It's a two-and-a-half hour journey to Galle, which will be a lot shorter once the road to the motorway is cleared of potholes and cattle. There were three of us travelling: myself, Clio, who heads up Luxury Explorer's reservations and Bibi, my young daughter.
Almost at our first destination, with the sky lightening on the horizon, the trees alongside the harbour are awash with screeching jackdaws, a noise that stops suddenly when the sun appears. Through the rampart gates Amangalla soon appears, rising grand and serene off the cobbled street. Four staff, dressed in loose white shirts over smartly wrapped sarongs, are waiting to take us straight to our suite after a welcome glass of iced water and a scented rolled flannel. First impressions are powerful – for me a throwback to my childhood holidays in Cape Dutch hideaways and a visit to Mozambique in the 70s.
The outstanding structural proportions and expansive public spaces, with acres of pristinely-buffed jack-wood flooring, all feels gloriously liberating. The exotic blend of antique polish and sweet frangipani in the dense tropical sea air is spellbinding. Thus, with our minds well and truly transported, and our bodies like ragdolls, we were led to our serene boudoir on the top floor.
Large mahogany four-posters await, dressed in crisp white linen with small footstools to help you climb up. I requested mosquito nets throughout the trip, which made our beds appear even more heavenly. The enormous windows are closed behind their heavy wooden shutters, with a pot of hot chocolate beside the bed to warm the soul, before you sink into slumber. They know how to start your journey at Amangalla, and I am sure we all slept with a smile.
It is so tranquil here, so transporting in its attention to authentic consideration, that unwinding happens naturally. Our suite faced the enormous rain trees, a green bank, and the rampart wall with the harbour beyond. It was large, monastically so, with a freestanding scroll top bathtub, a tiled shower 'room' and pristine plantation furniture including a chaise longue, a writer's desk, an outsized antique armoire and wonderful lighting. God is in the detail at Amangalla.
Our suite, like the five others on this floor, is situated off the Sunset Balcony – an indoor terrace decked out with cane bucket chairs and jakwood tables – which faces the terracotta rooftops, churches, minarets, gables, white-washed walls, towering palms, crimson and scarlet bougainvillea and soaring palm trees. Your gaze is then drawn to the shimmering Indian Ocean beyond the rampart walls – sunsets here are precious.
So, too, is the soundtrack of life. Prayers in different denominations are chanted morning and evening, church bells ring out, school children are heard laughing and playing, birds – both the corvid and song varieties – caw and sing all day, geckos make their peculiar chirping sound. Then, at six o'clock, you are thrown by the sounds of a bugle. It's endless, bewitching, and enchanting.
A few years before
The Oriental Hotel, as it was, opened in 1863 when Victorian-era Galle was a vibrant city in constant celebration of its esteemed accomplishments. Glamorous and richly inviting, the hotel played frequent host to European travellers and expats. Before this, the hotel dates back to the late 17th century and was originally a Dutch garrison comprising three buildings, housing the governor and his staff.
It is thanks to the Hollanders' haute aesthetic architectural talents that Amangalla now enjoys such magnificent proportions. In fact, the Dutch were responsible for building much of Galle Fort, including the fortified wall, leaving a strong Dutch influence in their wake. The imposing façade is a later British addition. A comprehensive booklet on Amangalla, written by Joe Simpson, is gifted by the hotel – a keepsake crammed with passion and intricate detail.
Galle Fort, a fortified town built on a rocky outcrop in the far southeast corner of Sri Lanka, is an historical treasure trove. Built in 1558 by the Portuguese, the Iberians were defeated by the Dutch in the 17th century, with the British taking control in 1796 following the capturing of Colombo. Sri Lanka remained a British colony until National Independence in 1948. Until this extensive period of bloody colonisation, the Asian and Arab trade vessels dominated international commerce.
The entire fort is 130 acres, while the inhabiting population is a mix of Sinhalese, Muslim Moors, Burghers, Tamils and expats. It houses eight different religious institutions including a Buddhist temple, Christian churches and a mosque. This ethnic melting pot of culture and kind is incredibly appealing and peacefully lived-out. Galle Fort is also the most outstanding example of a fortified city built by Europeans in Southern Asia, combining an exceptionally attractive blend of European architecture and south Asian traditions.
A guided rampart walk was led by our butler, who, like all of Amangalla's butlers, is expertly briefed on the history of Galle Fort. The tour divides the time between your impulsive or learned desire to enter a museum, or a gem shop, along with pauses at the necessary landmarks around the ramparts. This is not only a vital way to quickly orientate yourself with this unique World Heritage Site, but gives you an imperative insight into its lengthy heritage.
It's on this walk that you realise just how laid-back life is here, how time becomes more about the section of the day than the hour on a clock. But, of course, it was not always like this, as the legacy of past colonisations is entrenched in its richly stained patina.
On this informative walk, we saw the Dutch Reformed Church and the English Church, both steps from the hotel, the tree-lined Square Of Court, the lighthouse, the exit to the harbour (with the Dutch VOC emblem in the coat of arms), the entrance from the harbour (with the British coat of arms).
