You have to admire the Dutch. In 1640 a fleet of 12 Dutch ships laid siege to the Portuguese fort at Galle, in what was then Ceylon, and eventually claimed victory after a long and bloody battle. In order to reach the fort, they had to negotiate perilous rocks, hidden reefs and crashing waves, not to mention the Portuguese cannons and muskets. Standing on the ramparts of the old fort on a gusty afternoon in late August, with waves pounding the rocky outcrops and warm winds churning up the surf, it seems a miracle that they even made it to shore.
The Dutch victory in Galle marked the beginning of a long and prosperous relationship between northern Europe and Ceylon, one that would see Dutch, and then, from 1796, English influence affect everything from architecture and design to religion and agriculture. It is largely thanks to the enduring influence of these two once-mighty empires that Sri Lanka remains so charming today.
My mission was to follow in the footsteps of the European buccaneers who called Ceylon their home, to try to recapture a fleeting sense of the colonial era. I also wanted to find out just what it is about Sri Lanka that led early Arabs explorers to call it ‘Serendib’; a word that later evolved into serendipity.
The journey starts in Galle Fort, because the UNESCO World Heritage Site was the seat of colonial power in Sri Lanka for more than 400 years. I then plan to continue east along what has to be one of the most underrated coastlines in the world, before heading inland up to Hill Country, where Sri Lanka’s world-renowned tea industry was born in 1867.
One of the best places to soak up the history of Galle Fort is the library at the charming Amangalla hotel, perhaps the most storied building within the fort walls. Built in 1684, the property started out as two separate houses before it was turned into the Dutch Military Officers’ headquarters. The building swapped its military inhabitants for paying customers in 1863, when it was bought by a group of English businessmen who turned it into the Oriental Hotel, one of more than a dozen hotels in the fort that did a brisk business providing accommodation for the merchants, traders and diplomats who came to Galle to trade spices, silks and gemstones.
Filled with original antique furniture, the library is home to a collection of books and photographs chronicling the history of Galle and Amangalla, and a small area dedicated to the life of Nesta Brohier, whose family owned the New Oriental Hotel from 1899 until 2001, when Amanresorts bought the estate.
“I walked into the building in 1998 and fell in love with it,” says Olivia Richli, general manager of Amangalla. “It was a sleeping beauty that had been asleep for 100 years. Back then, you couldn’t find a decent cup of coffee in town.”
Original mosaic flooring covers the terrace leading into the Zaal, or Great Hall, as the lobby is known. High ceilings, whitewashed walls and an ocean breeze keep the tropical heat at bay, so there’s no need for air conditioning. A collection of period furniture includes planters’ chairs and other collectibles like pettagamas (sea chests), almirahs and a 19th century wrought-iron safe that required 18 people to haul out from the back office.
Like Amangalla, Galle Fort also fell asleep when the seat of power and trade in Ceylon moved from Galle to Colombo in the mid-1800s and was largely forgotten until it was given UNESCO heritage status in 1992. This opened the doors to extensive renovation and restoration projects carried out under the auspices of the Galle Heritage Foundation, which is now based in the old hospital, where visitors can see a scale model of the city.
Today, quiet alleyways with names like Church Street, Hospital Road and Lighthouse Street are like a living museum, with ancient colonial buildings crowding the roads. In Olanda Antiques, on Leyn Baan Street, you can shuffle along the aisles of ancient wooden furniture and shop for that perfect centrepiece for your home – perhaps an 80-year-old billiard table or a 24-foot Sri Lankan fishing canoe. No need to worry about packing – the owners can ship anything to wherever you call home.
The Historical Mansion, one of the oldest homes in the fort, underwent a major renovation when it was taken over by businessman and philanthropist MHA Gaffar in 1992, but portions of the original 18th century clay and coral wall remain. The building is now home to the owner’s antiques trove, an impressive collection of everything from ancient Dutch coins bearing the VOC emblem of the Dutch East India Company to a collection of 1960s LPs.
It’s also a great place to buy antique jewellery, but certainly not the only place in town to do so. Sri Lanka is famed for its gemstones, particularly the coveted Sri Lankan sapphires and diamonds, and the Fort is home to more than 50 jewellery shops selling everything from vintage pieces to funky modern designs and individual stones.
In the late afternoon, the fort’s inhabitants gather and stroll on the 400-year-old ramparts, which connect 14 fortified bastions, mostly built by the Dutch. Today, schoolgirls skip hand in hand along the walls, groups of boys play cricket on the Army Camp, and couples walk arm in arm, stopping to gaze at the crashing waves and take photos of the lighthouse.
For a different perspective, the second-floor terrace of Amangalla is a great spot to take in the view of the red-roofed city, preferably accompanied by a sundowner; my whisky sour is tempered with lentil, curry leaf and garlic wade (a deep-fried Sri Lankan snack) and slices of dried coconut. As I sip my drink I slip into reverie, floating out across the red roofs of the fort; the Dutch commander surveying his territory as night falls like an English cannonball.
An unhurried dinner on the magnificent terrace of the hotel is a lesson in colonial excess. I’m brought a traditional 11-course Sri Lankan curry, served, I’m told, as Sri Lankan families would eat in their own homes. The meal is a riot of flavour – an endless experiment in different combinations of spices and textures.
