City Guide: The Laid Back Magic Of Amangalla

Amangalla from the ramparts
Amangalla from the ramparts

Set within Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka, the Amangalla boutique hotel weaves an intangible magic that truly bewitches. This is Part 1 of our Sri Lanka Travel Story.

Of all the gorgeous hotels and resorts I’ve had the privilege to stay in, one of the most enchanting in every genuine sense of the word, is the Amangalla which sits within the 17th century ramparts of Galle Fort in Sri Lanka. With the expressway that now connects Colombo to Fort Galle, the journey from the airport should take less than three hours.

When I first visited though, the highway was not yet open and our party of two families including three kids had to crawl four hours through bad traffic to get to Amangalla. But Amangalla had taken care of us exceedingly well from the word go — in the minivan was a picnic basket full of cold towels and drinks, and a print out of possible attractions we could pop into along the torturous way, to stretch our legs and use ‘facilities’. We were so impressed by their attention to detail in anticipating our needs and comfort and this was to happen again and again in our stay there.

Amangalla transports you back to a time when life moved at a gracious pace. Polished, long boards of original hardwood floors, cane-woven plantation chairs and wooden furniture, deep windows and verandahs, slowly whirring fans and lazy days evoke that sense of colonial, ‘empire’ vibe. With just 28 rooms and staff who give very personalised service, the Amangalla feels more like a friend’s very large home.

A holiday here is all about soaking in the pace of life and taking it slow. We started every morning with a walk on the old ramparts of the fort, watching local residents out for their own morning walks, and enjoying the sea that lapped on the other side of the wall. Half an hour is all you need to walk the full circle of the walled town.

Then we headed back to breakfast of Sri Lankan string or rice hoppers with curry on the broad verandah of the hotel. Sometimes, we’d see school children in their white uniforms dropping off from school buses and cars at the side of Amangalla and to walk to their schools at the end of the lane. These kids study at two mission schools not unlike our own in Singapore; we follow them to the school gates where teachers in bright saris usher the kids in, and from a side building, we hear a student band practicing the odd notes on a trombone.

It’s these incidental vignettes of life in Fort Galle that makes this place so absolutely magical. And it’s like time had stood still here since the 1950s — vintage cars on the quiet streets, blackboards that still show the schedule of incoming ships, offices with wooden desk and typewriter still in use, old army barracks, the parade square… It’s just enchanting.

In between, the hotel pampered us with a leisurely pace of life – minus television – with an exceptional level of service delivered discreetly. A personal yoga session in a garden pavilion ended with a butler appearing as if by magic, serving us coconut water. Returning from shopping jaunts, someone would invariably be waiting by the time we reached the hotel’s verandah, bearing cold scented towels. While the nearest beach was a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride away, they’d pile us with fluffy towels to bring along for our use and launder it later without extra charge. We were always met at the entrance with cold towels and water, whether we returned from a day at the tea plantation or a 15 minute jaunt to the shops nearby. Every night, a little dessert will be delivered to the room while every child has a gift left on his bed – a carved elephant, a wooden keychain, a paper kite – prettily wrapped and be-ribboned. When we went whale watching on a chartered boat, our butler came along as well bearing two wicker baskets of breakfast – danishes, scones and fruit — complete with silver pots of coffee and tea, and sugar in a bowl of fine china.

If you had dinner in, it was often a feast of various curries, sambols and pickles with fragrant rice while a very English afternoon tea was served in The Zaal, the main hall — scones and clotted cream, cakes and cucumber sandwiches borne on silver trays, with pots of Sri Lankan tea from the nearby plantations! The best thing about it is, the price of dining in the hotel was surprisingly inexpensive.

Within the courtyard and frangipani-fringed gardens of Amangalla was a most inviting pool, a spa of dark wood and echoing serenity in the old wing of the building, a bespoke men’s barber and nail salon for the ladies. Nearby is a small terrace where private yoga lessons were sometimes held. At night, as I was told by a friendly manicurist at the spa, some staff feel a little chill as they walk past that garden terrace, and try not to wander there alone if they had to. And babysitting into the wee hours of the morning in the old wing give send shivers up the spine of the more timid personnel. According to the hotel’s own literature, there is apparently hints of a ghost residing in Room 25 — but after rearrangements and renumbering of rooms over the years, the supposedly haunted location is now no longer a guestroom I am told, but somewhere in the spa. As fascinating a story as it is – which I had eked out from her — I must assure you that at no time during my stay had I felt anything less than perfectly warm and welcomed at Amangalla.

Two of the hotel’s facilities turned out a huge hit with the kids and indeed the rest of us adults. The Baths — we love the old fashioned word — were two massive private rooms which we could book for free, which held a jacuzzi, cold plunge pool, sauna and shower, plus lockers, toilet and changing facilities. Our two families would spend an afternoon there and the kids would have a whale of a time.

The other was Amangalla’s library which my daughter calls ‘the ultimate hang out place’. It’s a beautifully cosy place with lots of vintage books for adults and kids, old photographs, coffee table tomes, board games, and my favourite — scrapbooks showing the events and faces of days past at this hotel.

Even though Amangalla was established here only in 2004, this building was always a hotel. Before it was Amangalla, it had been The New Oriental Hotel (NOH) for almost 150 years, since 1865. The building complex was actually completed in 1715, with the oldest part of the hotel dating back to 1684. The NOH was run by a family since its founding, and was very much part of Galle Fort’s community and local history. NOH became the Amangalla only in 2005 when the last owner of the NOH passed on. It’s heartwarming to see how the history of the NOH and the people that surrounded it are still remembered as part of Amangalla’s heritage in the sepia toned photographs and well-thumbed scrapbooks so nicely laid out in the library. In its dining room, the NOH’s original crockery and china are still in use every day bearing the NOH crest and initials.

View from Amangalla

We ended our stay at Amangalla soaking in Galle’s famous sunset on the top floor of the old wing. Our butler had brought us a round of Pimms. Seated on cane chairs in front large casement windows, we had a view that stretched over the tops of Galle’s tiled rooftops and out to sea. As the sun eased into the sea and clouds transformed into rolling sheets of red, rose, then blue and gold and the birds fell silent, quite by chance — for we had not encountered this in the days before — we heard from a distant army camp a lone bugle play out the Last Post. You would expect a stay at the immensely gracious Amangalla to conclude thus. Impossibly elegant with an old world dignity, always discreet, but perfectly timed.


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