Then there's the National Maritime Museum, a shop with cabinets of original Dutch artefacts, galleries, quaint dwellings, groovy harbour-side, "I-want-one-of-those" residences, gem shops galore, plus a walk along the rampart wall. It's here that peddlers and hawkers sell battered old coins, lace-work and wooden handicrafts, with a sheer drop and views across the ocean. It's a head-spinning microcosm of a latter day maritime existence.
No matter where you wander, where you drift to, Amangalla feels like a return to home. A supremely grand, smooth, fresh base, all in mint condition, where you are looked after in a manner that feels both soothing and luxurious. I think our favourite spot was the veranda, with its becoming floor of Victorian, Inverlochy patterned tiles in buff red, marine blue and powder blue, along with the cream arched portico and scrolled rattan blinds that unfold in the event of a downpour.
This long and breezy rendezvous hotspot is furnished with chic maritime-colonial Dutch rattan tub chairs, period style cushion-clad benches and fruitwood tables. Mahogany dining tables are dressed in Prussian blue and white linen, polished silverware, crystal glasses, and centered with fragrant frangipani.
It's easy to spend your time here, watching colourful local life walk and tuk-tuk by, at a leisurely pace. Noontime gin and tonics crammed with lime and ice are regularly requested, as is the delectable homespun high tea with scones, clotted cream and lip-smacking, vanilla-scented, strawberry jam (with whole strawberries); or millionaire's shortbread with a perfect iced-tea in a highball glass. Then, to cocktail hour, when the dresses sparkle and faces are flushed with sun, adventure, spa and shopping, followed by candlelit dinners...and so it continues.
It has magic here, a certain 'je ne sais quoi', with its ebb of yesteryear merging seamlessly with 21st century prerequisites, encouraging the mind to wander blissfully uninhibited. It's a soothing environment where you can live both vicariously and directly, one where a natural empathy imbues and conversation between guests and expats feels entirely natural. It's to this serotonin-fuelled cocktail of 'good times' that you will yearn to return.
The 'zaal' is the prodigious great hall, a grand Dutch feat in one elegant expanse combining lounge, dining room, chill-out spaces, grand piano, bar table, chandeliers, teak ceiling fans, weighty aged wooden-framed mirrors hung by robust chains and impossibly large floral displays. If you can't take the heat, get into the cool-calm of the zaal. Its stature is awesome but like the rest of Amangalla, it is not imposing. Just be – that's the overriding message here. To cool down even further, spend some time in the exquisite isolation of the elegant and highbrow library.
The pool is lusciously expansive and inviting with palm trees, wooden sun beds, heaps of white towels, private ambalamas (meaning rest pavilion in Sinhalese) and a hands-on service. I was grateful for this very private and prettily foliated area of languish as little Bibi adored lying on the generous shallow steps, under the watchful eye of her babysitter. Help with young ones is offered complimentary.
As for the spa, I suspect it holds the number one slot in Sri Lanka. The Baths, as the spa is refreshingly referred to, is dedicated to offering guests luxuriating treatments as well as holistic ones. Ayurveda, a Sanskrit term encompassing the science of life, is the ancient philosophy with which Amangalla has combined its pampering methodology.
The result is a sanctuary where sensational treatment rooms, sensually fragrant with healing oils, allow the often-weary guests to succumb to the hands and promises of highly skilled therapists. If you choose an Ayurvedic programme, then Dr HGBP Fernando, a third generation specialist in the field, will talk you through a personalised programme following a detailed consultation – one that you can adhere to for a lifetime.
The Baths also house a sauna, steam room and hydrotherapy pool, all serenely lit in a pale fluorescent water-green. I didn't have time for more than one treatment, so I chose the signature foot massage, as I always find this a great way to help alleviate the lethargy following a long flight. You leave your shoes at the door along with the humid heat; the rest is taken care of. My therapist was a Balinese miracle worker who, while working her magic at the lower end of my body, managed to release tension throughout. I highly recommend booking a treatment or programme prior to arrival: this house of healing is coveted.
We enjoyed all our exceptionally good meals on the veranda. This included light lunches of grilled calamari with lime and chilli, grilled prawn and avocado salad with a rich garlic mayonnaise, and outstanding yellowfin tuna, seared, with gotukola salad (a refreshing local leaf which looks like the geranium family but tastes like parsley-flavoured watercress with a host of health benefits).
However, my favourite meal was the chef's curry. It comes as a feast on a large tray, stacked with bowls of delicious taste sensations including creamy papaya curry, dhal, ladies fingers, red rice, white rice, prawn curry, chicken curry...it continues. Aside from excellent mojitos, we really enjoyed the rosé from Catalunya: Rosada 'De Casta' by Bodegas Torres. Guilt free, we piled in the ice and adored every glass. The wine list is short but comprehensive, and well selected to accompany the menu.
Using Amangalla as a base, you can enjoy a variety of beautiful, fascinating and extraordinary excursions and daytrips, all expertly organised by the team along with your butler. Every early wake-up call is worth it; for us, many of the trips proved to be life-enhancing experiences.
I can genuinely not think of a single reason why you wouldn't want to stay at Amangalla, price allowing. It's a base, a home, a tropical colonial and cosmopolitan residence that will give you that much needed respite. It will enrich your senses, enlighten your soul and start your journey into this bewitching land with a veritable sense of adventure and wonderlust.