The Aman chain of hotels is synonymous with luxury, superlative service and the kind of room-rate that deserves a seat to itself on your flight over. When the chain established two very-high-end resorts in Sri Lanka some years ago it was quite a visionary statement of the chain's confidence in the future of Sri Lankan tourism, foreseeing an end to hostilities and the establishment of the country as a hot new destination for the chi-chi set. This has proven to be correct, with the New York Times rating Sri Lanka its number 1 must-visit country in 2010 and the two resorts finding themselves booked solid through the last Winter high-season with guests including Prince William and Kate Whatsit.
Quite a refreshing change from the usual Eastern European plumber / carpenter / stonemason type we used to attract through the war-years, when Sri Lanka's only attraction was its rock-bottom prices...
This post covers Amangalla, which I visited in January 2006 on what may well have been The Campest Road-trip Ever, and I will write another time about Amanwella, which I stayed at in December last year.
I first visited Amangalla (http://www.amanresorts.com/amangalla/home.aspx) back in January 2006, on what was originally intended to be just a lunch-stop during The Campest Road-trip Ever. TCRE featured Jules, a 6'6" blond, blue-eyed chap who worked for (of all things) a soup company, and two somewhat shorter, yet no less camp Sri Lankans in the form of Afdhel and myself. The road trip was an excuse for me to take my father's Beemer out for a spin ("Oh, the leather luxury", commented Jules, and I was never quite sure whether it was the luxury or the leather that had him so excited...) as well as an opportunity for us to check out a number of different categories of resort down the Southern Coast.
We started off at the Serendib Hotel in Bentota (a grim 70's-designed resort, which took me a bottle of whisky to get through the night at and of which the less said the better). The Serendib was very much a haunt of the EEPCS bracket of tourist, of which species there were several in occupancy. Most of the EEPCS' were already done to a nice medium-rare turn and, judging by the menu at dinnertime, seemed to be quite homesick for Borscht and Petrowska Vodka...
Day Two had us dropping in at Nisala Arana (http://www.nisalaarana.com/), a boutique villa near Bentota, to take a quick look before heading off to Mirissa Beach (http://www.mirissa.com/) for the remainder of our stay. We were shown around by the owner, Kevin Pereira, and the place looked like it would be ideal for a peaceful, relaxed, escape-from-it-all kind of stay.
|The pool at Nisala Arana|
|Nisala Arana's lovely garden|
Mirissa-bound, we decided to stop at Amangalla for lunch en route. As the name suggests, Amangalla is situated in Galle, one of the larger towns on the southern coast, renowned for its natural harbour, Dutch-era "ramparts" (one of the UNESCO world heritage sites), quaint little streets full of antique / curio shops and, more recently, for its international cricket stadium. When I was a young child, Galle used to be the destination for many of our family holidays to stay at my maternal great-aunt's lovely home opposite the Galle clock-tower: memories filled with moonlit picnics on the ramparts and day-trips to nearby Unawatuna Beach. Sadly, my great-aunt's house was sold and is currently being turned into what looks like a shrine to nouveau-richeness while Galle itself was the scene of terrible devastation in the 2004 Tsunami. Happily though, Galle has recovered magnificently since then.
|Snake-charmer in the foreground of the Galle Lighthouse|
|Galle's Dutch-era Clocktower|
Amangalla is located right at the heart of Galle Town, occupying the building that was once the grand old New Oriental Hotel, a bastion of colonial splendour built during the British occupation (the Brits really did get around in the old days: as Ricky Gervais said to the American audience at the Golden Globes awards ceremony a few years back, "Hello, I'm from England - we used to rule the world before you lot". If I were Ricky, I'd start learning to say that in Mandarin...)
Retaining much of the old NOH's facade as well as its original structure, Amangalla manages to combine modern luxury with a real sense of stepping back in time as you enter the venerable old building through a long verandah that doubles as a rather pukka lounge and dining area. The verandah leads into a magnificent salon, all high ceilings, dark wood, comfortable couches and a spiffy dining room. The salon features a bar and a baby grand piano and has become a popular venue for a number of events during the annual Galle Literary Festival (http://www.galleliteraryfestival.com/).
Given its location in the centre of a town, Amangalla is quite unique in its design, with its bedrooms, garden and swimming pool housed within a large central courtyard while the four walls of the hotel are constructed to keep the outside world out, guaranteeing absolute privacy within: not unlike a fortress or fortified manor-house of yore.
Access to the inner courtyard is gained through a lovely set of stairs that evoke a "Secret Garden" air of mystery:
and you really enter a new world. Down a further flight of stairs and you reach the fabulous swimming pool - a world within a world, with high walls to keep intrusive eyes out and rows of roofed "cabanas" complete with day-beds for luxurious pool-side lounging.
Aman resorts operate a refreshing "eat wherever you want" policy and the highlight of the road-trip for me was breakfast by the pool (of course we stayed for the night - the place was irresistible...): hoppers, egg-hoppers, pol sambol (naturally), eggs, sausages, bacon - the works, all of which served with a smile in the privacy of our pool-side cabanas...
|Looking out at the pool from the day-bed|
The courtyard also features quaint little gardens, a very good spa and a rather splendid olde-worlde barbershop, operated by the grandson of the barber who groomed the whiskers of innumerable gentlemen during the old NOH's colonial hey-day. Although expensive, a shave at the barbershop is highly recommended: it's an interesting experience and (while I dare say there's nothing to stop the more hirsute female visitor getting shorn here too) a welcome little luxury for the male traveller in this world of nail-spas and the like for our lady friends.
|The Barber's tools-of-trade|
The bedrooms at Amangalla were as richly-appointed as one might expect when paying room rates in excess of $500 a night (as ever, special rates are available for residents and resident-expats), furnished in dark wood and expensive fabrics with a four-poster bed as its centrepiece:
A large bathroom complemented the bedroom, with twin-sinks, shower and an inviting bathtub to soak away one's cares in.
The food at Amangalla is excellent. The original lunch we had stopped for turned out to be the most innovatively-presented rice-and-curry I have come across in Sri Lanka, served like a Western course and deliciously cooked. I've already raved about the breakfast and dinner was a splendid affair as well, with the new resident chef, Briony, taking advantage of the hotel being quiet to rope in the three of us as her (very willing) guinea-pigs to try out new dishes on. Briony has moved on now, but a couple of recent visits to Amangalla and her sister hotel, Amanwella, had me reassured that she has left her kitchen staff well-trained.
The food was so good that we made absolute pigs of ourselves during our stay, indulging in not just breakfast, lunch and dinner but high-tea as well. Very pukka sahib, but like I said this was a very camp road-trip indeed, and jammy crumpets (ooer, missus) for tea simply could not be passed upon...
|On Wednesdays I go shopping...|
Overall, an excellent resort, unique in its setting and a novel re-imagining of one of Sri Lanka's historical buildings. Galle is a good base to explore the South from and, if you're looking for a luxurious stop, Amangalla would be a good choice (not, however, if you want beachfront-access to the sea).
Amangalla would also be one of the best choices of stay if you are intending to attend next year's Galle Lit.Fest. (which you should), although you had better book early...