Published in Villa 88 magazine, Autumn 2016 issue
Exploring Sri Lankan history and heritage through its boutique hotels sheds light on some amusing, colorful and delightful stories, writes Priyanka Pradhan
In the morning sun, colorful little birds gather for a quick dip in the small, tiled fountain which forms the center of the open courtyard, inside what was formerly an 18th century Dutch mansion. Gigantic pillars create tall shadows in the corridors of the refurbished mansion, while the pale walls and high ceilings offer a sepia-toned throwback to Dutch-era Sri Lanka.
As sunbeams illuminate the ancient doors and windows on the façade of the iconic Galle Fort Hotel, stories from the pages of Sri Lanka’s history come to life. The estate has seen times of strife and turmoil as well as that of prosperity, as it morphed from a princely Dutch mansion to barracks for the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II, a post office, a bakery, and most recently, a pitch for Galle’s adolescent cricketers, before it was finally refurbished to become The Galle Fort Hotel in 2003.
The boutique hotel offers some unique insights into Sri Lanka’s journey through the ages. For instance, a suite named after a seven-foot tall eunuch, the Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho, commemorates his visit to Galle in 1406. The admiral had halted at Galle en route to an expedition to explore the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific with seven voyages, long before Cristopher Columbus set his anchor down on the sandy shores of Ceylon.
Recipient of the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award of Distinction, The Galle Fort Hotel is a treasure trove of such stories unearthed from history, culture and folklore. The architecture of the renovated estate also reflects more than one style and school of design. While a majority of the boutique hotel retains its Dutch charm, parts of it pay tribute to Sri Lanka’s British heritage as well as its ethnic Sinhalese flavor.
The Galle Fort Hotel’s sister property, the Thotalagala estate pays homage to this indigenous Lankan flavor. About 5 hours from Galle, in Sri Lanka’s northern Haputale district, a sprawling heritage boutique bungalow is nestled in the lap of hills, among 8,000 hectares of lush green. Formerly a tea planter’s bungalow, the 145-year-old property is restored to give connoisseurs from across the world an opportunity to sample the rich, homegrown essence of Ceylon tea. As the estate is fully functional, guests of the boutique property have the privilege of going tea picking with the planters for a more immersive experience and a glimpse into the traditional lifestyle of a tea planter.
A closer look inside the bungalow reveals seven luxury- themed suites based on personalities that shaped the history of tea culture in Sri Lanka- particularly Sir Thomas Lipton, who has the master suite dedicated to him in honor of his contribution to Lankan tea. Memorabilia from the British Colonial era, picnic breakfasts in the tea country and the traditional English cigar room in the bungalow make for an indulgent experience. Add to that, a kitchen with an exhaustive menu of local and international gourmet cuisines and on-demand services, Thotalagala aims to offer a decadent experience.
As the sun sets over the sea of green, just over the edge of the high tea table, it illuminates the not just the panorama of peaks and valleys but also that of history and heritage waiting to be explored through Sri Lanka’s luxury boutique stays. galleforthotel.com