Sean Flakelar, the soft-spoken general manager of the venerable Amangalla Hotel in Galle, perhaps put it best: “Sri Lanka is India...but gentler.” Of course, he wasn’t trying to gloss over Sri Lanka’s very unique identity, but to me his point resonated immediately, knowing India’s propensity for chaos well. To the average, heat-seeking traveller, the tropics are a delicious continuum: Goa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Philippines, the Caribbean, it’s all one delicious feast. But if you care to look beyond sun, sand and sea, glorious differences emerge.
We were seated in the Zaal, or Great Hall, of this former HQ of the Dutch commanders, where full-length mirrors chained to walls sent our reflections back to us and colonial-era fans whirred overhead. An afternoon shower had cooled the air and turned the leaves of the large trees across the street a darker shade of green.
In hindsight, I was wise to drag one of the hotel umbrellas along on my tour of the neighbourhood—the impressive Galle Fort, within which the property was set—because sporadic showers kept me company. Ducking out wasn’t an option: that sumptuous Sri Lankan lunch I’d had in the hotel’s verandah had to be worked off. On my maiden trip to the island, I had given the capital Colombo a miss, heading straight to Galle, a former Dutch stronghold further south, and an impressive Unesco World Heritage Site. The ‘Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications’ were bestowed the honour for being the best example of a fortified European city in South and Southeast Asia, “illustrating the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions”.
My guide, an effervescent member of the hotel crew, had traded in his crisp white sarong for a more practical pair of trousers. Architecturally, one of the most significant attractions was right next door: the 1755-built Groote Kerk or Dutch Reformed Church, which was in the Doric style. But Galle Fort is simply littered with beautiful buildings, many in an excellent state of preservation (perhaps none more so than Amangalla itself). Today, a lot of them are tasteful boutiques—including Barbara Sansoni’s Barefoot—restaurants and heritage guesthouses. A friendly man directed me to the exquisite Meeran Jumma Masjid. Opposite the mosque was the new lighthouse, built in 1939, the original 1848 one having burnt down in 1934.
Over the centuries, Galle has absorbed influences from all over the world, and is a bustling microcosm of Sri Lanka’s melting pot society. The best thing about Galle Fort is that it’s not a mere monument. A living fort, it oozes atmosphere: wedding shoots in progress, kottu roti stalls doing brisk business, a celebrated local man willing to jump into the sea for a fee, the sounds of azaan and Buddhist chanting filling the air, swimming classes under way, and, of course, countless games of cricket.
When I returned, there were drinks and canapés awaiting in the ‘sunset balcony’, conveniently located outside my suite, with iridescent views of the red-tiled roofs of the fort buildings. Amangalla is a beautifully understated, yet luxurious, hotel, with fresh flowers everywhere; the sort of place that tempts you to stay in. It used to be Galle’s premier hotel, the New Oriental, and parts of it date to 1684. An important Dutch building, it turned hotel in 1865, and remained so till Aman took over in 2005. You’ll still find the old name on the crockery.
Later that evening, I checked into the spa, which, true in letter and spirit, takes healing to its watery roots (SPA: Sanus Per Aquam...health through water) and offers The Baths, sprawling private rooms where you can take the waters, alternating between hot and chilled pools, absolutely complimentary.
When I visited, the hotel was beset with British guests, in anticipation of a Sri Lanka-England Test match, starting next day at the stadium next door. But I was looking for a bit of quiet, so I maintained a southern trajectory, but not before a breakfast of egg hoppers and dhal curry, curled up in a cabana overlooking the pool.
A strong aroma of cinnamon led me to a plantation en route, where I spent a productive hour learning about the history of cinnamon (it’s endemic to Sri Lanka, but it was the Arabs who taught the Sri Lankans its commercial value) and the cultivation process (nothing like what you’d expect) and, crucially, how to tell Sri Lankan cinnamon apart from the fake variety (cassia).
After the cinnamon-infused walk, I was left to picnic among the paddy fields, the spread including a lentil and feta salad, a roast chicken marinated with Sri Lankan spices and a rhubarb crumble to which a light-as-air vanilla cream sauce served as the perfect foil. The cries of peacocks filled the air. The deep, saturated green of the tropics was a balm as was the gentle wallop of heat. But you have to be an aficionado to appreciate the latter.
Long before I arrived, I knew I would love Sri Lanka, being an early convert thanks to a number of close friendships with islanders who were fellow students and boarders at Delhi University. And drinking only Sri Lankan tea for three years straight can make you very loyal. The much celebrated Chinese highway in Sri Lanka, on which no one honks, was helping (and which sported endearing signs like ‘Danger: Peacocks Ahead’).