The next morning, I have just enough time to check out two boutique hotels. Guests at the Galle Fort Hotel enjoy breakfast around a small pool surrounded by the property’s 12 suites, as GM Oliver James walks me through the courtyard pointing out the original architectural elements. Nearby, The Fort Printers hotel occupies an 18th century building that has been home to the Bank of Ceylon, Mahinda College and, until 2002, the Fort Printers, whose wrought-iron press is the centre of the minimal lobby.
INTO HILL COUNTRY
When the European settlers had made themselves at home in Ceylon, they started moving inland and began setting up rubber plantations and spice gardens, before the English realised the lucrative potential of coffee. Enterprising individuals and companies set out to plant swathes of land with coffee trees, which thrived in Ceylon’s cooler interior, until a fungus killed off virtually all of the plants in the early 19th century.
Bankrupt and despairing, many of the planters had given up hope and returned to England when Scotsman James Taylor returned from a trip to India with a few sacks of seeds and planted Ceylon’s first tea estate near mountainous Kandy, giving birth to what quickly became one of Sri Lanka’s most important industries.
Tea spread across Ceylon like wildfire and planter’s bungalows popped up like mushrooms in the late 19th century. Today, more than 188,000 hectares of tea estates cover Sri Lanka, from the coastal lowlands to the lofty heights of Hill Country.
And so it is with no lack of awe that I sit with Andrew Taylor, a distant relative of James Taylor, under a small gazebo in the garden of an old planter’s bungalow, sipping a steaming hot cup of tea after an exhausting tour of the Norwood Estate tea factory.
“Castlereagh Bungalow was built in 1925. I lived there for two years when I was manager of the estate, before we converted all four bungalows into what you see now, in 2005,” he explains. “We have created five-star comfort but they still have the colonial look and feel.”
Perched on the banks of Castlereagh reservoir, some 50km from the regional capital Nuwara Eliya, Castlereagh is one of four planter’s bungalows that make up Ceylon Tea Trails, part of the Dilmah tea company and a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux group.
Between the four bungalows, a criss-cross of walking trails takes visitors around some of the most picturesque scenery in Sri Lanka, right into the heart of tea-picking country. Strolling through the plantations, I pass groups of pluckers bent under sacks of tea, which are filled with up to 16kg of leaves at a time.
“Around the 1920s, the estate managers decided to give the planters bungalows like this so they could have better living conditions and lots of space, so that they could invite friends and family to come over for a weekend. It breaks the monotony of a dull life here,” Andrew continues. “Housewives were given large gardens so that they could keep themselves occupied. That’s why there are such large gardens.”
Later, I take a seat on the terrace to soak in the emerald sea of tea plants all around me, and the tall eucalyptus, cypress and palm trees in the curiously English garden. The small swimming pool surrounded by sun loungers used to be a pond, says manager Chaminda Fonseka, whose team of staff make visitors feel like family guests.
We’re soon joined by the chef, who wants to discuss the evening’s menu – spring vegetable soup followed by baked fillet of seer fish with fresh garden vegetables, then coconut tart with vanilla ice cream for dessert. It must have been tough being a planter, I think, as the sun dips behind the house.
That evening I chat to a pair of newlyweds who are in Sri Lanka for a few days before continuing to the Maldives. “A week of culture before a week on the beach was the perfect mix for a honeymoon,” they tell me over postprandial drinks in the cosy library lounge. There is no need for the open log fire tonight, but in cooler weather it’s an ideal setting to curl up and pore over one of the books about Sri Lanka’s tea history.
The next day, the drive back to Colombo is long and hair-raising, much like every other road journey I have taken in this land of serendipity. For an alternative way of getting around, a handful of companies offer helicopter and jet charters from Colombo to airports all over the country.
For two people, budget around US$2,000 for return flights from Colombo to Galle in a private jet, or $2,500 for a helicopter. But approaching Colombo from the road reveals one of the most surprising things about the capital – you’re in its heart before you realise it.
The city has a certain neglected air about it, with grand colonial buildings next to run-down 70s-style eyesores, but like the rest of the country, which is made up of pockets of perfection joined by poor roads and shabby towns, Colombo has plenty of charm for those who know where to look.
Turning off a busy main street brings you abruptly to a magnificently renovated colonial mansion, which was brought back to life and turned into Casa Colombo (above), one of the city’s coolest boutique hotels, six years ago.
Hotel manager Willem Fokkenrood discovered the hidden gem during a visit to Colombo while he was working at a resort in the Maldives, and Casa Colombo became his home from home on subsequent trips to Sri Lanka, before taking up a permanent position at the hotel.
Like the other colonial-style hotels I have stayed in, Casa Colombo is permeated with an air of history. The restoration project drew on original design elements for inspiration and created something that was at once nostalgic and futuristic.
And that seems to be true of Sri Lanka as a whole, or at least the small portion of it I have encountered on this visit. Decades of civil war and devastating events like the tsunami of 2004 have prevented the kind of uncontrolled growth seen in other Asian destinations. Hotels tend to be small and boutique, and often occupy old, charismatic buildings. As a destination it still has an undiscovered quality about it; the few other tourists I met seemed aware that they had stumbled on a hidden gem and seemed content to keep it their little secret.
But at the same time peace has brought prosperity and a new interest in the country. Sri Lanka has a lot of lost time to make up for, but I for one hope that progress will not come at the expense of the charm and warm hospitality that made it the fabled land of Serendip.
Tel: +94 777 743 500
Ceylon Tea Trails
Tel: +94 11 230 3888
Tel: +94 11 452 0130
Deccan Aviation Lanka
Tel: +94 777 703 703