I love, love, love old colonial style. And I found it alive and well in Sri Lanka, where Asia’s oldest hotels evoked the grandeur of the past, and the furniture evoked high anxiety.
When I first started travelling in Sri Lanka, the country was still in a state of civil war. I’m not afraid of Tamil Tigers, but tell me my hotel’s haunted and I’ll be on the phone giving hell to the travel agent in no time. So, undeterred by CNN sound-bites of secessionist strife and seduced by guide book descriptions of a romantic island nation steeped in the legacy of a colonial past, I headed for Sri Lanka.
We arrived in Colombo on the midnight flight from Bangkok and headed for the legendary Galle Face Hotel, located at the end of a breezy drive along the city’s beach road. A hushed and darkened Colombo slept on one side, while on the other, a pitch-black vacuum of ocean merged with the sky, broken only by the startling white surf crashing on a shoreline unmarred by shop fronts, vendors, loiterers, or any of the usual detritus of city life. At the end of the road, the hotel’s lamplit portico glowed romantically against the inky sky.
The next morning I found myself squinting into the brilliant morning sunlight on the hotel’s blazing beach terrace.
The deep blue Indian Ocean stretched magnificently out into the horizon, and the only sliver of shade came from a wooden sign bearing the warning “Sea Unsafe.”
A splatter of angry sea spray sent me retreating to the hotel’s colonnaded verandah for a pot of home-grown tea, served by waiters clad head-to-toe in tropical white.
Dating back to 1864, the height of the British era, the well-worn, yet elegant Galle Face is one of Asia’ oldest grand hotels. At the time of this visit, it was still untouched by the high-gloss patina that normally follows a makeover by a luxury takeover, and the grand dame retained its authentic, creaky time-warp aura.
When I rang for an extra blanket that night, I was enthralled to find it delivered by a tall, grizzled butler who padded barefoot down the wood-floored hallway in a long white sarong topped by a white uniform jacket with brass buttons and gold epaulets. He seemed as ancient as the hotel, with the avuncular demeanor of one who’s seen the passage of many decades. To history junkies that lament the invasion of mass market hotel chains, this is one of the reasons to go to Sri Lanka – it’s the real thing, unmarred by any ubiquitous golden arches and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Our driver and guide, Mr. Perera, a Sinhalese Catholic in a predominantly Buddhist nation, is one of the small percentage of native Sri Lankans with Portuguese surnames, the legacy of relentless waves of European colonization. The Euro-invasion started in 1505, when Portuguese trader Lorenco de Almeida came to Colombo, monopolizing the lucrative spice trade between the island and Europe. The Portuguese eventually ruled most of the island. These days only seven percent of the population is Christian, but the Portuguese influence remains visible in the number of crumbling colonial churches beneath towering coconut trees along the coast road.
Our destination was Galle, the historic port town on the island’s southern tip, dominated by an enormous 17th century Dutch fort. Despite its modern-sounding name, the New Oriental Hotel was even older than the Galle Face Hotel, having been converted from the Dutch Governor’s mansion into a hotel in 1684.
At the time of this visit, it was still the original New Oriental Hotel that had been owned by the same family for hundreds of years, but since then it has undergone a takeover and makeover and is now a luxury Aman Resort. Located in the sleepy twilight zone within the fort walls, the hotel was largely forgotten by the modern world until it featured in a 1980’s Duran Duran music video “Save a Prayer” with Simon Le Bon twirling a sexy babe around and around the cavernous hotel salon.
High-ceilinged bedrooms contained mosquito-netted antique canopy beds and planter’s chairs. The wide shuttered windows of our corner suite looked directly onto the graveyard of the church next door, where generations of the hotel’s owners presumable rested in peace.
We were told to keep our bedroom windows shut, lest bats fly in during the night, but I was actually more worried that a see-through figure in colonial garb might fly out of the sinister-looking antique armoire whose dark hulk loomed menacing against the wall facing the beds.
Speaking of the beds, they were antique four-poster contraptions encased in even more antique mosquito nets that were frilled and flounced just like a 17th century lady’s petticoat.
Does this look creepy to you? It was even creepier sleeping inside these things. And believe me, you don’t want to know what the bathroom looked like. I spent a sleepless night of terror constantly jerking awake with my heart pounding, peering through the gauzy netting and praying that I wouldn’t see a misty face staring back at me. Then I would peer through the netting into the adjacent bed to see my companion bundled contentedly in peaceful slumber like a baby without a care in the world.
The hotel is a good starting point to explore the fort, a two-hour ramble through a maze of narrow streets that still bear Dutch names, past 17th century houses transformed into cluttered museums, a windswept lighthouse and centuries-old churches lit by the golden glow of the setting sun.
Back at our creaky old New Oriental Hotel, we drank afternoon tea while lazily eyeing the snake charmer stationed in the shade of a colossal tree across the lane. “Madame, Madame, come and see the snake!” beckoned the charmer, more intent on charming us than the cobra. We waved cheerfully back at him while staying firmly planted on our verandah.
Lazing on the verandah sipping drinks as the sun sets is the only way to end the day in Galle Fort. If you like the flavour of a bygone era, ghosts of the past and all the coconut juice you can drink, the Sri Lankan coast is soaked in all.