A popular stop off for ships sailing between Europe and Asia, Galle was once famed for its wealth and cosmopolitan airs. A recent restoration spree thanks to string of innovative hoteliers and a generous donation from the Dutch government, Galle is being transformed into one of South Asia’s hottest tourism destinations.

 

 

In the mid 1800’s the rambling fort of Galle was one of the most cosmopolitan town in South Asia. Discovered by the Portuguese after being blown off course from the Maldives in the early 1500’s, the sheltered port endured successive imperial reins, including the Dutch, who a hundred years later imported slaves from Mozambique to build an enormous fortress to accommodated the regional headquarters of the Dutch East India Company- the world’s first multinational company. Seized by the British in 1796, Galle became a strategic hub for ships sailing between Asia and Europe. Each week scores of passenger, war and mail boats stopped by the tiny coastal fortress that had only around 400 houses.

Galle Fort fell into a slumber when the main port of Ceylon’s (as Sri Lanka was then known) moved to the capital Colombo. Two hundred years later it is in the midst of a cultural and architectural renaissance. Remarkably intact, the fort’s charming collection of Dutch and British buildings – edged with breezy verandas and central courtyards designed to cool the blazing tropical heat- mosques, churches and warehouses are being scrubbed, buffed and reinvented into Sri Lanka’s hottest tourism destination.

‘Five years ago it was difficult to get people to even step foot inside the Fort,’ says Olivia Richli, the Manager of Amangalla, which opened in the fort in late 2004. ‘It was really charming, but incredibly run down, with no clean toilets or descent places to stay. Tour bus drivers would drive straight through without stopping. Now it’s the place to be.’

Richli says the trend began in 1999 when the government lifted 100% taxing on foreign ownership, followed by a short-lived cease-fire of Sri Lanka’s endless civil war (the cease-fire ended in 2006). Hotels like the Sun House and stunning sister- property, the four-roomed Dutch House, opened on the outskirts of Galle’s sprawling modern quarters, attracting a flurry of press and attention to the area. This was shortly followed by a wave of similarly-styled, small heritage hotels, like Amangalla and the Galle Fort Hotel, opening inside the Fort.

‘It was just like a gold rush,’ Richli says, describing the tourism boom.

Peering over a string of giant rain trees planted by the Portuguese, Amangalla was a barracks for the Dutch navy before being converted into the New Oriental Hotel in 1855. Completely restored, the thirty-five rooms are elegant and spacious with claw foot baths, four poster beds and collection of Dutch-era maps on the walls. There is a pool, a spa, breezy veranda restaurant serving breakfast, and for house guests, a terrace on the top floor where evening cocktails match a dazzling sun setting over rickety tiled roofs and the ocean beyond.

The owner of the Galle Fort Hotel, Karl Steinberg, was one of the original gold diggers. Desperate for a sea change after years ‘stuck in the consumer rut’ as a TV producer in Sydney, Steinberg and his partner Christopher Ong fell in love with a dilapidated 17th century Dutch merchants house tucked into a narrow alleyway in the heart of the Fort. The duo spent two years renovating the house, which is the biggest in Galle, according to traditional building techniques and using local craftsmen to fashion doors, windows and flooring from recycled materials. Their efforts recently scored them a distinction from the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Awards.

Although delightful, the hotel isn’t luxurious by Sri Lankan standards, which has one of the finest collections of boutique hotels in Asia. Instead, it is Steinberg’s staff- efficient and chatty without colonial airs and graces-and the hotel’s restaurant- serving Pan Asian cuisine on a candle lit balcony alive with the smell of frangipani- make the well-priced Galle Fort Hotel so special.

With Amangalla and the Galle Fort Hotel open, shops like Mimi Mango (whose British owner Jo Eden, a resident of Galle, also sells her clothes in Hong Kong and London), Sri Lankan cloth weavers Barefoot and the wonderfully rustic Pedlar’s Inn Cafe also started renovating old houses in the Fort and opening to tourists. Galle hit the cool stakes and property prices skyrocketed.

Then disaster struck as the Boxing Day tsunami hit Sri Lanka, devastating its southern coastline and razing parts of the modern town of Galle. Luckily for the Fort, its heavy rampart walls- built to withstand cannons at twenty meters tall and twenty meters thick- was a solid defence against the wave, claimed only one life.

Now the Dutch government, keen to showcase the World heritage listed Fort- which Unesco state is the best example of a European built fortified city in South and South-East Asia- has started pouring money into its restoration. Chairman of the Galle Heritage Foundation, Parakrama Dahanayake, says the Dutch government has donated more than US$3.5 million to restore the ramparts and maritime museum, clean and modernise the underground drains (where the Dutch once bred musk rats for oil, such was colonial efficiency) and finally, strip back private houses that have been modified over the years.

‘A few years ago most Sri Lankan people wouldn’t even come into the fort, thinking it was dirty and old,’ says Dahanayake, explaining how property prices have doubled over the last years and many families- whose ancestors have lived in the Fort for hundreds of years- are now selling. ‘I like how the foreigners have restored the old buildings- properties like the Galle Fort Hotel- as they show locals how far a little effort can go. But keeping the town residential is our primary consideration, as they are the living monuments. We don’t want Galle to become Disneyfied or unaffordable for locals. We need to prove that there is a future for them in maintaining their heritage.’

Shaffy Authad was one of the first to be converted. The Dutch government paid for his veranda- which had been closed in to accommodate an extended family – to be returned to its original condition. Jovial Authad, who is always clad in the traditional Muslim gown and prayer cap, now sells gem stones to tourists from his front room (known as ‘The jewel box of the Indian Ocean’, Sri Lanka hosts a seemingly never-ending supply of gemstones, notably sapphires, rubies and garnets).

