The Galle Face Hotel has been called the ‘oldest hotel east of Suez’ and indeed is one of this region’s most impressive and historic properties. Originally a Dutch villa it was acquired by three British businessmen and opened as a hotel in1864, catering for the elite of the colonial era who were starting to travel to what was then Ceylon. In 1869 the Suez Canal had just opened and journey time from Europe to Asia was reduced from four months to one. Travellers came by rickshaw to experience Ceylonese hospitality, warm weather and a taste of the tropics. Since then monarchs and celebrities from all over the world have passed through the doors.
These days we arrive by taxi and car, but the grand façade and carriage porch of The Galle Face is as breath-taking as it must have been to those early travellers. After a 30-month restoration, the North Wing of the hotel has been refurbished to recreate its original style and architectural features. Rooms and suites, bars, lobby and ballrooms now boast the grandeur that lured famous faces including Vivien Leigh and Cary Grant. A croquet lawn and ocean view executive suite complete with butler have also been added. An Occitane spa will open later this year near the lovely swimming pool close to the sea.
Encapsulating its long history is the hotel’s museum in the South Wing. Here, among crockery and autographs and portraits of famous guests is Prince Philip’s first personal car, a 1935 model Standard Nine that he bought for £12 when he was stationed in Ceylon.
Here you can also read about the world’s longest serving doorman, Kottarapattu Chattu Kuttan, who served at the hotel from 1942 until 2014. He was succeeded by Mr. Banda who has been working at the hotel for 50 years and now at 71 years old is still welcoming guests.
There are 155 sumptuous rooms many with sea view. All have a colonial feel with wood finishes, TV, shower, safe, tea and coffee making facilities. Wi-Fi is free throughout.
The Hotel has a number of dining options ranging from beach front casual to fine dining in opulent surroundings.
The 1864 Restaurant and Wine cellar is a formal, majestic dining room serving European classics and fine wines. The Verandah offers all day dining focussing on Ceylonese cuisine such as crab curry. Buffet breakfasts lunch and dinner are available in this seafront location and afternoon tea with delicious cakes, sandwiches, homemade scones and of course the finest teas are a treat not to be missed. Local music is played at this nostalgic time, with musicians playing a sitar and Indian harmonica providing the soundtrack to this most English of meals. Sunday Brunch is becoming increasingly popular at The Verandah.
The Sea Spray seafood restaurant has panoramic views over the Indian Ocean and has a relaxed al fresco atmosphere with some mouth-watering fish dishes. A new menu is to be introduced soon to make all produce served 100% locally sourced.
The walls of the traditional Travellers Bar, like the museum, are lined with photographs of people who stayed here. From literary heavyweights such as D H Lawrence, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, EM Forster and Arthur C Clarke who wrote the final chapters of 3001: The Final Odyssey here to 20th century icons Uri Gagarin and Che Guevara. One is left wondering not who did but who didn’t stay here. This comfortable bar is a lovely spot for a sophisticated cocktail or relaxing liqueur.
The distinctive Chequerboard serves drinks throughout the day and is a popular spot for viewing the sunset. It is at this time each evening that the hotel’s resident piper plays his pipes as the national flag is ceremoniously lowered. Be sure to sample the hotel’s signature Pimm’s, it is almost the same colour as the famous sunset.
There is also a casual Pool Bar serving snacks and drinks throughout the day and the In on The Green is a traditional pub with live music, sports viewing and quizzes in the evenings throughout the week.
Galle Face Hotel, 2 Galle Road, Colombo 3, Sri Lanka
Tel: +94 11 254 1010
The Galle Face Hotel overlooks the coast and the famous Galle Face Green in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. Bandaranaike International Airport is 35 kilometres to the north of Colombo, and takes less than an hour by taxi to the hotel
Type of Hotel: Luxury Historic Hotel
Number Rooms: 155 rooms and suites with complimentary Wi-Fi
Book a history tour with one of the hotel’s resident historians to gain fascinating insights into areas not normally open to the public. The tour ends at the Grand Ballroom, the hotel’s original ballroom, and once the city’s most happening party spot. Many revellers missed their ships due to the over-the-top events there.
Price Band: Medium
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Judith Baker is a London-based travel writer.
Photographs courtesy of Galle Face Hotel and Martin Sasse/laif