Bundles of culture? Ding! Heaps of jungle? Ding! Paddy fields galore? Ding! Crammed with wildlife? Ding! White beaches? Ding ding ding! Galle in southwest Sri Lanka has natural beauty and architectural history in equal doses, and it recently became oh-so-easy to reach from Singapore.
Half of me doesn’t want to write this article. It wants to keep Galle as my little secret and resents the thought of anyone else knowing about my special Asian bolt-hole. The other half wants to plant a soapbox on Orchard Road, from which I’ll sing while lobbing copies of this article into the air.
“If Galle is so wonderful, why hasn’t someone told me about this place?” you ask eagerly in my imagination. Until recently, the journey from Colombo took around five hours, making it less accessible to those looking for a classic short break from Singapore. However, the introduction of Sri Lanka’s first motorway has blown the Southern Province wide open, making it possible to get to Galle in less than two hours.
Galle Fort is a massive part of what makes this area so unique – a special blend of European architecture and Asian culture. Established by the Portuguese in 1558 and extensively built upon by the Dutch from 1649 onwards, the thick-walled fortress is a Unesco World Heritage Site that has been beautifully maintained by the government. Located on a 130-acre peninsula that juts out from the southwest coast, it is surrounded by water on three sides, with a few small beaches down below. The city of Galle continues behind the Fort and across the bay, but inside the walls is where you’ll want to be.
Walking around Galle Fort was like being on a movie set – it’s polished, colourful and impossibly picturesque. Within the small grid of streets, every route led us past architectural treats – all historic and each totally different.
It’s not easy to get them into a neat list, but highlights include the white colonial courthouse that looks out across the banyan tree-lined square, the original post office (still in use!), the crumbling bell tower, the glamorous Amangalla Hotel and the picture-perfect lighthouse.
And then there’s the sheer number of stunning religious buildings crammed into one citadel. From a point along the ramparts, I could spy the centuries-old Dutch Reformed Church, an imposing gothic Anglican church, an atypical mosque and a traditional Buddhist temple. The warm, laid-back buzz that made us feel so comfortable inside the walls must be a result of various communities living harmoniously side-by-side for generations.
Join Juliet Coombe’s walking tour of Fort to take in the sensational views around the ramparts (one of which looks directly into Galle International Cricket Stadium – handy for blokes who don’t fancy shopping). Juliet will tell you all sorts about the region’s colonial history and the assortment of merchants who settled there in the 18th century, intertwining a surprising number of deceptively huge, elaborate mansions into the maze of narrow streets.
We were fortunate enough to rent one of these houses through luxury rental pros Eden Villas, who manage a number of stunning properties in the area, including the unbelievable 5 Middle Street. Hidden behind a stable door, 5 Middle Street expanded into a lofty, extravagant four-bedroom home, filled with rich, dark wood and swish, comfortable furnishings. I felt like I was some sort of competition winner, who’d walked into a holiday that doesn’t really exist in normal life. Open at the back, the bedrooms looked out across the lush gardens and further beyond, across the old spires and rooftops. The villa, which also had a huge vertical garden, came with two polite houseboys and an oh-so-talented chef, who were thrilled to help us out as much or as little as we needed. They kept us stuffed with traditional hoppers – made from a batter of rice flour, coconut milk and yeast, served up like pancakes with anything (or, in our case, everything) you liked.
Spot the Bride
The idea of leaving Galle Fort didn’t sit well with me, so on the last morning, I stumbled out of 5 Middle Street at 7am for a final loop of the walls. Well, if I’d known I was about to stagger through a dozen wedding shoots, I would have made more effort. There were brides modelling all over the place, peeking out from nooks in the wall with gaggles of colourful bridesmaids, gazing across the ocean with their toes in the sand and posing among the huge banyan roots. I can see why they chose the Fort, but I’m not sure I could get up at 5am to put my face on.
Historians believe that Galle Fort may have been where King Solomon obtained his gems during biblical times, which could explain the number of jewellery stores around town. Many of the shops have been with families for generations, the owners designing original collections from a variety of stones. There are also a number of art galleries, homeware stores and fashion boutiques to explore, all of which encourage local craftsmanship. My top picks: Jo Jo for jewellery, Mimimango for clothes and The Orchid House for a little bit of everything.
Sri Lanka certainly isn’t short of a rainforest or two, and the southwest coast is lined with thick jungle, from Galle to Mirissa and beyond. Craving green like your typical expats, our next stop was 15 minutes down the road, to one of Eden Villa’s luxury properties off the beaten track.
