I clutched the guardrails on my Smartie-coloured tuk-tuk as we swerved past policemen, cows on roundabouts, cars, vans and hand-painted lorries, careering towards Galle Fort. Nothing had really prepared me for the chaos of Sri Lanka: this was, I soon discovered, how I’d be getting from A to B for the next 10 days.
Still dizzy from the chaos, we reached the top of the hill at Galle Fort, and drove up a newly cobbled road, getting out at the foot of an elegant staircase flanked by two huge potted papyrus plants. The Aman group’s Sri Lankan outpost – the Amangalla – sits in the heart of the island’s iconic 17th century fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s an overpowering sense of grandeur here, with remnants of Dutch heritage, pillared verandas and Victorian tiles that made the epic journey, a long time ago, from Wandsworth.
The Amangalla was originally the private home of hotelier and grande dame Nesta Brohier, and already possessed all the elements that Aman guru Adrian Zecha was looking for on the island. In his twenties, Zecha was living between Delhi, where he worked for TIME magazine, and Sri Lanka. It was during this period of prohibition in India that he first met Nesta and became a regular guest at her house, attending the most lavish parties and dinners alongside Indian and British high society. When circumstances put the property on the market, Zecha realised it was the perfect opportunity to establish a base in Sri Lanka.
The charm of Amangalla lies in how its life as a hotel today fits so well with its heritage – in fact, it is run now just as it was as a private home. Each morning, soft sunlight filtered through louvred shutters onto the rich polished timber floors of my bedroom. Outside, I could hear a gentle sweeping from the terraces around the green-tiled swimming pool, as fallen frangipani flowers were collected after the night winds. Later in the morning, immaculately saronged staff laid tables with white cloths and blue glass, and silver cruet sets cast from an original saltcellar found during the renovation of the home.
Our “terrazzo dining” on those Wandsworth tiles was… eclectic. The first night we had chicken badum and a brinjal moju curry, with a watalappan coconut ice pudding to end. The spices had a few repercussions on our European digestive systems, so the beetroot carpaccio and mixed leaves with feta we ate the next day were something of a relief. We followed these with a pan-fried yellowfin tuna with asparagus, roasted fennel, and a black olive tapenade. My choice of an Arthur Metz Gewürztraminer was a touch too sweet, but still a delight to find amongst the French, Italian and Australian whites.
The morning check-out was a wrench – on the wallet as well as the heart. Manteesh, one of the staff, rushed up to give me a hug; he’d spotted my Italian name in the visitors’ book, and launched into a long description of his visit to Milan, and more specifically the bar behind La Scala and Via Brera – all in perfect Italian! Piccolo mondo!
On our way to our next destination, Tangalle, we enjoyed the butler’s farewell “survival kit” of fresh water and home-made cookies, presented in an Amangalla cloth bag decorated with more frangipani flowers.
The town of Tangalle was the now-familiar chaos of scooters, markets, banana bundles, coconuts and tuk-tuk toots. Inside the Amanwella beach resort – a term that seems too crass term for these palm tree gardens – there is a row of ten widely spaced wooden loungers with pristine white towelling covers and a large black yoga platform, prepped with mats and water bottles for 6pm sun-salutations. Each of the hotel’s ocean suites has perfect views, with private pools, wood-fitted bathrooms and panelling, shutters, baths and floors crafted from indigenous timber and stone. The top floor of the main house also gives a superb view over the Indian Ocean, giving you a wonderful sense of place.
Despite its troubled past, the future for Sri Lanka looks dynamic. The new expressway already connects Colombo to the heritage hub of Galle and continues down to Matara, with Tangalle just 20 minutes away, and the half-built bridges, unmanned motorway exits and seemingly abandoned sites in vast green expanses we passed on our drive will all soon connect. The next phase will extend transport links all the way to Hambantota International Airport, the newly built airbase which saw its first test commercial flight landings at the end of 2012. Sri Lanka is definitely connecting the dots.
Amangalla, 10 Church Street, Fort Galle, Sri Lanka
+94 91 223 3388
Amanwella, Bohdi Mawatha, Wella Mawatha, Godellawela, Tangalle, Sri Lanka
+94 47 224 1333