A quaint town, ensconced within a colonial fortress, Galle is easily Sri Lanka’s hottest new luxury destination. Riaan Jacob George lists the hip housed in heritage
I get my first taste of Galle in the leafy courtyard of the uber-chic Fortaleza restaurant. One of the trendiest cafés inside the Galle fort, it is housed in a former Dutch spice warehouse dating back 400 years. Old Galle is dotted with colonial homes, shops, villas and churches that are several centuries old. Yet, when you step into these ancient buildings, you will discover trendy restaurants, sushi bars, boutique hotels, exclusive villas and hip fashion stores. The resulting effect is fascinating – a lot like Galle itself. The seaside town wears its heritage (it is declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) on its sleeve and at the same time, is as trendy as it gets. No wonder then, that it is at the centre of an epic renaissance in Sri Lankan tourism, with the island nation’s southern coast being lauded as one of Asia’s trendiest places to holiday in.
A walk through History
The best way to explore the alleys of Galle is on foot. For that, I call on one of the town’s most well-known residents, Shanjei Perumal. The former advertising professional gave up his corporate life in Colombo to set up Galle Fort Walks at the heart of the old fort. One of the most popular “experiences” in Galle, Perumal’s walking tours are peppered with historical, cultural and architectural anecdotes. I begin my tour along the high walls of the fort, dating back to 1584, past the old lighthouse and a bunch of local boys, who daringly jump off the ramparts into the sea. It is here that I discover the Galle fort’s history, and how the British, the Dutch and the Portuguese waged wars to gain control of this strategic location. As I walk along the ramparts, along the circumference of the town, the different architectural influences are visible — Baroque Portuguese facades, the steeple of an Anglican church, the minarets of a mosque, the pagoda of a Buddhist temple and the roof of a Dutch reformist church. But Galle, as Shanjei so articulately explains, is as modern as it is historic.
My first meal stop in town is the trendy Dutch Hospital Precinct. This former asylum has been converted into a buzzing complex of bars, restaurants and boutiques. I sit down for a meal at an interestingly named eatery, The Tuna and the Crab. This contemporary restaurant, helmed by celebrity chef Dharshan Munidhasa, has a menu that includes the best from the chef’s highly rated Colombo restaurants Nihonbashi and Ministry of Crab. While I wonder at the idea of enjoying some of the world’s best and locally-sourced tuna sashimi in the heart of a Sri Lankan fortress, the chef says, “It is an attempt to put local food on the international page. We have the world’s finest tuna in our waters, so let’s put it out there.”
The streets of Galle are brimming with picturesque eateries – some casual, some upscale. A landmark of sorts is Pedlar’s Inn, housed in a former British post office. This, interestingly, was the first café to set up shop in the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Today, Pedlar’s occupies the entire ground floor of the building and serves a variety of local curries as well as international favourites.
Just across the street is Galle’s most loved indulgence, Pedlar’s Inn Gelateria. It is a streetside counter, where you will always find locals and tourists lining up for artisanal gelato. Across the street, the Fort Printers Hotel houses a swanky restaurant and chic bar in an 18th-century edifice, which was once, as you would expect, a printing press.
A few steps away, tucked away in a leafy lane, is Amangala, the grande dame of the Galle fort. The most luxurious address in town, part of the famed Aman Resorts portfolio, this is housed in a building dating back to 1684. High tea at the Amangalla is an elaborate affair and rooms at this hotel could cost you upwards of $400 a night.
Galle is brimming with unique places to stay. I chance upon No 1A Court Square, a luxurious one-bedroom apartment in an 18th-century lawyers’ chamber, beautifully restored by local architect Channa Daswatte. With all the bells and whistles of a modern luxury apartment, its verandah overlooks the Magistrate’s Square, which is abuzz with activity, giving you a glimpse of local life. Above the Fortaleza restaurant, Natalie Rogers runs a four-room luxury boutique hotel by the same name. Fortaleza’s massive rooms are steeped in history and the premises are dotted with antiques and locally commissioned artworks. Further down the street, Landesi, a three-bedroom property, is housed in a breathtaking Dutch colonial mansion, restored by architect Ashley de Vos. “Galle is a hotbed of design and art. Tourists coming here want to experience this unbridled design revolution,” says Rogers. Be that as it may, the tiny town of Galle is emerging as a serious destination for lovers of design, art, food and culture. A renaissance indeed!
The author is a widely published luxury journalist and the views expressed in this article are his own