It’s 9pm in Sri Lanka’s Galle, and we’re seated in the library of a hotel. Carved shelves laden with Sri Lankan tomes and black-and-white photographs surround our candlelit table, that’s set with white-starched linens and antique silverware.
The faint, rhythmic beats of the tabla play in the distance as we tuck into our rice laden with curries and coconut sambol. Moving like shadows, butlers in sarongs stealthily refill our wine glasses and replace our dishes. This is Amangalla.
Just hours before, we arrived at the Grand Dame of Galle Fort, a 17th century UNESCO World Heritage Site originally built by the Portuguese, and later colonised by the Dutch. Within its ramparts, the Grand Dame stands imposing, gleaming like a white pearl amid its colonial relics — both crumbling and restored — in the fort’s ramparts.
It’s a pristine veneer for the history it heaves with.
As the oldest surviving hotel in Sri Lanka, Amangalla’s past is a fascinating one that spans the golden age of steam travel and colonial rule. It was originally the official residence of the Dutch Governor of Sri Lanka, before it was turned into an inn. Run by a Dutch family for generations, its last owner was Nesta Ephramus Bohier who held its reins well into her nineties.
Our entrance to the hotel is ceremonial. We’re greeted in the towering archways by the hotel’s general manager, and staff who proffered cold towels and sweet tea brimming with plump passionfruit pulp. We light an oil lamp as a blessing for a new beginning — and aptly so. This would not only mark my first visit to Sri Lanka, but an Aman property.
Time stands still in Amangalla, mirroring that of its Galle Fort locale. The late architect Kerry Hill elegantly restored the property in 2004. Antiques — many retained from its colonial heyday — are the core of its DNA. A quiet romance pervades its nooks and crannies, from the archways of its tiled verandah, to the Zaal, its Great Hall, where we dined under candelabra chandeliers and the gentle whirr of ceiling fans.
Save for upgraded, contemporary fittings synonymous with luxury hotels, there is nary a hint of modernity here: No screen is found in Amangalla — not in its halls, not in the spa, and not even in your room. A TV is only available upon request.
A total of 31 rooms and suites make up the property, each as elegant as the other. My room is the Verandah Chamber, one of the only three that comes with a large balcony. Like the rest of the hotel, it is subtly palatial, with ample four-poster beds surrounded by Dutch Pettagama chests, antique writing desks, and plantation chairs.
Within the walls of Amangalla are facilities that exist in symbiosis with the hotel’s colonial makeup. Laze by the swimming pool in its creeper-laced garden or “take the waters”, which is a bygone phrase referring to the healing properties of water therapy at The Baths.
The spa complex located in a separate wing is a destination in itself, with its softly lit arched cloisters, and hydrotherapy chambers of baths and pools. Long dips fulfilled, I booked an Ayurvedic treatment where my knots were unravelled with the help of hot oil.
Dining is a true pleasure at Amangalla. We started each morning with a plate of hoppers — locally known as ‘appam’ — served as either light, bowl-shaped pancakes or steamed rice noodles — with pol sambol (a spicy shredded coconut side dish) and curry. For lunch, the daily changing rice and curry plate is an explosion of flavours and textures, made up of assorted curries, pickled vegetables, chutney and pappadom.
The true Aman dining experience, however, takes place past dusk. Sip on sunset Bellinis from the comfortable verandah, or enjoy a stately meal specially prepared for you. The roti dinner spotlights the street snack — a chunkier version of the Singapore variety — served fine dining style and in a multitude of ways, including stir-fried and shredded with meat and vegetables.
For a truly sublime romantic experience, enjoy your meal poolside surrounded by candles and flaming torches.
Amanwella: Dramatic yet discreet
Just two hours away from Amangalla is Amanwella, tucked away in Tangalle. The road there requires a skilful navigation but the endless scenic views of jungles, shorelines, and villages are breathtaking. What greets you at the end of a gravel road is a a hideaway quite unlike its Galle sibling. Fringed by a mature coconut grove, Amanwella immediately commands your attention with its terracotta exterior, and design marked by austere, straight lines.
Hill designed the property as an ode to revered Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, who is lauded as the godfather of tropical modernism. Dramatic yet tastefully discreet, it marries Aman’s signature aesthetic of minimalist style and a heavy use of native materials.
Coming from Amangalla, Amanwella seems like a different world. Where the former resembles an elegant, live-in museum, the latter is a contemporary, capacious complex that seamlessly melds the outdoors into the indoors. Behind its enormous courtyard are immaculately manicured lawns dotted with frangipani trees, a Bawa favourite. These connect the in-house boutique to the library: A book-lined path that leads out to the light-flooded bar and restaurant. It is not uncommon to feel like the only guests in an Aman property, but this is especially felt in Amanwella where all of its spaces are remarkably sizeable.
Our sunsets were spent cradling Amanwella’s signature Arak Sours on the restaurant’s patio which overlooks the 47m-long infinity pool. One highlight of our dinners took place at The Beach Club, just a minute’s ride away via the hotel’s three-wheeler.
The beachside restaurant serves up chargrilled meats and the freshest seafood — all best enjoyed privately, and surrounded by oil lamps and candles, and serenaded by local musicians.
All suites at Amanwella are massive and identical. Floor-to-ceiling sliding doors act as room dividers between bedrooms and bathrooms with ample bathtubs and standalone showers and washrooms. These also open up to spacious balconies. Mine, in particular, overlooked the coconut grove and palm trees where the sun peeked out in between. A short walk down the hill is the beach. While it is not a private one, there is always someone present with clean towels and iced water, to keep you cool for your seaside shut-eye under the trees.
While the two properties may appear completely opposed, both are testaments to Aman’s DNA and together, offer a sumptuous sojourn in Sri Lanka. Despite the luxury rates, there is no glitz, glamour, or over-the-top frills at either hotels. The two exhibit a pervasive, intimate atmosphere few other properties can emulate — owing to the sense of seclusion, despite the chaos outside, thanks to its limitation on the number of guests.
Attentive, round-the-clock service by its dedicated local staff will have you feeling like you’re living in a private residence of a gracious host. Staff will anticipate your needs long before you’ve thought of them. In your rooms, whether in Amangalla or Amanwella, you’ll find everything you need for your stay, including rattan fans, insect repellent, sunscreen, flip flops, and sun hats. Nightly treats placed on your bedspread run the gamut of sleep-inducing teas and treats unique to its surrounds, such as cinnamon from a nearby plantation.
Staying true to the luxury group’s ethos, the two adopt a refined, respectful approach to its local dwellings and heritage. Amangalla preserves the period fittings of its past; Amanwella was built with only indigenous materials. This, combined with the unique Aman approach to experiencing Sri Lanka, makes a stay at the two unparalleled. But that’s a story for another day.