I’ve stayed at many hotels in my life, across a broad range of countries and classes of service. Generally I’m a ‘Courtyard by Marriott’ kind of guy — reliable, clean standardized rooms. But the Galle Face is special and a night or two stay here should be on your itinerary when you’re visiting the capital of Sri Lanka.
I was first advised to stay at the Galle Face hotel by my friend, Wayne Houser, who connected me with Sir Arthur C. Clarke. I recall Wayne telling me all those years ago that it was a great hotel and was one of the only places you could get Arthur to leave the comfort of his home and join you for lunch or dinner. And it was excellent advice. Over the years I’ve spent more nights at the Galle Face than any other hotel.
The Galle Face Hotel was built in 1864 by three businessmen who saw an opportunity to cater to the British gentry as they traveled to the far reaches of the British Empire. The hotel’s name is derived from the adjoining 1 km stretch of public beach and park called the Galle Face Green. The hotel is fairly close to the Colombo Harbor, at which early travelers would have arrived and been transported to the hotel via rickshaw.
Like all of Sri Lanka, the hotel has changed a lot since I last visited 11 years ago. It’s had a thorough face-lift and remodel completed in 2015, and while always a classy place to stay it is now a luxury accommodation. During Sri Lanka’s Civil War the hotel struggled and was fighting the effects of decades of warm salty humid air and wind. There were far fewer tourists back then, so hotel revenues were less robust. But to me that only added to its charm — a partial state of “elegant decay’. The hotel is now completely repaired and updated, with an enclosed air conditioned lobby and with a Museum and Library that guests can visit. And it’s bustling with tourists. Chances are it will be sold out when you arrive, so book early!
The hotel conducts free historic tours twice a week (check for times). My tour was conducted by Mistica, a charming young lady who knew the story of the hotel very well. Here are some of the features of the Galle Face Hotel, from my own observations and from what Mistica shared with us:
Exterior: Has been restored to its original 1864 state. The parking area has been elevated to accommodate a new underground parking structure and the stairs you used to climb to enter the lobby are now gone.
The expansion of the Verandah restaurant has used up about a third of the hotel’s courtyard land, reducing the size of the checkerboard. But it remains a popular place to enjoy the sunset.
Interior: The tea room is restored. The hotel retains 2 large banquet/wedding reception rooms, long a mainstay in its economic survival. Many of the floors have been preserved, as have the hallway decorations, furnishing and fixtures. The hotel has a fine collection of Sri Lankan art.
The rooms are completely modernized with fine luxury features and amenities including huge flat screen television and really fast wi-fi (much appreciated by those of us linked to the online world). Costs have gone up proportionately, from about US$40 – $50/room 15 years ago to US$165 and up today.
The hotel has a wonderful library, open to its guests, with a collection of historic photos on its wall and is where the bust of Sir Arthur was moved to after the remodel and shrinkage of the lobby in which it used to reside. The library houses lots of historic photos and maps and has a wonderful collection of Sri Lankan themed coffee-table books you can browse through in air-conditioned comfort if you have a few hours to kill.
The hotel has a lovely museum/gathering place, a highlight of which is Prince Philip’s old car (he’s the spouse of Queen Elizabeth in case you didn’t know). There is an extensive collection of photos and biographies of celebrities who have visited the Galle Face over the years, ranging from President Nixon to Steven Spielberg. The museum also houses a collection of historic crockery used at the Galle Face over the years.
Beyond the facilities, the food at the Galle Face hotel is and has always been wonderful. If anything, it has improved. Not cheap by Sri Lankan standards, it is safely prepared and you can eat anything to your heart’s content here without worry of getting sick. New dining rooms have opened, including the fine dining 1864 restaurant and Pub on the Green. I preferred to eat at the Veranda or Sea Spray restaurants, enjoying their views of the ocean and allowing you to hear the powerful roar of the waves as they pound on the hotel’s retaining wall.
My favorite activity at the hotel is to watch the sunset. Dozens of guests gather in the courtyard and along the seawall every night to watch this. I’ve seen some wonderful sunsets here, although the building of the massive marina complex to the north might distract from them in the future. A uniformed man and kilt-wearing bag-piper ceremoniously take down the flag during the last rays of the sunset, but we’ll revisit that another day.
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