Forget the competition-winning; pulling up the steep track to Kumara was driving into a music video – I half expected J-Lo to be lounging by the pool, sipping Cristal from a diamond goblet. Laid out across four villas (two living spaces and two bedrooms) in vast landscaped gardens, Kumara oozed glamour and style, with sleek Asian furnishings and glass everywhere. And the pool! Elevated above the canopy, enjoying dramatic views from all sides, we struggled to do anything besides sipping wine on the veranda, pointing out passing wildlife and thinking of ways to stay forever. (“Hiding” was the best we could come up with.)
For one afternoon, we managed to put our local curry and less-local rosé down for long enough to explore the nearby paddy fields. We’d heard that a cycling trip with Idle Tours was the “thing to do”, so we spent a cracking afternoon pedalling through the lush paddies and seeing the friendly villagers at work. The knowledgeable (and fun!) Idle Tours guides will cycle as far – and as fast – as you like, but fortunately my pal Jo enjoyed taking snaps of every third bird, so I enjoyed regular breaks without feeling guilty. I was still a sweaty mess by the end, mind, so it’s a good job our finishing point was the gorgeous Wijaya Beach, where we leapt into the sea and enjoyed a sensational sunset (and more rosé).
Another great sunset spot is Mirissa Beach – take a five-minute tuk-tuk to the white sandy bay and grab a table in the sand at one of the colourful surf bars. As the sun goes down, the flame torches go up, the tide comes in and the three-dollar beers flow. The next thing you know, the waves are crashing around your chair, the DJs appear and people are dancing with their arms in the air, knee-deep in the water. Brilliant.
Along Galle Road is a touching and significant charity called Children’s Hope. Created by British expat Carla Browne, Children’s Hope runs a school for deaf and blind children, plus maintains the children’s ward at the local hospital. The charity also provides a number of other community services, most notably education for all young children who cannot afford it. To sustain Children’s Hope, there is a guesthouse for volunteers who pay a small fee for room and board while working on their choice of projects. I couldn’t recommend this beautiful – and powerful – opportunity enough for gap year students and those looking to take time out and give back.
You can’t go to Galle without spending at least some time at the beach – there are many, many stretches of white sand along the coastline, each quiet bay looking more postcard-perfect than the last. Just imagine having one of these beaches to yourself, with no one around but the odd crab and a shoal of mudskippers. That’s exactly what we were able to experience during our final stay, at the “surely this place isn’t real”-style house, Pointe Sud. The earlier music video I’d imagined had clearly sold a billion copies, and I was holidaying like an A-lister (speaking of which, I spotted Elizabeth Hurley and Shane Warne grinning away in Pointe Sud’s guestbook!).
Dramatically furnished with antiques to enhance the Spain-meets-Sri Lanka theme, Pointe Sud was out of this world. The ocean view slapped me across the face as I strolled onto the verandah, mouth shaped like an “O”, across graduated gardens sloping downwards towards a pretty special infinity pool set above the twinkling ocean. Taking the steps further down still, we discovered more gardens and – girly squeal – a deserted beach.
For the final 24 hours, we did nothing but lie in various positions around the grounds and stuff ourselves with the chef’s extraordinary spring rolls, grilled seafood and lamb curry (not at the same time… well, not always at the same time). It was with heavy hearts that we had to leave Pointe Sud, and we were only coaxed away by a trail of jam hoppers to the car and a promise of cocktails in Colombo.
We hired a local driver to take us to the airport via a quick tour of Colombo for a little extra. Sri Lanka’s capital enjoyed a facelift ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November 2013, and it’s worth taking a few hours to explore. Here are my tips for a final afternoon in Colombo…
1. Start at the colonial Galle Face Hotel and enjoy the seaside sunset over a mean cocktail. (Time your visit well – you won’t want to pay for more than one.)
2. Drive around the Cinnamon Gardens, the city’s most sought-after postcode, crammed with museums, galleries, parks and posh mansions.
3. Head into the CBD for dinner at the Old Dutch Hospital. There are heaps of restaurants inside, but we had a great spread at Ministry of Crab.
4. Avoid getting stuck in traffic on the way out of Colombo – head off early and, if all goes well, stop at The Wallawwa for a cheeky massage. The old manor house has been converted into a boutique hotel and spa, and it’s less than 10 minutes from the airport.
All Eden Villas include incredible facilities, house staff, daily tropical breakfast and the services of a house chef. (Guests choose from a huge selection of meals, paying just the small cost of fresh, local ingredients.)
Direct flights from Singapore to Colombo are frequent and affordable. It takes under four hours and the cheapest airlines include Sri Lankan Airlines (I flew with these guys for S$300 return), Malaysia Airlines and Emirates. Eden Villas provide private, luxury transfers to Galle from $150 each way or you can get a local taxi from around $80 each way.
Galle Fort has a handy website and free app that features all of the activities mentioned in this piece, and more.
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