It’s a question I’ve been asked for as long as I’ve been a travel writer. I finally have an answer.
“What’s your favorite hotel?”
Here it is, discretely occupying a three-story Dutch colonial building within the walls of Galle Fort in southern Sri Lanka. There is no name above the entrance; no outward proclamation it is even a hotel. My wife and I ascend the steps to the veranda, where immaculately liveried staff emerge from the shadows to receive us with warm smiles and cool face towels. “Welcome to Amangalla.”
Most tourists walk by, oblivious. Few will have heard of Aman Resorts, which operates boutique properties across Asia and in a handful of places beyond. This most exclusive of hotel groups is a secret shared among discerning travelers.
At an Aman hotel, you can be sure of a rare kind of ambience: refined, understated, yet homey. You can be confident of service that will be attentive but never intrusive. And because every guest feels part of the same club, you will find conversations flow easily.
On first arrival, we are ushered from the veranda into the adjacent zaal (or great hall), an airy room with a polished wooden floor, solid colonial furniture and a high ceiling from which the chandeliers wobble lazily in the breeze stirred by the fans. I am instantly won over.
This is my comfort zone. I grew up in a colonial house in the tropics, and I’ve always had a soft spot for the grand (and often faded) hotels that remain from that era.
Amangalla’s lineage reaches back to 1863, when Sri Lanka was British Ceylon. Back then, a hand-painted sign above the entrance identified this building as the Oriental Hotel. Later it became the New Oriental Hotel, inherited by a remarkable woman, Nesta Brohier, who was born in Room 25 in 1905. She presided over the property well into her 90s.
On Nesta’s death, the hotel was taken over by Aman Resorts. Amangalla launched in 2005 after a complete refurbishment. In its new incarnation, there is nothing faded about the grandeur. Modern amenities and standards of service dovetail seamlessly with an environment that immerses you in another age.
I could happily sit for hours in one of the teak planter’s chairs in the zaal, sipping a gin and tonic and imagining the colonial assignations and intrigues these walls have borne witness to. But on my first afternoon, there is no time for that. I have an appointment at The Baths, the hotel’s celebrated spa.
As I have confessed before on these pages, spas are not within my comfort zone. I struggle with the etiquette and with the concept of lying around doing nothing for an hour or two. And then there’s my innate hang-up about having a complete stranger plying my bare flesh. I’ve never entirely overcome the feeling that the whole business is inappropriately intimate.
So I walk through the verdant hotel garden to the spa with all the enthusiasm of someone going to a dental appointment. My apprehension is heightened by the prospect of the treatment I will experience: a four-hand massage. Two strangers kneading my body.
In the waiting area, I sip a fresh lime juice and try to relax. My best efforts are undone when the therapists arrive. Two men, Sanath and Raju. They escort me to the treatment room, and in the best Ayurvedic tradition set about diagnosing my physical shortcomings. My treatment will be tailored accordingly. They matter-of-factly assess that I’m overweight with dry skin.
Sri Lanka is one of the heartlands of Ayurvedic medicine, which draws on centuries of knowledge. As I lie face down on the treatment table, Sanath and Raju slather my back in vathaviduranga, a potently aromatic oil made from more than 50 indigenous plants.
They identify the knots of tension around my shoulder blades and start to work on them. Almost immediately, I feel a muscular twang in my upper back. My entire body sags into relaxation. Wow.
Suddenly free of apprehension, I surrender myself to the sensory symmetry of two pairs of hands gliding in tandem across my oiled skin. My mind floats comfortably. I inhale the complex odors of the oil and settle into a state somewhere between consciousness and sleep.
After three-quarters of an hour, all four hands lift from my body. I am given a few moments to rouse from my torpor, then I am guided to the steam room. I sit alone, staring at the white tiles. After a few minutes, my pores open and I glisten in a purging lather of sweat. Cleansing is completed by a cold shower.
I drift back to our suite and join my wife on our private veranda overlooking the garden. Exotic birds flit and twitter in the greenery. More than once, one or the other of us gives voice to a shared sentiment: “I could live here.”
The following evening, we are both back in The Baths. For an hour, we have use of a private spa area with a steam room, a sauna, an icy plunge pool and a Jacuzzi. This is a privilege available to all guests. Again we share a common thought: “I could get used to this.”
On the final morning, I benefit from another pampering. I book a wet shave in Amangalla’s gloriously old-fashioned Barber Shop and Salon. The barber, Roshan, is following in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather, who both served the New Oriental Hotel. He drags the sharp blade across my face with the deft skill of an artisan.
Baby-faced, I return to the zaal to soak up our remaining minutes in this timeless time warp. Across the street, the Groote Kerk (Great Church) stands sentinel over Galle Fort, a 36-acre complex of charming streets and colonial buildings protected from ocean waves and invasion by formidable ramparts.
A gentle breeze off the Indian Ocean rustles through the building. We sip our drinks, content to be here in Amangalla, my favorite hotel in the world.
10 Church St.
Galle Fort, Sri Lanka
tel 94 91 223 3388
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I had just taken off my sandals, stepping onto the white-sand beach for a late-morning walk to a secluded spot I heard about from a front desk clerk, when I glanced down and saw the time on my phone. It had just turned 11 a.m., which meant it was only 7 am back home, the perfect time to call and say good morning to by husband before he left for work. Not quite ready to head back to my room, I decided I’d test the WiFi signal and made the call as I continued walking toward the shoreline.
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