Where are the men in white linen suits and Panama hats? That is all that is missing to complete the image. But there are only some guys in shorts who look oddly misplaced. I am not sure, but at least I am wearing a long black dress, so I think I am all right if not picture perfect. It's not that the former New Oriental Hotel in Galle is so fancy that someone would request you not to wear shorts or Havaianas in my case, it is so fancy and beautifully old fashioned that you think you should dress up.
When I first arrive I definitely don't fulfill the brief and honestly I can't care less. Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, is a 10-hour flight from Frankfurt and as soon as I land I am hit with what feels 110% humidity. Also a whole lot of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers who seem to know my heart's desire and destination and want to usher me to their vehicle. All I want is sleep and a shower. Instead of being ushered I trust my better judgment and make my way to an official looking taxi stand. As you may know, arriving at new places, immigration, finding my luggage and then sorting out how to get from the airport to wherever I'm going absolutely terrifies me. Alas, it terrifies me more to pay for an organized transfer from Colombo to Galle, about 120km south, and so I have to suit up and figure it out.
Taking a train or the bus at 5am seems not worth the hassle and so I settle on a private transfer from the airport. Luckily Amangalla and after shaking off a few dubious offers, I find a taxi stand and get an air conned van all to myself for a good price and am on my way and fast asleep in no time. I am not interested in the scenic route and rather pay a bit extra for the expressway and so my driver drops me, a mere two hours later, in Galle Fort.
"Modern" Galle Fort was established in 1505 by the Portuguese and eventually taken over by the Dutch East India Company who were in charge of building the current fort and then by the English. Today it is a UNESCO heritage site with its old ramparts, fort walls, churches, charming little streets, and the New Oriental Hotel, now called Amangalla.
With the oldest part of the building dating back to 1684 being the headquarters of Dutch commanders, the New Oriental Hotel opened its doors in 1865 becoming synonymous with luxury in Galle. With the oldest part of the building dating back to 1684 being the headquarters of Dutch commanders, the New Oriental Hotel opened its doors in 1865 becoming synonymous with luxury in Sri Lanka. Eventually, Aman Resorts not only took over and conserved the history of this building but also the tradition of the luxury hotel in Sri Lanka. Whichever name you call it, the Amangalla was and is an institution to be found on all maps, travel guides and also on the 'where to eat list' of every other hotel in the area.
I like the idea of staying at an institution because I am crazy for anything historic and any hotel with a sense of place. And it doesn't get more quintessential colonial and Sri Lankan than this. While I am fully aware that colonialism has its issues, the building is simply a beautiful mix of European heritage and Sri Lankan traditions and craftsmanship. I long for a hotel shop to buy one of their female staff sarees and almost hug the manager when he hands me a little wooden fan upon departure.
All Aman Resorts start with the name Aman, meaning peace, Galla being the Sinhalese word for Galle. I am at peace as soon as I enter. And not only that, I feel quite at home immediately. Before you ask - no, I don't come from a posh colonial home, but put me somewhere with a light smell of jasmine and ocean, a warm breeze, and friendly smiles and I feel pretty much at home anywhere.
Indika, my butler - yes, you read correctly, leads me to my suite and shows me around. He shows me the most import thing of all - the Do not Disturb sign, a beautiful metal piece reading the words in Sinhalese or fairy language as I quickly call it.
I hang it up, wrong way around realizing now, and as it is I get the blues for the first time in a long time of traveling on my own - a four poster bed of note and no one to share it with? To make myself feel better I decide to get on the all-important task of exploring the Sri Lankan breakfast cuisine and the art of drinking tea. While I excel at the former - hoppers for the win! - I out myself as a complete newbie at the latter when I order white Ceylon tea.
May I have some sugar with my tea? I ask the friendly waiter.
You want sugar with that? He almost sounds hurt by my request. I blush a little and mumble that no, thank you, I guess I won't be having sugar with my tea.
Honestly, I am loving the fact that even at a 5-star hotel people are not mincing their words and instead teach me something that I should have learned a long time ago: you take your teabag out eventually and you don't put sugar in your tea, especially not if you are drinking the finest white tea there is. So I reevaluate my tea drinking skills and set to my task of eating everything. As some reader commented the other day - Wow, that looks delicious but I could never eat that much. Well, yours truly doesn't have those sort of problems!
The rain is on and off, monsoon season in Sri Lanka, though Galle is always considered a rainy city. I don't mind because the veranda is cozy and so is my bed even alone and to venture out you can either borrow an old-fashioned umbrella from the hotel or take one of the tuk-tuks outside which are well prepared for any downpour.
However, I get lucky and find myself lounging hours away at the pool. The pool here is what my pool dreams are made of. Warm, green, vast and luckily since I am traveling in off season usually all mine. With that, I not only use it for enjoyment but also for work. Or at least I try because I have underestimated the humidity - maybe it is actually 125%? - and the challenges it brings to take proper pictures. Eventually, I decide that I have entertained the staff enough with my pool antics, that you probably will like the pool pictures with or without me in them and to do what I came for: swim, float, and enjoy the feeling of spending a few moments in the warm Sri Lankan sun.
Of course, no place like the Amangalla would be complete without cocktail hour and so I find myself a long nap later in that black dress sipping mango bellinis. The heat makes me buzzed within half a glass and I eat early and am happy to see there is the possibility to order a curry feast getting you every curry there is. Needless to say, that's what I order though by the time the waiter sets up shop next to my table I do wonder if I should have brought along some friends. I can barely make a dent in my meal. Also a word of warning - Sri Lankan curries are deceivingly spicy! You can expect a good kick which can according to my waiter, yes the very same with the sugar advice, can be nicely counterbalanced with a glass of Pinot Noir. Yet again, he is right.
I don't know if it is the wine, the jetlag or the magical bed but I sleep like a rock and the only thing that gets me out of bed the next day is the prospect of another swim and more hoppers with curry. While I just have a short trip to my next accommodation I really don't want to leave and stall. I forget my toiletries in the shower and my iPhone charger next to my bed - any reason to come back is a good reason! While I know my trip is only beginning and I have a whole town and country to discover I drag my heels and feel like clinging to the old door frames shouting I don't want to go, I don't want to go! I also really feel like hugging the staff goodbye both impulses I suppress, I feel sheepish enough that Indika has to help me in my old, tattered backpack instead of carrying a Louis Vuitton trunk out for me.
The next few days I stroll by the Amangalla often even after I have recovered my toiletries and charger. I look at the old building longingly and it seems to look back, the walls are silent though just like all old buildings with a long history which have seen a lot. But if these walls could speak... I decide to come back soon and listen a bit more closely.
What not to miss at the Amangalla:
*Get one of their Galle Fort maps - they look like proper old-fashioned maps and are really pretty.
*Drink mango bellini and catch a sunset view from the gallery upstairs (unfortunately, there was no sun in sight when I was visiting)
*Do yoga in their yoga pavilion.
*Do use the mosquito spray they provide - you will need it and it smells really good.
*Check out their library with a great selection of coffee table books on Sri Lankan history and design.
*Take a foot-selfie on the floors because you are standing on 150 years of history!
*Spend a few hours in the pool, put the camera down and just know that life doesn't get much better than that.
Thank you, Amangalla, for the most incredible night to start my Sri Lankan adventure!