The concept of serendipity, the art of making joyous discoveries, apparently stems from the ancient Persian name for Sri Lanka, Serendib. Which makes perfect sense, really, because it’s hard to think of another island where joyous discoveries are so abundant.
Anyone staying at historic hotels in Sri Lanka is an ideal way of exploring the past. You can read all about the historic hotels below with their own story to tell. Also, staying at these historic hotels in the country that will give you the unique experience and feel of a bygone era with the blend’s historical splendour with modernity, paying homage to both Sri Lanka’s colonial past and its independent present.
Galle Face Hotel-Colombo
The hotel was originally built by four British entrepreneurs in 1864. Its name derives from the stretch of lawn which it faces, known as the Galle Face Green. It began as a Dutch villa called Galle Face House. Land for the hotel’s expansion was purchased between 1870 and 1894.
South Asia’s leading Grande Dame, the Galle Face Hotel is testimony to both Sri Lanka’s colonial past and its independent present. Celebrated within the hospitality world, it blends historical splendour with crafted modernity to form a new model for heritage properties. International guests are immersed in the Galle Face Hotel’s rich traditions and compelling stories, while Colombo society perceive the hotel as the most prestigious, desirable destination in the city for memorable dining and special events. Whether at the hotel for dinner or for a month-long stay, an experience of the Galle Face Hotel is one of timeless grandeur and exceptional hospitality.
It was in 1894, that it became a two-storey luxury hotel, with the help of the most famous architect of the time, Edward Skinner, while between 1903 and 1909, the Galle Face Hotel Company continued to buy up land that would allow the hotel to expand to its present size. One of the shareholders in 1911 was Mr Victor Vicarosso, the great grandfather of the current Chairman and owner of the hotel.
In 1960 Mr Cyril Gardiner became a director of the Hotel and the Chairman in 1965. Upon his passing in 1996, his only son Mr. Sanjeev Gardiner became the Chairman of the Galle Face Hotel and continues to hold this title, extending the family association for over 100 year.
Style and Character
Presidents, Royalty to Celebrity Guests List at the Galle Face Hotel
Celebrity guests include Mahatma Gandhi; the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin; John D. Rockefeller; former British Prime minister Edward Heath; Princess Alexandra of Denmark; Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh; First Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru; Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India; journalist Eric Ellis and photographer Palani Mohan; future British RAF officer and MI6 agent F. W. Winter Botham; Prince Sadruddhin Aga Khan; then-Prince Hirohito of Japan; Roger Moore; Carrie Fisher; Richard Nixon, US President; Lord Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma; Noël Coward, English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer; Josip Broz Tito, Marshal of Yugoslavia. In January 2018 Prince Edward and the Countess of Wessex stayed at the hotel during their five-day official visit.
Galle Face Hotel Restaurants
The Galle Face Hotel has three world class restaurants, two bars and a pub. They are the Seaspray seafood restaurant, the 1864 fine dining restaurant and wine cellar, a buffet restaurant known as the Verandah, Travellers’ Bar, the Pool Bar, and an English pub called “In. On the Green”. The open Verandah restaurant is the venue for the Afternoon Tea on the terrace.
Galle Face Hotel Colombo in the 1930s: did you reserve your table at the Veranda Restaurant? It was the most sought-after lunch and dinner venue of the colonial city, away from the stifling heat of Colombo. This tropical hotel, north of the Equator, was right at the seafront, facing the Indian Ocean. It always enjoying a fresh sea breeze. Ever since its opening in 1864, it advertised itself as the “coolest hotel in Colombo”. It has successfully retained this attribute. By the way: it was the first South East Asian hotel sporting a sea water pool.
Galle Face Hotel Museum
The hotel features a museum and art gallery in its Regency Wing, which houses the first car that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh owned, and several pieces of memorabilia from the hotel’s history.
Mount Lavinia Hotel – Mount Lavinia
With its colonial architecture and the iconic courtyard, the Mount Lavinia Hotel has one of the most cherished love stories of Sri Lankan history.
With a history spanning over 210 years, Mount Lavinia Hotel Colombo is one of the oldest hotels in Sri Lanka. This premier colonial heritage hotel in Colombo has earned a reputation over the years for its magnificent structure and ambiance, the old-world charm which harks back to the grandeur of old Ceylon, a romantic legacy left by the colonial Governor General who used it as his residence, the exceptional service offered by its well-trained staff and its popularity as a venue for weddings.
