I’m practically semi-conscious by the time our car finally pulls up in front of Amangalla. Three hours have passed since we first stumbled into Colombo Airport at sleep o’clock in the morning. Mr Smith and I had shot each other quizzical glances as we passed through the duty-free stores, stocked with a surreal display of household white goods: forget cigarettes and whiskey; here folks score fridges and washing machines when they step off the plane.
Still perplexed, Mr Smith and I had climbed into an air-conditioned car and settled in for the 120-kilometre ride south along a winding coastal road to the 17th-century fort town of Galle. I catch fleeting glimpses of crashing waves along the moonlit shore, brightly lit religious statues, and throngs of devotees attending a temple ceremony at dawn.
An apparition in white appears as we arrive at Amangalla to guide us up endless flights of stairs to the top of the three-storey building. Thankfully, we’re led straight to our Chamber Room. I spirit myself out of my clothes and into a hot shower, then gulp down some hot chocolate (a thoughtful suggestion from our apparition, otherwise known as The Butler) before surrendering myself to the soft, welcoming folds of the four-poster.
A breathtaking panorama of terracotta roofs, green leafy trees and rolling emerald waves greets me when I throw open the doors the next morning. Amangalla feels like a grand old house – the lofty ceilings, graceful archways, milk-white walls, dark wood floors and wood-and-wicker furniture hark back to the days of intrepid colonial expatriates making their mark in the East. We breakfast at the Zaal, or ‘great hall’ in Dutch, which together with the adjoining dining room and veranda forms a particularly nostalgic time-warp zone. Seated at our dining table laden with silverware and starched napkins, I find myself trying to recall where I’ve left my dusty pith helmet.
Accidental time travel is hardly surprising, considering that this elegant building has been woven into the rich tapestry of Galle’s history. Some bedtime reading from a ribbon-bound booklet reveals that the oldest surviving hotel in Sri Lanka began life in the late 17th century as the garrison headquarters of the Dutch, then the British, before it was finally converted into the Oriental Hotel.
Local Burgher businessman Albert Ephramus bought the property in 1899and renamed it the New Oriental Hotel, aka the NOH. Ownership passed down the generations and it was Albert’s granddaughter, the enigmatic Nesta, who on her 90th birthday, passed the baton to Aman Resorts.
Restored to its former glory, the NOH reopened as Amangalla, where the old and new now harmoniously exist side by side. The chef’s take on traditional Sri Lankan dishes might be modern, but they’re often served on vintage ceramic plates emblazoned with the NOH crest. Along a passageway, a rectangular-shaped hole in the smooth plaster frames a portion of the original brick walls. And in the library, pre-loved NOH artifacts sit alongside stacks of contemporary design books and magazines.
With Aman’s purist no-TV-in-room policy, guests are encouraged to get out and about to explore. Sadly, it was not the right time of year to watch whales and dolphins frolic off the coast – they pass through from December to April. Seeking a wildlife fix, Mr Smith and I sign up for a leisurely bicycle ride through villages and rice paddies, where we come across monitor lizards, iguanas, eagles, water buffaloes, geese, monkeys, squirrels and butterflies – all within our two-hour ride.
Afternoons at Amangalla are best spent joining the locals in their daily passeggiata around the heritage-listed fort. As the day softens into night, Mr Smith and I stretch our legs with groups of families and couples strolling along the broad, age-worn ramparts. Looking out over the magnificent Indian Ocean on one side and the town on the other, we pass grassy fields filled with boys playing cricket.
Brimming with character, low-rise colonial buildings line the narrow streets. Some bear patchy weather-worn paintwork, some have grand colannaded verandas, and others feel ever so nautical with their porthole-style windows. Just a hop, skip and a jump away from Amangalla is my personal favourite, the Galle Library. Established in 1832, it is the oldest library in Sri Lanka, housed in a modest building fronted by a row of wooden-framed windows that wink in the late afternoon sun.
Hardcore adventurers like us need indulgent treatments at the Aman Spa (aka the Baths) to keep going, we figure, so we nip back to the hotel to continue the ancient practice of ‘taking the waters’. Our visit during the low season means we have the whole hydrotherapy room to ourselves, so we take our time flitting from the steam room to the sauna, and from the heated hydro pool to the icy plunge pool. Hydro heaven!
The Baths menu whispers its wellbeing secrets of massage, beauty and Ayurvedic treatments. Mr Smith and I both settle for the Amangalla Massage, which is carried out in absolute silence – a refreshing change from the usual frog-meets-whale music. We emerge from our hour of deep-muscle kneading into a breezy night, with the haunting strains of flute and drums in the air. Our newly nimble limbs glide past a pair of male musicians responsible for this sonic magic.
For indulgence of a culinary nature, that night we head to family-run Mama’s Guest House nearby, and dine on the modest rooftop as waves roar in the distance. We devour a Sri Lankan-style curry banquet, made up of a plethora of curries (including an intriguing mango version), condiments, pappadums and fluffy rice.
Rosy-faced from washing down our dinner with the local Lion beer, we adjourn for nightcaps at Amangalla Dining Room. In the dim light, the soft clinking of ice cubes in glasses mingles with the murmur of chatter from guests winding down for the day. Big-band tunes pour softly out from a stereo. I tap my feet to the infectious beats while Mr Smith puffs thoughtfully on his Montecristo as we savour the last moments of The Colonial Adventures of this Mr and Mrs Smith.