The temperature in Galle hovers in the mid-30s throughout the year and today, like most days, the humidity is 100 per cent.
The terrace of Amangalla – with its wide colonial arches, high-backed rattan chairs and ceiling fans whirring overhead – provides respite from the heat. A waiter appears with a glass of lime soda: fresh lime juice and soda water mixed with half a teaspoon of sea salt. When he discovers I am Australian, he puts his hand on his heart and a smile breaks across his face. “Shane Warne,” he says. In these cricket-obsessed parts, Warne is a hero. I’m told that he took his
500th test wicket at Galle’s International Stadium across the street and helped fund the stadium’s rebuild after the tsunami. His generosity has not been forgotten.
Situated on Sri Lanka’s south-west coast, Galle is 120km south of the nation’s capital, Colombo. A walled fort town, captured by the Dutch from the Portuguese in 1640, the fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its heritage status means that much of the Dutch colonial architecture is still intact. Amangalla is the premiere example.
Built in 1684, the hotel began its life as Dutch Military Headquarters. It has been a hotel for the past 148 years, most of those under the moniker of the New Orient Hotel (NOH). The Dutch Ephramus family bought the NOH in 1899, and it remained under the family’s direction for 96 years. Nesta Ephramus Brohier was born in the hotel in 1905, she grew up at the NOH and later managed the hotel for 35 years. A local legend, Nesta was loved by the local community, known for her fabulous parties and her inclusiveness of Sinhalese locals. In 1995, Aman Resorts purchased the NOH, but didn’t begin a major renovation project on it until 2003. When it was reopened in 2004, now under the management of British-born Olivia Richli, who had taken over from Nesta when she passed away in 1995, the NOH was renamed Amangalla.
“When I arrived, the place was starting to crumble, you could order a lime soda or have a beer on the terrace, but that was it; the kitchen wasn’t even operational,” Richli explains.
With the renovation complete, the hotel was transformed while still keeping its original identity. In the dining room, white-liveried waiters deliver afternoon tea stands of scones and finger sandwiches, and trays of lime sodas. Butlers mingle at the reception desk, some have just returned from a walking tour of the fort with guests, while others arrange spa appointments for their charges.
Each of the guest rooms are unique. Some have views over the fort’s ramparts and out to sea, others enjoy enormous arched windows which open onto giant para-rubber trees and afford a peek of the proceedings at the cricket oval. All are generously sized and furnished in Dutch colonial style: a four-poster bed in the bedroom, a wicker chaise longue and a desk in the sitting room.
Keen to remain a hub for the people of Galle, upon reopening the property Richli invited the locals to tea – an opportunity for them to inspect the renovation. Just 10 days later, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami hit. Amangalla was undamaged, thanks to the fort’s sea wall. “I kissed the wall several times that week,” says Richli. However, many locals were not as fortunate. The hotel became the headquarters for aid and communication in the region. The night following the tsunami, more than 200 local children and elderly slept on the dining room floors.
“Having visited the property in recent days, they knew they were welcome here,” says Richli, “so this is where they fled when the wave hit.” Hotel suites became hospital rooms; air lifts for the critically injured were coordinated from the cricket oval next door and the British High Commission set up headquarters here.
“Everyone’s energy went into recovery and rebuilding,” explains Richli. “We didn’t reopen as a hotel until February 2005, and Galle didn’t feel ‘normal’ again for at least a year.”
In the years since, the nation’s 26-year civil war has ended. Tourism has increased as a result, with visitors keen to explore, cook and surf (Sri Lanka is renowned for its surf beaches).
Amangalla’s executive chef Umesh Dhwark shops at Galle market every day and takes interested guests along with him. After a breakfast of buffalo curd with treacle (from the native kitul tree) followed by traditional egg hoppers (crisp pancakes with an egg added during cooking), we board a tuk tuk. Snaking past the cricket oval and through the fort’s gates, we are soon in Galle’s busy main town.
First stop is the spice market. Fresh turmeric sits beside giant jars of chilli and curry powder, sticks of local cinnamon and vanilla pods. The spice merchant shows us mace, his homemade chilli sambol and garam masala. The fruit and veg market boasts banana blossoms, lady’s fingers (okra, a popular base for curries) and green mangoes. The nearby supermarket has balls of jaggery (palm sugar) wrapped in palm leaves on display. The fish market counters hold tornado-like tuna, kingfish, squid and coral trout. We watch as the fishmongers gut and fillet fish, a sickle in one hand, a length of bamboo in the other.
Back in the kitchens of Amangalla, we cook a selection of curries for our lunch. In just a couple of hours, we have learned the finer points of constructing five curries: fish, chicken, dhal, cashew nut and beetroot. We’ve also made two coconut-based sambols to accompany them, one with gotukola (a herb that is native to Sri Lanka and Australia) and another with tomatoes and green chillies.
Our work done, we move to the dining room. The ever-smiling waiters arrange our curries in front of us. A pile of roti to mop them up with is added to the table, and yet another round of lime sodas are poured as the afternoon sunshine fills the room. Amangalla, 10 Church St, Fort Galle, Sri Lanka. Room rates start from AU$390. For bookings, visit mrandmrssmith.com.au.
The writer travelled courtesy of Mr and Mrs Smith and Singapore Airlines. All prices are quoted in Australian dollars and are subject to change.