The Governor’s Palace in 1805
The Mount Lavinia Hotel, in Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka, is a 275-room hotel, situated at Hotel Road in Mount Lavinia. It is recognised as one of the oldest and most famous hotels in the country. It has been continuously operating as a hotel since 1947, but was initially constructed as the Governor’s residence in 1806. Still maintained its iconic Colonial style going back to colonial period.
The city was named ‘Galkissa’, after the Sinhalese word “GalVissa” – meaning twenty boulders. Galkissa was then renamed to “Mount Lavinia” as a mark upon the beautiful dancing girl named Lavinia. The massive country residence of the British Governor was then transformed into a hotel and named “Mount Lavinia Hotel”. You can read this love story in the below paragraph.
How the Governor’s Love Story began at Mount Lavinia
The story of one of the colonial hotels in Colombo starts in the year 1805, with Sir Thomas Maitland, a gallant military General, who sailed to the island of Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) to assume duties as the second British Governor. He was better known by the sobriquet” as King Tom”.
King Tom had the desire to build a grand country mansion for himself, as he was very dissatisfied with the accommodation provided to him on arrival, which he regarded as hardly fitting for a man of his rank and stature. On his travels around the island, he discovered the perfect location for a stately house, on a promontory overlooking the sea in the village of Galkissa, not too far from the capital, Colombo.
While at Ceylon, Sir Thomas Maitland was attracted to a place at called “Galkissa” then now named Mount Lavinia and decided to construct his palace there.
Sir Thomas Maitland was assigned to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as the British Governor General during the period of 1805–1811. Governor Maitland was a 46-year-old bachelor who decided to construct his country residence on a breath-taking beachfront property at “Galkissa” (Mount Lavinia). He was also known as “King Tom” and described in a biography as “a great human force, controlled by an iron will”.
During this time, Sir Thomas Maitland fell in love with a half-caste dancing-girl named Lovina, who had been born to Portuguese and Sinhalese parents. During the construction of the palace, Maitland gave instructions for the construction of a secret tunnel to Lovina’s house, which was located close to the governor’s palace. One end of the tunnel was inside the well of Lovina’s house and the other end was in a wine cellar inside the governor’s palace. When the governor came to reside there, he would often use the tunnel to meet Lovina.
The Sinhalese village that surrounded the Governor’s mansion developed into a modern city named “Galkissa”. Later the city was renamed “Mount Lavinia” in honour of Lovina. In 1920 the tunnel was sealed up.
He saw the local mestizo dancer Lovina for the first time at the welcoming party held in his honour on his arrival in the island. Lovina’s father was the headman of the dance troupe. Sir Thomas was smitten by her smile and charms and soon found himself obsessed by her and took every measure possible to see more of her. Lavinia danced in her father’s dance troupe and performed for the Governor and his guests. The Governor’s parties were affairs of masked balls, top hats and flowing evening gowns. It is rumoured that Maitland picked the scenic location on the beach-side hill about 10 km (6 miles) south of Colombo after spotting Lavinia bathing in the sea.
The natives of Ceylon nor the British officials in England were aware of the secret love story between the British Governor and the dancer, Lavinia. During the construction phase of the mansion, the governor gave instructions to the builder to construct a secret tunnel to Lavinia’s house which was located close to the governor’s residence. One end of the tunnel opening, was inside the drinking water well of Lovina’s housing compound and the other end was in a wine cellar inside the Governor’s mansion.
As it was unconventional for an unmarried British Officer to be seen associating with a local dancing girl, therefore, Sir Thomas and his lover met in secret. Legend says that she was smuggled into his mansion through a secret tunnel that led from her father’s well into a wine cellar in the house.
After some time, the affair flew in the face of the stiff upper lip image of Britain ‘s colonial masters who ruled their fiefdoms with a firm grip and looked down sternly on any deviation from Crown and God. Later, the British Foreign Office sent Sir Thomas Maitland on a “routine” transfer as Governor General in 1811 to the Mediterranean island of Malta where he lived and died as a bachelor. He also served as governor of Corfu during the British administration of the island.
