Driving through the streets of Colombo towards the seafront and the Galle Face Hotel it is abundantly clear that the Sri Lankan capital is in the midst of a breathless modernisation.
Towering representatives of several international hospitality chains gaze down over a swathe of building projects and out over the enormous Chinese-funded extension to the city’s harbour – the Port City taking shape on land reclaimed from the Indian Ocean.
The sensation that Colombo is changing before your eyes is impossible to disavow, until, that is, you step out of the sun and across the marbled threshold of the oldest hotel east of the Suez Canal.
Having first welcomed guests in 1864, the Galle Face Hotel is a colonial pile that trades on the kind of old-world charm the lion’s share of its fellow Colombo five-stars could only dream of.
A backstory replete with recuperating plantation owners, nonagenarian doormen, misplaced cannonballs and a cornucopia of royals, revolutionaries, cosmonauts and film stars allows guests to imagine themselves inside an Indian subcontinental Wes Anderson adventure.
Rather than name names here, further research by the reader is encouraged, whether that be prior to booking, or within the on-site museum once you’ve settled in – a portion of the joy of your stay will be in the discovery of these pop-cultural morsels.
By today’s standards, the Galle Face may not be the most overwhelmingly luxe of five-star hotels, but having inspired a book entitled ‘‘Delightfully Imperfect’, those concerned on this score may wish to seek alternative lodgings.
Besides which, these imperfections amount for the most part to little more than the ongoing upkeep required to keep the seafront location shipshape to the exacting standards of the modern-day guest.
There is a subtlety to much of what is done here, as evident in the barely perceptible, yet blissfully effective air conditioning within, as is the decision to allow the sea breeze to take precedence over it under the canopy of the Verandah Restaurant.
Bedrooms and suites are spacious, comfortable and agreeably vintage in aesthetic, the service pleasant and attentive, without being overbearing or insincere, and the cuisine first class at all times.
Indeed, from the egg hoppers topped with sambol at breakfast, to the rices, roti and curries at lunch and dinner, the Sri Lankan dishes we favoured during our stay were among the best we tasted across a fortnight in the country.
Once ensconced within the hotel, the sound of waves arriving and retreating massages the senses, audible from our fourth-floor sea-view suite, the cool confines of the wood-panelled Travellers’ Bar and the saltwater swimming pool; complimenting the genteel ambience prevalent throughout.
Hidden from the slowly-shrinking Galle Face Green on one side and the busy thoroughfare of the Colombo-Galle road on the other two, the area around the lawn, the chequerboard patio and the pool is the hotel’s inner sanctum, a tranquil time-warp away from the evolving city outside.
Here guests contemplate the sea as they sip a cool Pimms, sit down for high tea, execute a few lengths of breaststroke or observe one of the establishment’s array of old-time eccentricities.
The ‘crow men’, garbed like soldiers of bygone days and employed to (humanely) disperse the birds that outrank seagulls in these tropical climes, are one such example. The daily culture-melding tradition of lowering the Sri Lankan flag at sunset, accompanied by a turban-and-kilt-clad bagpiper, another.
For some, the Galle Face Hotel’s location, a 45-minute taxi from Bandaranaike International Airport, makes it the perfect luxurious way-station en route to other parts of the country or flights onwards to the Maldives.
But others, who prefer a more sedate pace of travel, stay for weeks within the well-preserved walls of this delightfully imperfect monument to a bygone age, playing croquet, visiting the sizeable L’Occitane-powered spa or soaking up the sun, as the new Colombo takes shape outside.
If your motives are somewhere in-between, the hotel’s Galle Face Expeditions programme, through which it curates visits to many of Sri Lanka’s most storied places of interest, is a superb ally for those looking to utilise it as a well-heeled base for further exploration of this beautiful island.
Regardless of the nature of your onward passage, this hotel, with a story down every corridor and dedicated by former director Cyril Gardiner to ‘yesterday’s charm and tomorrow’s comfort’, is a gift to the inquisitive.
For generations, guests have been captivated by the Galle Face Hotel’s nostalgic charm, rich heritage and impeccable service.
Celebrities and royalty from around the world have graced the corridors and celebrated on the hotel’s dance floors with a list of luminaries lining the walls in testament to their visits.
Many legends have been created from within too, such as the world’s most famous doorman Kottarapattu Chattu Kuttan, who worked with Galle Face Hotel for 72 years.