Judith Baker finds colonial charm in Colombo
The Galle Face Hotel has been called the ‘oldest hotel east of Suez’ and indeed this is one of the region’s most impressive and historic properties. Originally a Dutch villa it was acquired by three British businessmen and opened as a hotel in 1864, 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, and if the walls could speak they would have some amazing stories to tell. In its heyday the Grand Ballroom, the hotel’s original ballroom, was the city’s most happening party spot. Many revellers missed their ships due to the over-the-top events there.
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
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.
Photographs on the wall of the Travellers’ Bar and the hotel’s museum show some of the faces of people who have stayed here –literary figures such as DH Lawrence, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Arthur C.Clarke who wrote the final chapters of 3001: The Final Odyssey here. Cabinets feature images and stories of the famous guests, including Harrison Ford, who was a guest while shooting Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and even Mark Twain.
A cannonball from 1845 that misfired during artillery practice and crashed into the hotel (at what was then a boarding house) is also on display in the museum. Each year in March the hotel hosts the Cannonball Run along the Galle Face Green to commemorate the incident.
A croquet lawn and ocean view executive suite complete with butler have also been added to the hotel. An Occitane spa will open later this year near the lovely swimming pool close to the sea.
Don’t miss evening cocktails at the distinctive Chequerboard, the 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, an event that has taken place at The Galle Face hotel for centuries.
Colombo is a bustling modern capital city, but one that also holds surprising reminders of its colonial past and its rich Buddhist and Hindu culture. Here you find imposing architecture, charming garden squares, cafes and shrines as well as a lovely coastline perfect for promenades.
There are 155 sumptuous rooms at The Galle Face hotel,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.
Superior room are about £137 per night for two