Around the year 1920, the tunnel was sealed up and the Sinhalese village that surrounded the Governor’s mansion developed into a modern city. Later, the “Gypsy village’ that surrounded the mansion was developed into a modern bustling city of “Galkissa” (originated from the Sinhala word “GalVissa” or ten boulders) was renamed” Mount Lavinia” in honour the of mestizo dancing girl named Lavinia or Lovinia. Little is known of Lavinia but Governor Maitland passed a law permitting lower-caste women in Ceylon such as his lover to cover the upper torso of their bodies.
Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya
Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya was first constructed as a holiday manor for the fifth English governor of Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka) Sir Edward Barnes, who named the building Barnes Hall. In 1892, it was eventually taken over by the Nuwara Eliya Hotels Company Limited who renovated and extended the property.
Image of Sir Edward Barnes
Image of Barnes Hall in 1892
The Grand Hotel is a four-star boutique hotel in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka, that was built in the style of an Elizabethan-era manor house. The hotel has 154 rooms, including three presidential suites, four junior suites, including a governor’s suite that have been maintained to preserve the traditional design. The Grand Hotel has a number of restaurants, bars and a billiards room.
Nestled in the calm and contemporary settings, these Edwardian styled rooms offer elegant space and ambience. The perfect blend of charm and exuberance turns the shortest of visits into a nostalgic memory.
Retreat into a personalized haven. Be pampered from top to toe, whether at the spa or taking a dip in Grand Hotel’s exclusive temperature controlled indoor pool – in perfect view of blue skies and theatrical clouds – made that much more sacred with a Champagne glass in hand.
Unravel a world of epicurean delight, as you experience limitlessly resplendent Food & Beverage, on offer at Grand Hotel.
The Grand Hotel is a luxury hotel built in 1824 when Sir Edward Barnes was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Ceylon after taking up a post in the forces. Having fallen in love with the picturesque city of Nuwara Eliya, he built his beloved bungalow ‘Barnes Hall’ during the British era, which he later left behind when the British troops departed from Ceylon.
Prior to its discovery by Dr. John Davy in 1819, Nuwara Eliya was already home to an illustrious history that showcased ruins of ancient irrigation systems and stone inscriptions that dated as far back as 900 and 1000 AD. Nuwara Eliya, or the “City of Light”, has deep roots as a popular Royal Township.
The origins of the Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya go all the way back to the historic stories of the Ramayana where pygmy elephants (a breed small in size and covered in fur) ran free in the uninhabited forest areas of Nuwara Eliya and later were hunted down for sport.Infamous elephant hunter, Major William Thomas made a name for himself by killing nearly 100 elephants in a single day. However, the location of his burial is the site of a bizarre phenomenon as lightning strikes his tombstone and leaves evidence of a natural occurrence which cannot be explained up to date.
It was the early 19th century British Planters who made plans to make this little valley, a home away from home for themselves. Privy to it all, at the heart of the merry-making, romance and history, stands the best hotel in Nuwara Eliya – The Grand Hotel.
In 1819, Sir Edward Barnes, adjutant to the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, arrived at the shores of this tropical island, as the fifth Governor of Ceylon. During an elephant game hunting party led by Dr John Davy, news of this “City of Light’s” 36F climate reached Sir Edward Barnes. His intrigue led him to visit the province, and his enchantment with the beauty of it led him to commission the roadway to reach Nuwara Eliya, making it more accessible to residents of the island. Gradually converting this charming misty mountain village to a model British village.
It was a mere two years later, in 1828, that he fell deeply in love with the beauty, culture and serenity of this island nation and began building his holiday home – Barnes Hall. This holiday home has now become the regal mansion known as The Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya.
Sir Barnes’ time in Ceylon was short lived, as in 1831, at the request of the crown, he left for Britain leaving behind his beloved home in the hands of his successor, Sir Robert Wilmot-Horton, vowing to return. But alas, Sir Barnes never did.
Shortly thereafter, Barnes Hall was purchased in 1843 by Reginald Beauchamp Downall, a planter and member of the Legislative Council of Ceylon, who operated it as a quaint guest house. Nearly 50 years later in 1891, Barnes Hall was purchased by The Nuwara Eliya Hotels Company, who, to this day owns and manages The Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya.
Since this change of hands, The Grand Hotel has seen expansion and improvement throughout the decades. 1892 saw the expansion of the Northern Wing, now referred to as the Governor’s Wing; 1904 saw the addition of a second floor to the Governor’s Wing and the addition of the Southern Wing, now referred to as the Golf Wing; 1930 saw the construction of the third storey with its architectural Tudor facade; and the naming of its main restaurant, Barnes Hall, after its original owner.
