There is nothing more annoying than the ugly Indian traveller. He is loud, obnoxious and hugely obstreperous. Add to that, incessant photography with a blinding flash, off-key piano playing by a certifiably tone-deaf musician and loud peels of laughter, and you get a gaggle of excited people in the gorgeous heritage property of Tintagel in Colombo 7. Please note, I am not referring to the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. I suspect that during CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) 2013, Charles and Camilla were far better behaved than my friends and I; we were dubbed “the disturbers of the peace”. But we had an airtight excuse: Sri Lanka makes you giddy. With joy. This tiny island, once wracked by the Civil War (26-year-long), contains so much beauty that it is hard to imagine that peace is just six years old.
Look at the story of Paradise Road. Shanth Fernando started with a small boutique there in 1987. Today, he runs two of the most sought-after properties in the country, five stores and the Paradise Road Gallery Café (opened in 1998) which is on everyone’s must-do list. With a bar, restaurant and an art gallery on Alfred House Road, it is situated in the former offices of the late Geoffrey Bawa. An oasis of calm, the food is the hero here. It helps that the owner is obsessed with the menu and eats there all the time. So when he insists you try the ginger ice cream with biscotti, you listen. After which you devour four more desserts even though you don’t have a sweet tooth. Then you go back for dinner. And lunch the next day.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Mr Fernando reciprocates my hero-worship. When he joined us at our table, he looked quite disturbed by the horrors of Indian tourists. It seems his staff hadn’t recovered from the previous evening’s particularly noisy batch of guests. I had to confess that we were the culprits. And though he smiled, I am not sure if it reached his eyes. That didn’t deter us. Our entire trip to Colombo had us going from one Paradise Road store to another. Each time we discovered something new. Even the classic black and white diagonal stripes (a Paradise Road special) looked fresh with every viewing, such is its simplicity. It is no wonder that the magazine, Wallpaper, calls Fernando “Sri Lanka’s Terence Conran”.
The Sri Lankans have a wonderful, laidback, sleepy island approach to life. A far cry from our aggressive Indian city stance. This ability to stop and stand still, I suspect, is the reason why their sense of aesthetics is amazing. Particularly when it comes to décor, art and literature.
We were attending Colombo Fashion Week (CFW) and while the uber sophisticated design sensibility doesn’t see direct traction into fashion, there are still interesting labels to look out for. For men, Arugambay beachwear and Conscience, an “ethically conscious brand”, are clear winners. The designer behind these brands is also the brain behind CFW—Ajai Vir Singh can be credited with turning fashion into an industry by pushing for an event as early as 2003. My personal favorites are Maus and Pappilon du thé, available at PR, in Horton Place. The creative forces behind these brands are the Fernando sisters, Annika and Saskia. One makes the most stylish yet simple clothes, the other accessories that are breathtakingly lovely. Full disclosure: They are Fernando’s daughters but the family has learnt to work together and separately—for instance, PR is Annika’s multi-brand fashion concept store. Next door, you find the Saskia Fernando Gallery.
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(This story appears in the May-June 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)