A destination of ancient Roman merchants
Beneath the unprepossessing surface of Colombo lies an intriguing and characterful city just waiting to be discovered on an MSC Grand Voyages excursion.
After leaving the port where your cruise ship awaits your return, Fort district lies at the heart of old Colombo, occupying (as its name suggests) the site of the now-vanished Portuguese defences. Under the British, Fort developed into the centrepiece of the colonial capital, adorned with handsome Neoclassical buildings and boasting all the necessities of expatriate life in the tropics, right down to the inevitable clock tower and statue of Queen Victoria. East of Fort, the helter-skelter bazaar district of the Pettah is Colombo’s most absorbing area, and feels quite unlike anywhere else in Sri Lanka.
MSC Grand Voyages cruises also offer excursions to Colombo’s great shrines. Ten kilometres east of Fort lies Colombo’s most important Buddhist shrine, the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara – the Buddha himself is said to have taught at this spot on the last of his three visits to the island.
Various temples have stood on the site; the present structure dates from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Made from unusual dark orange-coloured stone, the exterior is richly decorated, with ornate doorways and pillars, plus entertaining friezes of galloping elephants and pop-eyed dwarfs around the base.
Some 100km south of Colombo, a good idea for another nature-inspired MSC excursion is to visit the village of Balapitiya and the Madu Ganga Lake. Balapitiya is the starting point for interesting boat safaris along the Madu GangaRiver, and a good place to spot water monitors and a wide array of birdlife, including myriad colourful kingfishers. No fewer than 64 islands dot this stretch of river.