However, throughout the years, The Grand Hotel has welcomed a slew of notable guests and dignitaries, including, Lord Mountbatten, Duc d’ Abruzzi (cousin of the Italian Sovereign), Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (nephew of King Edward), the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Prince Reuss XXXII, the Maharaja of Kapurthala, Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, as well as Sir Thomas Lipton.
It was in 1954 that Queen Elizabeth first visited this regal mansion, on an Easter Sunday, to enjoy a cup of fresh Ceylon tea during her visit to the island. It was from there on that she fell under the magical spell of Sri Lanka, and became a frequent visitor of the Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya. Whiling away her evenings in privacy and serenity, the Grand Hotel continues to be a favourite retreat for the British Royal Family.
Standing tall with pride for 194 years, Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya is a golden testament to the rich history of a thriving colonial community in the 19th century. From an unparalleled range of cuisine to indulge in, to exceptional amenities prepared for comfort, relaxation and adventure,Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya retains the stateliness and grandeur of a colonial mansion and rightfully claims its place as one of the best hill country hotels in the world.
The hotel has 154 rooms, including three presidential suites, four junior suites and a governor’s suite that have been maintained to preserve the traditional design. The Grand Hotel has a number of restaurants, bars and a billiards room.
Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya is poised to uphold its stature and indomitable presence in the international hospitality arena and looks forward to 200 years and beyond of fulfilling its credo, ‘Regally serving you, our Royalty’.
The Queen Once Spent Easter Sunday At ‘The Grand’
On Easter Sunday of 1954, Queen Elizabeth stopped by at the Grand Hotel to have a tea during her visit to the island. However, the Queen is just one of many high-profile guests who’ve set foot in the hotel over the years. Some of the other famous guests include Lord Mountbatten, Duc d’ Abruzzi (cousin of the Italian Sovereign), Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (nephew of King Edward), the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Prince Reuss XXXII, the Maharaja of Kapurthala, and Sir Thomas Lipton.
Grand Outdoors Offers
Be inspired as your most vivid fantasies of exploration and experience come to life. A truly memorable experience awaits the intrepid adventurer, the romantic wanderer, the ardent ornithologist and the inspired traveller.
Relax the mind; rejuvenate the soul at Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya’s Mindfulness Studio. Whether elevating the spirit at the spa; savouring a glass of champagne; or lounging in the temperature-controlled pool, a world of relaxation awaits.
The Kandy House
The Kandy House is a nine-room,200-year-old manor house which was built by the last Chief Minister of the Kandyan Kingdom in 1804. It was fully restored and opened in 2005 as an upmarket boutique hotel, situated 20 minutes from Kandy. Described as a “showcase of the island’s architectural renaissance”, it has established a reputation as “the best small hotel in Sri Lanka”.
STYLE & ANCESTRY AT KANDY HOTELS AND RESORTS
For Kandy hotels Sri Lanka – The Kandy House is a beautiful example of luxury Kandy boutique hotel and resorts.
This boutique hotel is an ancestral manor house which was built in 1804 and its rich history and exquisite restoration, with nine rooms to choose from. To enjoy your stay at this Kandy hotel where the hotels aim is to give guests an experience of staying in a more private house which is also ideal for a honeymoon.
The building that houses the uniquely designed bedrooms overlooks the large jungle pool with infinity views of the paddy fields and the sprawling tree in the garden is light up in the evening to making it a perfect boutique hotel for honeymoon.
Amongst Kandy hotels and resorts, The Kandy House is well-placed to spend time to relax as well as explore a broad selection of Sri Lanka’s primary destinations in and around Kandy, the Cultural Triangle and Tea Country.
St. Andrew's Hotel - Nuwara Eliya
The first building on the property was constructed in 1875, part of land gifted to a British colonial civil servant by the Crown. The house later became the ‘Scots Club’. In 1891 the club became a hotel called St. Andrew’s, run by a German manager, Mr Humbert. This Scottish connection and its proximity to the Nuwara Eliya golf course could account for the title, St Andrew’s, a reference to St Andrews, the traditional and historic home of golf.The golf course’s 10th driving tee was originally part of the property and was exchanged for the strip of land bordering the stream at the corner of Waterfield and St Andrew’s Drives extending to the bridge across the stream. Later on, garages for the cars of guests and accommodation for the drivers were built on this land. During World War I Mr Humbert was interned by the British government.
