One of the many lounges on the MS Midnatsol,

The oldest
ship, the MS Lofoten, was built in 1964 and takes just 153 passengers.
Apparently it’s very popular with tourists, though locals fight to understand
why. “It’s just an old barge, compared with the Midnatsol,” one tells me. 

Our cabin
is a cosy little affair: two couches fold down to make comfortable beds,
there’s a little desk and a bathroom. There are hooks and nooks to tuck your
gear away in, though the ship’s lounges, cafes and libraries are preferable,
with their panoramic windows and wi-fi which, undestandably, gets a bit shaky when the weather is tossing the ship around on the stretches of open sea.
“You won’t
starve on the journey,” a waitress tells me sorrowfully. Our induction to the chef’s
hand is lunch, with five types of fish including roasted cod, gravalax (smoked
salmon), tubes of Mills Caviar and yes, today features a reindeer casserole
with onions and mushrooms.
The dining room on the MS Midnatsol.

Stopping at
coastal habitations, sometimes for less than 15 minutes, we’re encouraged to
jump off and explore, be it a polar bear museum, taking a dip in the Arctic pool on the open Deck 9 or listening to a midnight concert when we reach Tromso. With restaurants, gym,
auditoriums, laundry and saunas, it’s a floating world, yet unlike the global
cruise liners, all the staff are local or from neighbouring Sweden. 

And with reindeer pate
and caramelised cheese on the menu, live chess broadcasts on the local tv station and a gift shop full of toy trolls and
snowflake knits, it’s undeniably Norwegian.

Catching the light fantastic: the Northern Lights in Norway

The view from deck 9, MS Midnatsol. Photo: Belinda Jackson

I have seen
the light! The Northern Lights! That shimmering curtain of luminescent green
that cloaks the Arctic Circle in the winter months. 
Coy and as unpredictable
as the Sydney bus service, we struck it lucky by spying the lights on our very
first night on the ship. The lights made a brief appearance before dinner –
which only keen watchers managed to catch – but put on a post-dinner show for
all. They reappeared around midnight after the crowds had gone to bed, to dance
and skate across the sky for just a few of us well-rugged travellers on the
Hurtigruten, here in northern Norway.
“We waited
six nights before we saw anything,” a fellow cruiser told me, while helping me
set my camera to catch the phenomenon, which is the result of solar flares
hitting the Earth’s atmosphere. ISO ramped up, exposure 10 seconds, manual
focus, camera tied to a deck chair: for we photographic amateurs, it’s really a
case of pointing, shooting and hoping that something shows up at the end.
But let me
blow a few myths: if you were standing on deck in sub-zero temperatures at
midnight waiting for a ray of green light to hit you in the face, you’d be
waiting a long time. According to the ship’s guest lecturer Dr John Mason, most
of the colours in the Northern Lights are invisible to our eyes: we just can’t
see the red and turquoise bands with the naked eye. Green is the most apparent
colour, followed by violet, but even then, when you look into the sky, they show
up more like a hazy grey cloud against the clear black sky.
Point a
camera at the grey clouds and you’ll see the eerie green rays appear in your
final photo – and even then only when you open the lens for up to 15 seconds.
It’s not always like this, otherwise the Lights wouldn’t be in Sami folklore, long
before cameras became a natural extension of our arms.
The band of
green light was a bridge between earth and heaven upon which departed souls
would travel, a mystical, powerful force that is as strong a lure for us today. 

Norway asks: what does the fox say? ‘Brrrrrr.’

The new Astrup Fearnely museum, by too-hot architect Renzo Piano.
“I hear
it’s a bit of a backwater,” says an unnamed expat living in Sweden, looking
across at neighbouring Norway. Talk about winning friends… but I’ve heard this before, Swedes sniffing at what
they see as hard-smoking, hard-drinking Norwegians who are rich from oil, not
from hard work.
It’s the classic ‘fight-with-your-neighbours’ scenario. Think Britain and France. The USA and Canada. Australia and New Zealand.

If you
tuned into Norway’s national tv station NRK, you’d probably agree. Previous
programs include 12-hour features on stacking firewood, knitting and a minute-by-minute
program of the cruise/cargo ship route, the Hurtigruten, which makes its way up
and down the Norwegian coastline, from Bergen to Kirkenes. It was a 134-hour, non-stop
broadcast from one of the ships, and it rated its pants off.
“Did you
see the program?” an urbane concierge asks me at Oslo’s beautiful Grand Hotel. “It
was great!”
Elkburger at the face of new Nordic food, Kolonihagen,
in Oslo’s gritty Grunerlokka district.

“Sorry, can’t
say I did,” I reply. “But I’m going to be living it instead.”

After a day
in Oslo, where the nonsensical Norwegian hit song ‘What does the fox say?” blares
from cosy-looking bars, we fly to icy Kirkenes, way up in the northernmost tip
of Norway, in the Finnmark region, to start our trip.
To give you
an idea of the locale, Kirkenes is two hours’ flying time from Oslo, heading
due north, in the Arctic Circle. It’s 7km from the Russian border and 37km west
of Finland. Murmansk is 250km away, about four hours’ drive.
Looking out
of the plane window, the blackness is spotted infrequently with orange lights indicating
some sort of dwelling. The ground is white with snow and ice, slick with
running water and while the temperature reads a relatively balmy 2.2 degrees
(positive), the wind chill factor drags it down somewhere below zero.
“It’s quite warm for this time of year,” the
taxi driver tells me. “A few years ago, it was -20C in early November.” My face
starts to crack just at the thought of that cold.
Dinner is a
very red chowder with pepper, king crab and chunks of cod, and a reindeer
burger the size of a side plate: for all its insanely low temperatures, this is not a desert. The land provides.

I shopped the world’s largest IKEA and survived: Stockholm icons

This is not IKEA, this is Nybrokajen, one of Stockholm’s beautiful
waterfront streets. Far more picturesque. Photo: Belinda Jackson.

It’s been pretty wet here in Stockholm. I’ve traded Cairo’s sun for snow, Giza ponies for Dalarna horses. The people in both Egypt and Sweden both wear a lot of black, but instead of busting my chops to exercise in Ahly Sports Club in Cairo, today I did my daily walk in the world’s largest IKEA, in Kungens Kurva, in southern Stockholm.

The trip was an essential one for my brother, in the midst of renovations, but yes, I was keen for a perve.

Let me report back: the store layout is just as confusing as any other IKEA store, they really do eat meatballs and it was packed with families on a wet Sunday afternoon. One of the ninth hells? Quite possibly. However, some may be appeased by the revelation that they serve booze in the cafeteria with those meatballs. 

I was going fine until I split from the Swedish speaker and on the hunt for bathroom hooks, when I realised there are no English signs, a marked absence of staff and my shabby Swedish doesn’t include the word for ‘bathroom’.

Yes, it was big, mighty big. But I survived, and recuperated with the classic cinnamon bun, kanelbullar (dreadful version from a supermarket, here’s a recipe for a real one) and the delicious-sounding, but absolutely revolting saffron buns, lussekatter as well as västerbottensostpaj (a super-rich, super-fabulous cheese pie that rivals anything I ate in Cairo for cholesterol).

Next stop on a quest for all things Swedish: the new ABBA museum. Oh yeah, I’m ticking the boxes…