Set within Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka, the luxurious Amangalla hotel weaves an intangible magic from times past.
Of all the gorgeous hotels and resorts I’ve had the privilege to stay in, one of the most enchanting in every genuine sense of the word, is the Amangalla in Galle Fort, Sri Lanka. With the expressway that now connects Colombo the Fort Galle, the journey from the airport should take less than three hours.
When I first visited though, the highway was not yet open and our party of two families including three kids had to crawl four hours through terrible traffic to get to Amangalla. But Amangalla had taken care of us exceedingly well from the word go — in the minivan was a picnic basket full of cold towels and drinks, and a print out of possible attractions we could pop into along the torturous way, to stretch our legs and use ‘facilities’. We were so impressed by the hotel’s attention to detail in anticipating our needs and this was to happen again and again in our stay there.
Amangalla transports you back to a time when life moved at a gracious pace. Polished, long boards of original hardwood floors, cane-woven plantation chairs and wooden furniture, deep windows and verandahs, slowly whirring fans and lazy days evoke that sense of colonial, ‘empire’ days. With just 28 rooms and staff who give very personalised service, the Amangalla feels more like a friend’s very large home.
A holiday here is all about soaking in the pace of life and taking it slow. We started every morning with a walk on the old ramparts of the fort, watching local residents out for their own morning walks, and enjoying the sea that lapped on the other side of the wall. Half an hour is all you need to walk the full circle of the walled town.
Then we headed back to breakfast of Sri Lankan string or rice hoppers with curry on the broad verandah of the hotel.
On weekday mornings, we’d see children in their white uniforms dropped off from school buses and cars at the side of Amangalla and to walk to their schools at the end of the lane. These kids study at two mission schools not unlike our own in Singapore; we follow them to the school gates where teachers in bright saris usher the kids in, and from a side building, we hear a student band practicing the odd notes on a trombone.
It’s these incidental vignettes of life in Fort Galle that make this place so absolutely magical. And it’s like time had stood still here since the 1950s — vintage cars on the quiet streets, blackboards that still show the schedule of incoming ships, offices with wooden desk and typewriter still in use, old army barracks, the parade square shaded by overarching rain trees. Just enchanting.
In between, the hotel pampered us with a leisurely pace of life – minus television – with an exceptional level of service delivered discreetly. A personal yoga session in a garden pavilion ended with a butler appearing as if by magic, serving us coconut water. Returning from shopping jaunts, someone would invariably be waiting by the time we reached the hotel’s verandah, bearing cold scented towels. While the nearest beach was a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride away, they’d pile us with fluffy towels to bring along for our use and launder it later without extra charge. We were always met at the entrance with cold towels and water, whether we returned from a day of whale watching or a 15 minute jaunt to the shops nearby. Every night, a little dessert will be delivered to the room while every child received a gift left on his bed – a carved elephant, a wooden keychain, a paper kite – prettily wrapped and be-ribboned.
If you had dinner in, it was often a feast of various curries, sambols and pickles with fragrant rice. Sri Lankan food, I was to discover, was similar to Indian food, just lighter, slightly less spiced and left you feeling satiated but not bloated. And don’t miss afternoon tea served in The Zaal, or main lobby — a traditional English affair of scones and clotted cream, cakes and cucumber sandwiches borne on silver tiered trays, with pots of Sri Lankan tea from the nearby plantations. For a bespoke hotel like this, the price of dining in was surprisingly inexpensive too.
Two of the hotel’s facilities turned out a huge hit with the kids and indeed the rest of us adults. The Baths — we love the old fashioned word — were two massive private rooms which we could book for free, which had a jacuzzi, cold plunge pool, sauna and shower, plus lockers, toilet and changing facilities. Our two families would spend an afternoon there and the kids would have a whale of a time — we had to space all to ourselves.
The other was Amangalla’s library which my daughter calls ‘the ultimate hang out place’. It’s a beautifully cosy place with lots of vintage books for adults and kids, coffee table tomes, board games, and my favourite – scrapbooks and photo albums showing the events and people of days past at this hotel.
Even though Amangalla is quite a new brand, the building which it occupies had always been a hotel. Its previous incarnation was the New Oriental Hotel (NOH), run by a family since 1865 and which was very much part of Galle Fort’s community and local history. The hotel became part of the Aman group only in 2004 when the last owner of the NOH passed on. But it’s heartwarming to see how the history of the NOH and the people that surrounded it are still remembered as part of Amangalla’s heritage in the sepia toned photographs and well-thumbed scrapbooks laid out in the library. What’s more, the plates and flatware used in Amangalla’s dining room for meals are still the original NOH china bearing its crest and initials. It’s really touching how the Amangalla acknowledges its legacy rather than wipe it out because it isn’t the same company that owned it.
We ended our stay at Amangalla soaking in Galle’s famous sunset on the top floor of the old wing. Our butler had brought us a round of Pimms. Seated on cane chairs in front large casement windows, we had a view that stretched over the tops of Galle’s tiled rooftops and out to sea. As the sun eased into the sea and clouds transformed into rolling sheets of red, rose, then blue and gold and the birds fell silent, quite by chance — for we had not encountered this in the days before — we heard from a distant army camp a lone bugle play out the Last Post. It sent shivers up our spine. You would expect a stay at the immensely gracious Amangalla to conclude thus. Impossibly elegant with an old world dignity, always discreet, but perfectly timed.