x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

My kind of place: Galle, Sri Lanka

The appeal of this old Dutch fort town lies in its colonial past and chic atmosphere.

Groote Kerk, or the great church, at Fort Galle, a sprawling, 36-hectare complex built by the Dutch in the late 17th century. Corbis
Groote Kerk, or the great church, at Fort Galle, a sprawling, 36-hectare complex built by the Dutch in the late 17th century. Corbis

Why Galle?

Galle is a historic and now hip 17th-century Dutch fort town in southern Sri Lanka, a three- or four-hour drive from the capital, Colombo. If your flight arrives at Bandaranaike International Airport in the early hours, you can dodge the daytime congestion and shave an hour off the journey by jumping in a car and driving down the coast road at night, arriving in Galle for breakfast. Within the rampart walls of the 36-hectare fort, built by the Dutch in 1663, the clocks seem to have stopped. About 400 houses line five main streets - some of the finest Portugese, Dutch and British colonial architecture in South Asia.

One of earliest travellers to reach Galle was Ibn Battuta, who visited the port in the mid-14th century, describing Moorish vessels in the harbour, and an Arab influence remains today. Fifty per cent of the fort's population is Muslim and the call to prayer floats through the sleepy streets five times a day.

The fort is also home to six schools, Christian churches, a Buddhist temple and some dusty museums and municipality offices. Many of the centuries-old houses have been converted into boutique hotels, villas and galleries while the coastal resorts of Unawatuna and Hikkadwa - a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride away - offer budget-end barefoot beach accommodation and bars.

A comfortable bed

Sri Lanka's peak season is Christmas and New Year, when many visitors escape a frosty European winter for the blue skies of the tropics. Travellers from the Middle East may well enjoy the south of the island during its two monsoon seasons from April to June and October to November, when the sunshine is interrupted by heavy rains and some hotel prices drop considerably.

At the top end is Amangalla (www.amanresorts.com/; 00 94 91 223 3388), formerly the New Oriental Hotel which was the heart of the fort's social life throughout the 1800s. Colonial luxury and elegance starts from US$497 (Dh1,825) per night, including taxes. If the room rate breaks the bank, experience this venerable hotel's charms with a sundowner on the veranda.

Just down the road on Church Street is Galle Fort Hotel (www.galleforthotel.com; 00 94 91 223 2870), a beautifully restored boutique hotel that once belonged to a gem merchant. The style sums up Ceylon chic at its best. A garden room costs from $199 (Dh730) per night, including taxes.

Renting a villa can be a cost effective option - especially for a family or group. Eden Villas (www.villasinsrilanka.com) has the best properties on its books, including beautifully converted fort houses with courtyard pools and beachfront views, starting from $300 (Dh1,102) per villa, per night.

Find your feet

Outside the fort, at the base of its towering granite walls lies the international cricket ground and an elephant polo field (yes, elephants, not horses, are used for polo in Sri Lanka). The ramparts withstood the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which devastated the town and surrounding coastal resorts. Within the safety of the fort, Amangalla became the headquarters of a massive rescue operation. Strolling along the wide walls that encircle the fort is always memorable - brisk breezes blow away the dusty heat of the narrow streets. Schoolgirls from Southlands College in immaculate uniforms and braided hair play in the long grass, monks in orange robes take the air to the cawing of South Asia's black crows and courting couples snuggle discreetly under umbrellas. Have a drink on the beautiful terrace at sunset in the Rampart Hotel. If you want to feel the sand between your toes, take a tuk-tuk ride to the nearby horseshoe-shaped beach of Unawatuna. The east side of the bay is overlooked by a white Buddhist temple and there's a track road that leads up the hill for serene views of the Indian ocean.

Meet the locals

Wander the sleepy streets of the fort to smile and chat with shopkeepers and ladies selling intricate hand-embroidered lace in 200- year-old patterns and styles.

Book a table

For delicious Asian fusion dishes and superb, fiery Sri Lankan curries head to the lovely Galle Fort Hotel. A four-course set dinner will set you back as little as $26 (Dh95).

Five minutes from the centre of Galle town sits the Sunhouse (www.thesunhouse.com; 00 94 91 438 0275), a boutique hotel that was once the home of a Scottish spice merchant now offers a contemporary, fine-dining menu. A three-course set menu of coconut, chicken and mint salad, and red fish curry followed by passionfruit meringue costs $25 (Dh92).

Refresh, a restaurant on Hikkaduwa beach, has an extensive menu of freshly caught fish and great curries, and is a popular spot to while away the time. You should also check out the shoreline beach bars that line Unawatuna beach. These simple places dish up tuna and chips, pad thai noodles and delicious coconut pancakes, washed down with fresh lime sodas under the shade of a palm tree. A cheap treat for about $3 (Dh10) per dish.

Shopper's paradise

You'll find jewel-coloured textiles, good quality sarongs that do not run or fade, handicrafts and homewares at Barefoot Galle. The main shop in Colombo has a courtyard cafe and gallery and is the hub of the capital's social life. Inside the fort itself, there's a small branch at 41 Pedlar Street. Mimimango 40 (www.mimimango.com) on Leyn Baan Street is a good source for exquisite sarongs, dresses, bikinis and jewellery by designer, and long-time Fort resident, Jo Eden. M M Ibrahim on 47 Church street is a treasure trove of gems and semi-precious stones where you can admire the country's sapphires.

What to avoid

Galle town is a hot and dusty jostle of tuk-tuks and blaring horns. The beach boys hawking trinkets and cheap sarongs on Unawatuna can chase serenity away in minutes.

If driving to/from Colombo, try to travel late at night or early in the morning to avoid the traffic gridlock along the coast road.

Don't miss

Jump in a tuk-tuk and drive east for 30 minutes to Weligama Bay. The road hugs the coastline and you can catch a glimpse of Sri Lanka's iconic stilt fisherman balancing on poles in the crashing ocean. Two hundred metres off the road, out to sea, lies Taprobane island. Access to this private villa retreat, once the home of writer Paul Bowles, is made by wading through the surf. It epitomises every fantasy of a tropical island and has been described as the "No 1 address in the Indian Ocean".

kdavies@thenational.ae