‘I don’t want to live anywhere else’ says Authad, whose ancestors came to Galle as merchants during Galle’s hey-day. ‘Here is safe and quiet.’

The best way to experience Galle Fort is aimlessly and by foot. Wander through the narrow streets, stopping off at one of the many private museums and antique shops that have sprung up in recent years, or do as the locals do and promenade the ramparts. Rising up from an ocean floor rimmed with coral and sandy beaches, every evening the barricades lined with pepper pot towers, baronial style gateways and a towering lighthouse, fill with young lovers hiding under umbrellas, children playing cricket on makeshift pitches (the stumps fashioned from sticks stolen off nearby trees) and groups of tuk-tuk drivers with ‘Have a Nice Day!’ scribbled on the backs of their lipstick red vans.

Despite all the renovation work and seemingly endless list of new hotels and shops, there are surprisingly few places to dine or grab a drink in the evenings. Those wishing to party travel to Koggala Beach where jazzy bars like WHY and the plush new Fortress Hotel shimmy through the night, or to drink beer at nearby at Hikkaduwa Beach, Sri Lanka’s surfie hang-out. Others stick to the restaurants and bars inside their hotels. No doubt the entertainment options will come with development. In the mean time, enjoy the town like the locals do- slowly and quietly.

Sleep

Amangalla
The oldest hotel in Sri Lanka- originally opened to house passengers travelling between Europe and Asia on P&O liners, now a luxurious Aman hotel (+94 11 774 3500; www.amanresorts.com).

The Galle Fort Hotel
Twelve rooms with four poster beds and Persian carpets snuggle around a cool blue pool (+94 91 2232870; www.galleforthotel.com).

The Dutch House
Four luxurious rooms in a magnificent house built in 1712 by an Admiral for the Dutch navy, later refurbished by Channa Daswatte, legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa’s protégé student. The property is a ten minute walk to the Fort (+94 91 4380275; www.thedutchhouse.com).

The Fortress
Reminiscing Galle Fort on the outside, a bastion of the 21st century on the inside. Forty ultra-modern rooms fitted with all the latest and greatest gadgets on the beach at Koggala, a 20 minute drive from Galle (+94 91 4380909; www.thefortress.lk)

Eat

WHY Beach Club
Breezy restaurant and bar using only fresh ingredients in a Mediterranean inspired menu- lobster, jumbo prawns, organic beef, salads – and deckchairs to siesta on afterwards. Come for sunset drinks and soak up the fabulous setting, overlooking a group of stilt fishermen out to sea (Low season lunch only; Lunch for two $40; Koggala Beach; Tel: +94 0 776980000).

Cinnamon Room
Silver service and impressive wine list (even though many aren’t available) in the elegant dining hall of Geoffrey Bawa’s Lighthouse Hotel, a few kilometres west of Galle. The European style food is a little hit-and-miss; the poached chicken too dry, but the New Zealand lamb in local nuts and curry leaves perfectly tender and spiced (Dinner for two $80; www.jetwinghotels.com).

Sun House
Dine on set menus overlooking a frangipani laden garden in this old house ten minutes walk from the Fort. The cuisine changes daily- usually offering soup, Pacific-Rim style main and desert. Better, come Sunday for the Sri Lankan curries (Dinner for two $65; www.thesunhouse.com).

Pedlar’s Inn Cafe
Big plates of toasted sandwiches, ice-cold Ginger Beer and Lavazza coffee on the veranda of an old Dutch building (Lunch for two $15; Pedlar Street; Tel: +94 0 773141477)

Shop

Mimimango
Long-term Galle resident Jo Eden’s shoe-box sized shop selling her boldly patterned silk and lycra resort wear (Leyn Baan Street; www.mimimango.com)

Barefoot
Innovative and affordable cloth company marrying Sri Lanka’s rich weaving traditions with grass roots rural development; shop for brightly coloured cushions, throws, bags, rugs, mats and children’s clothes, plus books and home-ware pieces (Church Street; www.barefootceylon.com)

Elephant’s Walk
House-hold goods and nick-knacks made in Sri Lanka: silk picture frames, cane baskets, crockery, napkins and whimsical objects d’art like a family of wire elephants (Church Street; +94 912248031).

Sithuvili
Masks, bowls and Buddha heads hand painted by local artist Janaka de Silva. Beware that prices vary- sometimes by hundreds of dollars- depending on what you look like (Leyn Baan Street; www.sithuvilisl.com).

Do

Sea Turtle Hatchery
Five out of the world’s seven sea turtle species lay their eggs on Sri Lanka’s southern coastline, of which only .001% survive. Hoping to increase their odds is this hatchery at Koggala Beach which incubates the eggs and releases the babies into the sea. It seems incongruous, however, that the hatchery also has dozens of adult turtles held captive (Silver Green; Habaraduwa; +94 0 777836115)

Hot Air Ballooning
View Galle and Sri Lanka’s roaring southern coastline – glass of bubby in hand- from a majestic hot air balloon. Most trips take 3-4 hours, starting from $260 per person (+94 0 115368468; www.ad-asia.com).

Handunugoda Tea Estate
In ancient China, white tipped tea was picked by virgins and never touched human flesh until it reached the Emperor’s lips. Reinventing the tradition is Handunugoda, a sprawling estate behind Koggala Beach. Geared for tourists, the tea is overpriced compared with other estates in Sri Lanka (Tittagala; +94 0 912234136).

This article was published in Discovery magazine, the in-flight magazine for Cathay Pacific, in September 2008.