Part 1 30 September 2005
Lying on the beach in a variety of Asian countries, it has often crossed the mind that it would have been great to experience the same site 30 years before.
Phuket, Bali, Penang, even our own Broome, all have beautiful beaches and all have been tainted to some extent by commercialism, aimed at attracting tourists.
Tourists love tourist spots but so do other tourists. They love the comforts of good clean accommodation but some of us don’t want too many of them to clutter the landscape.
Often we just want a beach, cultural history, exotic food and shopping but also the feeling of pioneering a brand new place.
For people like this, Sri Lanka of the mid 2000s beckons. The teardrop at the southeast tip of India awaits you.
But this is not India. The food is different, the poverty not as confronting, begging is rare, towns and cities aren’t as hectic. The experience is blissful.
Beaches in the southern part of the island are idyllic. ‘The Riviera of choice for discerning travellers’ is the marketing tag applied by some enterprising British and Australian hotel operators and they have the raw material to back it up.
Colombo is easily accessed from Australia and the hotel operators are expecting many more tourists if direct flights come on stream.
A truce between the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) and the Government stablilised the country for some time. Activity has heightened again but generally the island’s north is most affected because that is where the LTTE is based.
Colombo – on the western side of the island – is a humming bird with widespread wings. It nestles on the Indian Ocean and hotels have their pool lounges abutting the rocks and sand of the beach and sea spray cools you down as you read or laze in the warm sun.
North of the city, near the international airport, is Negombo, where beach hotels are plentiful but south was our destination.
Galle – which suffered major tsunami damage on Boxing Day 2004– is reached by private car from Colombo (A$60) or naturally much cheaper by the ubiquitous buses that travel the ocean side road.
The town is rebuilding. Galle International Cricket Ground was flooded by the tsunami and, though this is a tragedy for this cricket-mad nation, it is the human cost that was more devastating.
Along the road into Galle, tents and makeshift huts testify to the reality of the disaster – lives lost and an area being reborn. It is small comfort that your tourist dollars are helping stimulate an economy ravaged by nature.
Galle is a jumble. It is dirty and has few real attractions apart from a bustling shopping area but the gems are well hidden in the ore of this place.
However, the rest of the country is unlike this and you could forgive Galle for this transgression. It should improve.
Other parts of Sri Lanka have similar shops but they are for the most part better kept and rubbish near the doorways not so prevalent.
Adjacent to the town and overlooking the cricket ground is Galle Fort, virtually undamaged by the tsunami due to its walled structure and perched position.
The Fort is a walled enclosure entered by two gates, reminiscent of a biblical scene.
Within, think Rottnest with older, more historic buildings. Such is the atmosphere of the Fort. Lazy streets, glamorous boutiques sparsely dotted between crumbling buildings awaiting the facelift that inevitably accompanies a tourist influx.
Two of the world’s best boutique hotels (according to Conde Nast) are in here.
The Galle Fort Hotel is a former Dutch house that has been many things in its life but arguably has never been as grand it stands today.
Two Sydney guys have parlayed the financial benefits of their previous lives into a two-year renovation that has produced a beautiful property.
The two have cast the shackles of banker and film director to create an exquisite hotel within the World Heritage listed fort.
Chris is the dynamic powerhouse (his partner Karl’s description) behind the hotel and has trained his kitchen staff to produce beautiful fusion food in a delightful example of Colonial architecture and furnishings.
Also within the Fort is Aman Resort. The former Oriental Hotel is luxury unsurpassed with a price to match and spa treatments in delightful surroundings.
Whether Sting signed Gordon Sumner when he stayed I am unsure but he was here, so you get the idea that this pub has some exclusivity.
The resort is only about 400 metres from Galle Fort Hotel and well worth a visit even if only to take High Tea on the verandah or an evening cocktail before dining somewhere less expensive.
Travellers looking for more typical accommodation can stay at The Lighthouse on the entrance into the town of Galle. It is a glamour hotel in the Asian mould and buffet breakfast on the terrace has one of the best sites in Sri Lanka, built above rocks and crashing surf.
(To read on, see Sri Lanka Dreaming part 2)