There are flamingoes in my room, pink of course, flying across a beige wall behind my bed. I'm not dreaming. And I'm not surprised – not after seeing a fully grown tree in the high-ceilinged lobby, elephants and monkeys almost leaping out of a massive jungle mural behind the front desk, vertical gardens and pot plants galore – but it's refreshing to see natural touches like these in Colombo, Sri Lanka's otherwise chaotic capital.
Welcome to Dwell, Sri Lanka's first Japanese hotel, which opened in March.
Arriving late one afternoon, I'm met by smiling Sri Lankan staff members wearing striped Japanese Uniqlo tops and straw hats, the Dwell uniform, who usher me to the elevator and up to reception on the top floor, level 7. Putting reception on the top floor makes penthouse views available to all guests and is an innovation popping up in hotels all over the world.
There, I find another jungle mural, also created by Tokyo-based Russian artist Karina Eibatova, who studied Sri Lanka's native animals and plants to make her paintings as realistic as possible. Checking in, I feel a warm sea breeze and can see the Indian Ocean, a block away, through wide open windows.
Next to reception is a library with books on architecture and sustainable living as well as classics by Melville and Austen, which guests can take to their rooms or read at the timber-slab table. There is also a small shop showcasing organic, natural products made in Sri Lanka, such as teas and T-shirts. Along the corridor there's a 14-metre swimming pool and a rooftop bar with 360-degree city views.
The second thing I notice about my Ocean View room on level 6, after the wall-to-wall flamingoes (other rooms feature mermaids, figs or elephants), is that it lives up to its name. There's no ocean breeze, however; the windows are sealed shut, but that's probably a good thing with Galle Road's four-lanes of traffic just outside.
It's all perfectly comfortable. There's a king bed, a rainwater shower head and Dwell-branded toiletries, a bathrobe and slippers, a kettle, a desk and a TV with (free) movie channels. A compendium on a clipboard recommends, in hip typography, Colombo's best cafes and restaurants. Thoughtful, touches include universal power points (no need for adapters) and a "take me home" card for each guest, which bears the hotel's address in Sinhalese, to be shown to tuk-tuk and taxi drivers.
My only complaint is that, flamingoes notwithstanding, the room doesn't have the imagination or playfulness of the hotel's public areas.
I ask Dwell's "front office inspector" Issho Sako why that might be. He's from Tokyo-based Innovation Design, which created the hotel within a Sri Lankan-owned building in partnership with New York-based creative studio HI(NY) whose clients include Coca-Cola and The North Face.
Not every aspect of the hotel's design could be finished before Dwell opened, Sako explains, but the good news is that there are plans to freshen up the rooms' rather bland furniture, refurbish the rooftop pool and bar area, and go plastic-free and fully solar (so far half the rooftop is covered in solar panels).
If you love Japan, you'll love Dwell. On the ground floor there's a Japanese café, Tokiwa, serving Japanese-style hand-dripped coffee, teas and pastries. There's an all-Japanese room service menu and an in-room spa offering Shiatsu massage. Its Japanese restaurant, Kyoto Mirai, on level 2, has a Zen garden at its entrance and specialises in "kaiseki" meals, a sort of Japanese degustation; this is also where breakfast is served, with Japanese, Sri Lankan and Western options.
And although most of the staff members are Sri Lankan, they're trained by managers from Japan, one of the most customer-service-oriented countries in the world.
Which brings us to what is arguably the hotel's best feature: it's a three-star hotel with five-star service.
"The property is important, the design, the building," says Sako, "but the most important thing is the human connection. We cannot compete against the likes of Shangri-La [Colombo's newest five-star hotel] in terms of facilities, but we can win with the people."
On my last afternoon, returning hot and sweaty from a day's sightseeing – the hotel is an easy stroll from the iconic Galle Face Hotel and a short tuk-tuk ride from the historic Fort area – I'm welcomed "home" with opened doors and friendly faces. Dwell is so much more than just another city hotel. It's an innovative oasis of Japanese calm and the perfect counterpoint to the hustle of Sri Lanka's busiest city, with added flamingoes.
Louise Southerden stayed at her own expense, with flights courtesy of G Adventures.
SriLankan Airlines flies direct to Colombo from Melbourne and via Singapore from Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. See srilankan.com
Dwell Hotel has 93 rooms from $US90 a night including breakfast and Wi-Fi. See dwell-hotel.com