Variety

Corporate and classy

RHEA LOBO | Updated on: Jun 02, 2011
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Colombo's Taj Airport Garden upgrades itself to woo the business traveller.

People are very busy, changing boards, changing colours, changing clothes — everything is different, only people are the same,” says Nimal, the smiling, enthusiastic driver who picked me up from Colombo's Bandaranaike international airport.

He is referring to the brand makeover sweeping through the Taj Airport Garden, in Seeduwa, now a part of The Gateway Hotels.

We are a group of Indian journalists invited by Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces for the hotel's re-launch. During the 10-minute drive to the hotel, it was surprising to see the familiar, though more colourful, Bajaj auto-rickshaws zipping on the roads. “The white auto-rickshaws are the cheapest, the red, green and blue ones are more expensive,” Nimal says, but he didn't seem to know why they were priced differently.

At the press conference, I exchange business cards with Azhar Razak, a Tamil-speaking Sri Lankan journalist. He says, “Anna Salai! Wow! I have seen it in Tamil movies. But I've never been to India. Out of our 15 TV channels, five are dedicated Tamil channels.”

Sri Lankans are warm and friendly, and everything about the country makes you feel right at home. The people, particularly the women, speak in a polite sing-song, which brings a smile to your face. Perhaps it's a virtue many island-countries share.

Arrive on a helicopter

The hotel, now renamed The Gateway Hotel Airport Garden Colombo, is spread over 38 acres of coconut plantation and borders the beautiful Negombo lagoon. During the daytime you can spot many exotic birds in the vicinity. It is one of the few hotels in the area that boast a helipad — tourists often hire helicopters to travel around Sri Lanka, especially to and from the airport.

The renovated rooms are modern and classy. “The hotel is redesigned for the corporate traveller who is upwardly mobile. The theme was speed and efficiency, because corporate travellers are time-bound,” says P.K. Mohankumar, COO, The Gateways Hotels. The bathrooms, in particular, have been redone with special care, with nearly “40 per cent of the room's renovation expenses ” going into it.

So, will the makeover translate into higher room rates? Mohankumar promises “excellent value for money. The price points of rooms or service are an evolving thing — maybe one year down the line you'll find the prices different. But we are definitely not going to make it cheaper.”

As it's cheaper to fly from Chennai to Colombo, than to Delhi, it is no surprise that many Indians are flocking here for a holiday. The visa-on-arrival facility, soon to be withdrawn however, is an added attraction. “In 1998, I was posted to Sri Lanka. India then ranked 10th in the number of tourists coming to this country. Today we are the No. 1 nationality in most hotels in Sri Lanka,” says Mohankumar, who was earlier area head for the Taj Hotels in Sri Lanka for three years.

There is optimism too about the prospects for tourism in this beautiful island-country. “The moment the war was over, the island repositioned itself to a higher level — the Government issued a directive saying the minimum rate per day for five-star hotels in Colombo should be $125... the economy has opened up post-war, there is definitely going to be a mismatch between demand and supply,” he says.

Delicious cuisine

Buzz, the 24-hour restaurant at the hotel, has been totally revamped to give it a hip new-age look. Chandana Wijeratne, the down-to-earth and charming Executive Chef, always reminds his staff that “whatever you cook, you must cook from your heart. If you cook like how your mother cooks for you, the food will be tasty.”

Straight from the heart it certainly seems when he serves the delectable Dutch-influenced Lump Rice. Wrapped in banana leaf, this combination of turmeric rice, lemongrass-flavoured cashew chicken curry, fried ash plantains and brinjal is by far the most delicious dish I have sampled in Sri Lanka.

Another popular dish, served at most Sri Lankan weddings, is the Fish Ambul Thiayal — a darkish, dry dish cooked with goraka , a locally available souring agent similar to tamarind. And the Nigambo Prawn Curry, cooked with coconut milk, tastes similar to a Kerala-style curry.

The poll sombal , a combination of coconut, red and green chillies, garlic, pepper and red onion, is a homely side-dish usually eaten with red rice and dal , says Chef Wijeratne.

Dinner was brought to life by a Sri Lankan band that entertained guests with a good mix of oldies and baila music (similar to the Portuguese-influenced Goan and Mangalorean music).

With an eye on the health-conscious guest, the hotel offers ‘active' foods such as the Multi-Grain Dosa, a breakfast speciality made out of nine lentils. The hotel will soon rope in the services of traditional homemakers to prepare ‘home-made' fare for guests looking for a different experience.

“When a guest is out of home for 15 days, he's tired of hotel food. We emphasise on health and wellness food,” says Mohankumar, who recommends the healthy Gateway breakfast.

A tender, loving jumbo home

Never before have I seen so many elephants in one place, not even on TV. It is the morning bath time and families of elephants are simply goofing around in the water, having a good time at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.

One elephant in particular, Shyama, catches my attention. This 18-year-old is walking on three legs, as the fourth is wounded. Dr Chandana Rajapaksa, a vet at the elephant facility, says, “Shyama was just five years old when she stepped on a landmine and lost a part of her leg. She was brought to the hospital soon after and we tried to give her a cast to help her walk on all four legs, but she would just throw it away soon after putting it on.”

Many of the elephants here have Indian-sounding names. One-month-old Menaka is sure to steal your heart. Don't miss Anuradha, who sadly has a viral infection on one foot and is receiving special care.

If you arrive early in the morning you can watch the elephants feeding.

Published on June 02, 2011
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