The charms of the island where time moves to the beat of an unhurried rhythm are irresistible…

Colombo in water? Has there been a tidal wave or tsunami in the vicinity? Oh no, and God forbid, it is just the meaning of Negombo in Tamil. Neer Kolumbu, reads the signposts on the road and on buses. A small coastal village near the Bandaranaike International Airport, the serene town used to be an important spice port long before the Portuguese set foot on the Emerald island. The 100-km long Dutch canal meanders lazily through the breadth of the town and is still used, but alas, whither the catamarans carrying cinnamon?

As part of a 10-member media team from India and on an invitation from the Sri Lankan Airlines, we spent five days in Negombo and Colombo. Dotted with British colonial style buildings, the fishing village is fondly called Little Rome because of its pre-dominant Catholic populace. As we went into the old Dutch fort built in 1672, Tishaan, our guide from Jetwings, said the place has now been converted into a prison. On the beach were rows of sardine and big tuna fish drying in the sun. Barnard, an old fisherman, volunteers information that the sardine, sufficiently dry, is ready to be sent to Kandy. The Tamil from Tirunelveli strikes a chord, and he expresses a wish: “I want to visit Tamil Nadu before I die”.

After going round Angurukkaramulla, a Buddhist temple, the eyes are drawn to the sight of a mother and daughter standing on the roadside under a colourful umbrella, and selling lunch packets — Chicken rice Rs. 100, Mutton Rs. 100. Back at the Taj Airport Garden Hotel, one was gladdened to spot the Chennai city edition of The Hindu as the only foreign paper in the lobby rack. The business hotel is inside a 38-acre green stretch, with a coconut palm grove adjacent to the Negombo lagoon. Following the half-a-km nature walk trail inside the precincts while being treated to a concerto by a chorus of birds early the next morn was a memorable way to begin the day. At the end of the walk begins the Adventure trail which leads to the lagoon. There were at least two occasions when I was mistaken for a Sinhalese by the friendly staff of the airlines and I hastily said, “No, but I do have relatives in Colombo and Kandy.” The beachside barbecue on the Negombo beach and a day's stay at the Ayurvedic Pavilion where you get pampered silly are ones for the memory bank.

Fabled stories

Checking into the Mount Lavinia Hotel in Colombo, you are struck by the aesthetically pleasing heritage building and the extensive beach front. When you look out of the room, you feel you are inside the Indian Ocean and the waves are lapping at your feet. To add to the beauty of the place is the love story of Lavinia and Governor Sir Thomas Maitland, a bachelor. The Scottish nobleman fell in love with Lovina Aponsua, a dancer of Portuguese-Sinhala parentage. He built a house for her and today it is the Mount Lavinia hotel. It was sheer romance to be shown the secret underground passage in the hotel through which 200 years ago Lovina used to come during the nights for the midnight rendezvous with the Governor. The love story ended in 1811 when Sir Thomas left Ceylon after gifting Lovina a large piece of land. The name Lovina metamorphosed into Lavinia — the Governor's house was referred to as Lavinia House — and gradually even the headland itself came to be called Mt. Lavinia. By the end of the century the story had become the stuff of legend.

Slow Food movement

In the imposing Matiland state room , Chef Leo made us try our hand at a quickie salad which included small pieces of fish as well and had us eat it too! The chef from Cuba has made a mark with Slow Food — which is founded on the concept of eco-gastronomy and endorses the strong link between the plate and the planet. The initiative, also known as “farm to table”, offers the freshest dishes prepared from local ingredients found within the destination. Slow Food is a non-profit, member-supported organisation founded 20 years ago to counteract fast food and fast life.

A tour of Colombo town had us at the gate of the Town Hall which is the headquarters of the municipal council and office of the mayor. The all-white structure is a replica of the prestigious look-alike in Washington. Victoria Park in the heart of the city has been renamed with a vengeance: Vihara Mahadevi Park! The Independence Memorial Hall and the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall gifted to the Sri Lankans by the Chinese are the other edifices of note.

On a Saturday afternoon if you step into House of Fashion on Duplication Street (!), as we did, you cannot be faulted for imagining that the entire city had decided to put in an appearance there! Odel was a shade better and team members were able to pick up souvenir tees and other stuff. Since the Indian rupee fetches double and more, it is difficult not to splurge. Serendip beckons once again the traveller and is lavish with her offerings.

New inflight menu

The Sri Lankan Airlines flight kitchen has had a makeover. The brand new $25-million kitchen sprawls over five acres outside the international airport and is touted as among the best in Asia. And we could see why at the end of a five-hour conducted tour of the place. S.K. Pande, an Indian, is the production manager, and he informs that the in-flight menu is new. Anthony, from Australia, is the executive chef and the easy camaraderie he shares with the other chefs was conspicuous. The kitchen easily makes 16,000 meals a day. We got to see pol roti and wattalapam being made, as good as an art, and the delicacies found place at our luncheon with the CEO, Mr. Sarath Fernando. He said, “earlier food used to be not an issue while flying, but now people are asking they be given diet food, veg or Jain food. This at a time when airlines are cutting cost, but we believe in giving excellent food in Economy class too.” The chilli chocolate is one of the newly introduced items in the flight menu. And then came the memory of relishing on flight the lowly brinjal transformed into a delicacy.

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