As we approached Tangalle, adulatory posters of its most famous resident mushroomed everywhere. Whatever his ultimate political fate may be, Mahinda Rajapaksa is certainly popular in his home town. If Amangalla is all about heritage, Amanwella, tucked away near a pristine beach, encapsulates the island’s coastal pleasures. Between the two, Aman Resorts has the Sri Lanka experience covered.
At Amanwella, I was welcomed with a clutch of betel leaves, the traditional offering to guests in this island nation. Opening around the same time as Amangalla, Amanwella brought luxury beach tourism to a destination known as a backpacker’s paradise. The Geoffrey Bawa-inflected architecture must have been extremely forward looking for its time. The simple, fluid design melds seamlessly with the landscape, so you hardly notice the resort. The rooms are massive, there’s a generous use of wood and local building techniques, the bathrooms are lavish and the accommodations all feature private plunge pools, although the resort’s main pool is legendarily long. It was designed by Kerry Hill, a longtime Aman collaborator who passed away this year.
That evening, as glow worms competed gamely with a richly starred sky, a tuk tuk in muted Aman shades— most three-wheelers on Sri Lankan roads are wildly colourful—whisked me off to dinner. Over that meal, set in such soothingly dim lighting that they had to give us reading lights to pore over the compact but carefully curated menu, Pantelis Korovilas, the resort’s newly minted general manager, outlined plans for the future. We both agreed that a full-fledged spa was an aching need. Currently treatments are offered in-room although a suite was being fashioned into a temporary spa.
For guests who want to do a bit more than just lounge on the beach, Amanwella has curated several experiences. Next day, I headed out to sample a few. The first was a visit to the Mulkirigala Raja Maha Vihara, an ancient Buddhist temple built on a natural rock 205m high, with commanding views of the surrounding landscape. Built on several levels, with an astonishing array of cave temples featuring subtly different reclining Buddhas, the temple complex dates to the third century. Important Pali manuscripts relating to the epic Mahavamsa were found here in 1826. The most important such shrine in these parts, it was, without a doubt, the highlight of my Sri Lanka trip. If I had to, I would climb those 500 steps again in a heartbeat.
After making the kitchen rustle up some kottu roti—the iconic Sri Lankan street food—for me, I had sundowners on a lagoon, drifting in a barge worthy of Cleopatra, while local wildlife went about its business.
That night, I was the sole guest at a traditional village dinner. The matron of the house welcomed me with a toothy grin and a simple garland fashioned from a strip of palm leaf. A couple of dedicated Aman staffers rustled up, surprisingly quickly, an ample meal over traditional wood fires. This included a refreshing gotukola sambal, a red rice pittu steamed in a metal cylinder, mung kiribath (green gram with milk rice) and, to finish, Ruhunu curd with kithul treacle, the classic Sri Lankan dessert. Every time I think of the distance I’ve put between myself and that meal, my heart bleeds for Serendip.
- Connectivity between Sri Lanka and India is excellent, with Sri Lankan Airlines and Air India offering the most non-stop connections from several Indian cities.
- SpiceJet and Indigo are also good options. The one-way economy fare between Delhi and Colombo can be as low as `5,000.
- An ETA (electronic travel authorisation) is required prior to travelling to Sri Lanka, and can be obtained at eta.gov.lk (it’s just $20 for Indians and the approval comes almost instantly).
WHERE TO STAY
- Set inside the world heritage Galle Fort, Amangalla is a hotel in the finest colonial tradition. It has a pool, spa, and restaurant serving continental and Sri Lankan specialities. From $550 per night.
- Amanwella is a luxurious beach resort set in quiet part of the Sri Lankan coast. From $750 per night. See aman.com.
- If the Sri Lankan capital is also part of your itinerary, you might want to consider the five-star Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo (from $155 per night; shangri-la.com)
WHAT TO SEE & DO
- Of course, Galle Fort is the main attraction here, a lively tourist spot with charming restaurants, boutiques, church, mosque, and lighthouse.
- Expect visits to ancient Buddhist temples, natural lagoons and cinnamon plantations. A visit to the rock temple of Mulkirigala Raja Maha Vihara is definitely a highlight of any stay in Tangalle. Birdwatching and leopard spotting in the national parks is another exciting option. Aman Resorts can organise helicopter tours to Sigiriya as well as whale watching, Sri Lanka being one of the world’s hotspots for viewing blue whales