Galle Face Hotel in Australian Frontlines after Facelift

Phil Hawkes, in The Australian, 19 April 2017,  with the titleGalle Face Hotel gracious reminder of foregone era”

It’s 1982 and I’m in Colombo, Sri Lanka, at a travel conference. We rock up at the portico of the legendary Galle Face Hotel in a decrepit 10-seat minibus that the organisers managed to provide for 12 delegates. Hardly the coolest of ways to arrive at this heritage-listed reminder of British colonial days. Where’s the fleet of vintage Rollers? But there’s Kuttan the doorman, splendid in his unique white uniform and sporting his trademark handlebar moustache, welcoming us as if we’re royalty. He is used to greeting guests such as Lord Louis Mountbatten, Princess Elizabeth, Jawaharlal Nehru and other famous people, but his welcome to us is just the same. Feeling like celebrities, we forget about the minibus. Kuttan was a recognisable character at the Galle Face Hotel for 72 years, surely a world record. He died in 2014 at age 94, much honoured by colleagues and those guests whose lives he touched. Now his tradition is carried on by PB Rathnayaka, whose tenure is a mere 51 years with another “rich and famous” list to recall, including Fidel Castro and Indira Gandhi, and more than a few Australian cricketers.

A recent visit to Colombo brought back memories of the old Galle Face, which opened in 1864, and it was heartening to see what has happened to the old girl. She’s resplendent, with a total makeover including new paintwork and interiors — even airconditioning in the lobby where colonials used to sweat copiously in their three-piece woollen suits. Best of all, the 156 guestrooms have been completely modernised, while retaining the charm and feel of 19th-century Downton Abbey.

The beds and pillows, too, have nothing in common with Victorian horsehair stuffing; they are 21st-century goosedown comfortable. The new bathrooms, always a focus of attention for those whose make-up routine is the most important part of the day, are squeaky-clean and well lit, even if the shaving mirror is a bit scary first thing in the morning. Flat-screen TV and a couple’s love seat complete the picture.

It’s in the food and beverage operation that the owners have hedged their bets between old and new. The “old”, we were pleased to see, is the retention of the extensive fan-cooled veranda where tiffin was an established British custom, now serving splendid breakfast and high tea; and the refurbished 1864 restaurant still offers roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

In keeping with modern trends, however, the waterfront Seaspray restaurant has emerged as Colombo’s go-to place for seafood, with a new menu created by executive chef Adam Gaunt-Evans making the most of Sri Lanka’s bountiful harvest from the surrounding deep oceans and coastal lagoons. The wild-caught tuna in particular lends itself to the most delectable curries you’ll find anywhere.

It’s inspirational to see what has been done to bring the Galle Face Hotel into the 21st century without losing its unique character, a tribute to chairman Sanjeev Gardiner of the owning family who endured 32 years of uncertain business conditions in the civil war before embarking on this massive (and expensive) refurb. With more than 600 staff including 100 chefs, the hotel is a repolished diamond in a country famous for its gems.

As we say farewell to Rathnayaka, we wonder where the old minibus has gone. Luckily, it has been replaced by a fleet of new 4WDs — but the owner’s vintage Cadillac is still parked in the driveway. Can’t improve on that.

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 My first visit to Ceylon was April 1967. Stayed at the Gall Face and was allocated a room the furthest from the front desk = top floor in the South West corner overlooking the beach. It was great to go to sleep with the sound of the surf. Main problem was soap. Every nite on return to the room – the soap had disappeared. Standard answer from the room boys – sorry Sir – must have been the Crows.In those days – soap was a scarce commodity in Ceylon and I had been advised by my associates in the Singapore office to take my own – and hide it when I left the room.An evening meal was seafood for me – one could get 2 small lobsters/crays for a few quid. Have to admit the local beer took a bit of getting used to.Later I joined the Capri club as an alternate location for dinner. There was also the occasional trip to the Mt Lavinia which was featured in the movie – Bridge on the River Kwai.Stayed at the Galle Face a few times a year until the Intercontinental opened at the northern end of the Green. Also stayed at the Queens Hotel in Kandy for a few weeks whilst holding classes at the local university campus. I loved the curry and sambals and the trip converted me to a lover of curries – breakfast – lunch and dinner. Also stayed at the Connemara in Madras a few time and the E&O in Penang – and as a Singapore resident for many years – had the odd drop at the Long Bar in Raffles in the late 60s/early 70s. After 50 years of living in and working thruout Asia – I feel sorry for people who will never experience that post-Colonial era in Asia.  Jol

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