Three years after the country’s 26-year civil war ended, Sri Lanka’s recovery is well underway. I spent two weeks traveling in Sri Lanka at the end of January and was amazed by the changes taking place. Colombo, the capital, is unrecognizable. Old colonial buildings once enshrouded in barbed wire and concrete walls are now out in the open, with fresh coats of paint. A few major restoration projects have turned historic buildings into dining and shopping destinations.
Among them is the 17th-century Dutch Hospital in the Fort neighborhood, which opened in December 2011. It is already drawing crowds of curious residents. Other emerging city hotspots include: the colorful warehouses-turned-shops at Park Street Mews. Classics, such as the Galle Face Hotel and the Gallery Café, remain packed with locals and tourists.
Colombo is badly in need of new luxury hotels; luckily, the Sheraton and the Swiss-based Mövenpick have signed deals to open Colombo hotels. For now, Colombo is still one of the most charming, laid-back, and atmospheric capitals in Asia. It’s filled with low-rise, whitewashed buildings and villas left behind by the British and streets lined with ancient banyan trees. The colonial heritage means many speak English, the elite impeccably so. But with high-rises going up and China exerting its influence, Colombo is going to change irrevocably in the next few years.
The extent of Sri Lanka’s recovery—and its future potential—was nowhere more evident than in Galle. Every upscale hotel in the 17th-century fort neighborhood was booked solid through the high season. Resident families were turning their 17th and 18th-century Dutch villas into guesthouses, cafés, and restaurants. I saw French group tours, wealthy Indian families, middle-aged American couples, loads of Brits, and a surprising number of young independent Chinese travelers. New and noteworthy additions include high-end home wares boutique Souk 58, Lollapalooza, which stocks handmade children’s clothes, and Deco On 44, a seven-room hotel housed in one of the few British-built Art Deco villas in the Fort. Meanwhile, the beaches around Galle are picking up as well. There’s a new highway between Colombo and Galle that makes the journey down a lot easier—and nearby Mirissa Harbor is also developing into a great whale-watching spot. It’s home to a resident pod of blue whales, and sperm whales and dolphins also gather here.
Here’s a quick recap of new properties in the pipeline for Sri Lanka:
Shangri-La Colombo: 661-room tower on 10 acres of land. Located in the capital, near Galle Face Green. Opening 2015.
Sheraton Colombo: 306-room hotel, opposite Galle Face Green. Opening October 2013.
Mövenpick Colombo: 180-room hotel. Opening mid-2013.
Jetwing Colombo: 70 rooms and 28 serviced apartments. Opening April 2014.
Shangri-La Hambantota: 145-acre resort, 315 rooms, an 18-hole golf course, dive center, and CHI Spa. Located in the southern Hambantota district. Opening 2014.
Avani Kalutra: 105 rooms, the second hotel under the Minor Group’s new brand. Opening later this year.
Anantara Kalutara: 138-room resort. Opening late 2013.
Soneva Ahungalla: 71-villa project, located on 101Ž2 acres of beachfront land and the 26-acre Meeraladuwa Island. Opening early 2014.
Jetwing Yala Safari, Yala: 70 rooms and 28 villas. (The original lodge destroyed in the 2004 tsunami.) Opening April 2013.
Jetwing Reef, Uppuveli: 68-room property. Among the first high-end resorts to open in the region since the war ended. Opening December 2013.
Jennifer Chen is Travel + Leisure's Asia correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter at xiaochen6.