Checking in at the Galle face Hotel is almost mandatory for any first-time visitors to Colombo.
Opened by a group of British entrepreneurs in 1864, the property - said to be the oldest east of the Suez - beats such institutions as the Bangkok Oriental, Singapore’s Raffles Hotel and the Taj Mahal in Mumbai to iconic Grande Dame status.
Perched proudly on the windswept shores of the Indian Ocean, just south of Beira Lake and the old Colombo Fort, the hotel looks out onto the Galle Face Green, a 12 acre stretch of land sandwiched between the sea and the thronging Galle Road. Used over the years for military purposes, the urban park has, since the 19th century, become treasured for more peaceful pursuits, where locals today can be seen playing cricket, enjoying a stroll or simply sitting and taking in one of the many spectacular sunsets.
The present day three-storey hotel was completed in 1894 by architect Thomas Skinner and, even by the extravagant standards of the British Empire, was remarkably spectacular, boasting the largest dining hall and housing the only swimming pool on the island. A place to be seen during its colonial heyday, with a guest book that includes a long list of heads of state, royalty and Hollywood stars such as Vivien Leigh from Gone With The Wind, the hotel has largely remained untouched, bar a few minor renovations over the years.
Now, in celebration of its 150th anniversary, the hotel has reopened after a major 30-month spruce-up of its North Wing, courtesy of Singapore-based firm Ong & Ong. The 72 rooms and suites have been sympathetically revamped to gently nudge it into the 21st century, with rich mahogany furnishings and plush marble bathrooms. And while nostalgic details from tthe wicker chairs, grandfather clocks and the tiled flooring no longer grace much of the public spaces such as the lobby, the Palm Lounge and that famous dining room, guests can still get a whiff of the hotel’s romantic colonial charm under the whirring ceiling fans in The Verandah, or perhaps at The Chequerboard, where surrounded by gently lilting palm trees, many visitors over the years have enjoyed a tipple or two, seated in elegant rattan furniture, while watching the sun set over the red sea.
We suggest settling down for dinner at one of the candle-lit ocean-front tables at The Sea Spray Restaurant, where chef Adam Gaunt-Evans has created a a fish-focused menu with the freshest produce from the island. Tuck into juicy native lobster flamed with Ceylon Arrack and finished with a Thermidor glaze, followed by a delicious Sri Lankan take on a crème brûlée, with passion fruit and buffalo curd, and of course, end the evening with a postprandial cocktail in the Traveller’s Bar, where framed photos of the hotel’s former famous visitors grace the walls for posterity.