Live Like It’s the 17th Century in Galle

Awarded by UNESCO for its restoration efforts, Galle Fort Hotel provides plenty of room to degust Sri Lankan staples in a Dutch setting.  
Galle
With a pool in the centre, the courtyard at the Galle Fort Hotel is colonnaded, redolent with frangipani. Photo Courtesy: Galle Fort Hotel

No trip to Sri Lanka is complete without a customary halt at the Galle Fort, my sister proclaimed. That it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site studded on the southern tip of the teardrop nation further tipped the scales in her favour. Non-compliance on my part would not only have been foolish but was also unwarranted, given the occasion in sight—a much-awaited, painstakingly planned 10-day #sistercation across Galle, capital Colombo, and the laid-back mountain town of Ella.

Abidingly, I booked two nights at the Galle Fort Hotel, a boutique property inside Galle’s historic fort.

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We enter the 17th-century fort in a colourful tuk-tuk and are instantly transported back in time. Fringed by coral-granite ramparts that withstood the tsunami and a 59-foot-tall lighthouse at its heart, Galle looks gregariously glorious, accommodative of the buildings, vibrant cafés and cutesy shops that reside within its 130 acres. As we further drive inwards on a balmy September afternoon, flashes from Puducherry’s French Quarter come alive: a black Ambassador here, a gelateria there, and everywhere the roar of the ocean. And in the middle of it all stands the Galle Fort Hotel, more subtle than stately in its appearance.

Like the rest of the fort, the original structure of the hotel dates back to 17th century. It used to be a Dutch merchant’s house and warehouse, then went to the British and a gem merchant, and finally lay abandoned post 1950. When the hotel opened in 2003, it became a shining example of restoration. I can see why. The main entrance is lined with potted palms and louvre doors, offering privacy to guests dining in the verandah. Inside, it’s all wooden and white, with wall installations made out of pretty porcelain plates. The high-vaulted wooden ceilings and chandeliers are a fixture throughout the hotel, as is the antique furniture. It’s the courtyard I love the most though—colonnaded, redolent with frangipani, with a pool in the centre. Like Indian baris, the rooms are built to overlook this central area; an architectural input that only triples the hotel’s old-world charm.

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All the rooms at Galle Fort Hotel come with a four-poster bed. Photo Courtesy: Galle Fort Hotel

We walk through a naturally lit corridor lined with settees to enter our Loft Suite. It’s a lovely split-level suite with a sitting room on the ground floor and a short staircase leading up to a bedroom with a cosy, four-poster bed. There are creature comforts like air-conditioners and modern bathrooms, but no distractions like televisions. Relaxing is to be done the old-fashioned way here—take a dip in the pool, or lounge with a book (there’s a small collection for guests to borrow from in the lobby). Better yet, follow the advice of the staff and park yourselves at the ramparts for a theatrical sunset. The sky is painted in stunning hues of crimson, orange and violet, all in the span of half an hour.

At night, we sleep like babies in the downy bed and wake up ready to conquer Galle.

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We fortify ourselves with a coma-inducing Sri Lankan breakfast: platters of string hoppers (think idiyappam) and egg hoppers (fluffier versions of appam with a fried egg in their bowl-like centre), served with a lip-smacking coconut-based chicken curry and a spicy coconut-and-chilli accompaniment called pol sambol.

Finally, we set out to explore our surroundings (spoiler: you can cover everything in half a day!). Souvenir shops are dime a dozen, but we ignore those, and step in Barefoot, a local brand selling on-loom woven, geometric-patterned fabrics and clothes, indigenous foods (raid their treacle) and handicrafts. From the fruit seller at the fort gates, we buy a dozen ripe, purple mangosteens; the luscious, creamy fruit’s juice dribbles down our chins, leaving us with fingers stickier than we had accounted wet wipes for. What follows is a mandatory photo op by the sea, and a free-flowing chat with gem merchants about the precinct’s—and the hotel’s—restoration. Amongst the clutch of boutique properties, Galle Fort Hotel is the only UNESCO-awarded hotel. The once derelict building was brought down with utmost care to its bare bones (some walls still have coral as part of their base), and rebuilt.

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The fort ramparts are ideal for watching the dramatic sunset. The many hues—crimson, violet and orange—of the sky are reflected in the ocean. Photo by: Ana Amir

Later, as we settle in the main lobby, nursing a refreshing passion fruit-coconut mocktail, I idly flip through a coffee table book detailing the refurbishment process. I look around, comparing the what-was to what-is, and am content. We are, after all, reliving the luxurious life of the Dutch in the 21st century, and that is more than either of us could hope for.

Essentials

The Galle Fort Hotel is a boutique hotel with 13 rooms (www.galleforthotel.com; doubles from Rs17,500, including breakfast and taxes). They all have four-poster beds, and are unique. The Loft Suites are split level; the Admiral Cheng Ho suite is dedicated to the Chinese explorer who visited Galle in the 14th century; the Porcelain Suite has a collection of Dutch pottery; and the ornate Grand Apartments used to once be the home of a gem merchant.

  • Lubna Amir is Jr. Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.

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