In 1918 the hotel was bought by a syndicate headed by Arthur Edward Ephraums (1879–1931). During this period the hotel was expanded to include a two-storey wing to the west, and behind the main block, a large dining room and pantry, large kitchen, storeroom, and servants’ quarters. Also added were bathrooms, a bar and billiard room on the east side. The newly refurbished and expanded hotel opened for business in November 1919, with James Henry De Zilwa (1888–1979), a younger cousin of Ephraums, appointed as manager. In 1924, following a disagreement with the owners, De Zylwa left St Andrews and began his own hotel business. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Great Depression had a major impact on all hotels in the area, including St Andrew’s, and by 1930 St Andrews closed its doors.
In 1933 the De Zylwa family purchased the property and reopened the hotel, many investors who previously shunned St Andrews as a viable business suddenly became interested and made higher offers for the hotel. There were also suggestions for amalgamation with other hotels, subdivisions of the property, and a serious proposal from the Catholic Church to have St Andrews to become a monastery attached to the catholic church close by. The De Zylwa family undertook a range of improvements, including new bathroom blocks together with vegetable and flower gardens. Water from a spring to the east of the hotel was channelled down to the front garden for watering. In the 1950s the spring also supplied water for fish ponds. The current car park was formerly a tennis court and the conference room were originally a billiard room with two full size billiard tables, later this room became a dance hall, which held popular monthly dances. The current billiard room was formerly a music room.
Amangalla – Galle
Colonial Grande Dame
Suisse Hotel – Kandy
Colonial Grande Dame
The Lord Mountbatten - frequent guest at the Queen's Hotel
Grand Oriental Hotel Colombo
Nooit Gedacht Heritage Hotel, Unawatuna
Galle Fort Hotel - Galle
Hotel Website: https://www.galleforthotel.com/
Closenberg Hotel- Galle Bay
Today Closenberg is a quaint little hotel, that offers a breath-taking view of Galle and its harbour. The beauty of the place will entrance even a casual visitor. The more observant may however notice that the mansion on which a hotel stands today, is somewhat unique and different, and is neither of the old ‘Wallauwa’ style or the Dutch Colonial style. Herein lie the mystery and the romance of the place.
In 1719 the Dutch built a small fortalice on an island promontory, on the southern side of the Galle bay. They called the island Klossenburg (or Kloffenburg), meaning ‘fortalice or citadel on which the sea roars’. Klossenburg housed a battery of two guns and the Sinhalese called it ‘Aluth Kotuwa’ or the new fort.
The popular ‘Closenberg’ hotel of today has a well-documented and fascinating history going far back to Dutch times. This old colonial mansion in Galle is also one of the best preserved of mansions in southern Sri Lanka.
The name originated when the Dutch built a small fortalice on the promontory, on the southern side of the Galle bay in 1719. This island at the southern entrance of the Galle Bay, was called Klossenburg (or Kloffenburg), meaning ‘Fortalice or Citadel on which the sea roars.
Klossenburg housed a battery of two guns and the Singhalese called it such the ‘Aluth Kotuwa’ or the New Fort. However, by the time the British took over Galle in 1790, the little fortress lay abandoned. It remained such till Captain Bailey arrived in Galle in the steamer ‘Hindustan’ in 1859. Captain Francis Bailey arrived as an agent for the Peninsular & Oriental line, which has started a steamer service between Calcutta and the Suez. As soon as he discovered the disused fort, he immediately negotiated and bought it from the British Crown. However, in her book ‘A Family Memoir’ Marjorie de Mel, a descendent of the first Ceylonese owner of this property, offers a somewhat different view as to how Capt. Bailey got this land.
‘In the early 1800’s the land was known as Aberanwatte. On the 3rd of May 1810, a quarter share of the land was put up for sale for a debt of 2088 dollars incurred by Gerrit Joan Hubertus of Galle. It was brought by Cornelis de Silva Gooneratne Ranasinghe Arachchy for 425 dollars. In time Ranasinghe Arachchy became the sole owner of Aberanwatte and eventually sold the island to Captain Bailey.’
The Captain, who was a master carpenter and mason, designed and built the manor in 1861 and named the enchanting house after his wife as “Villa Marina”. A summerhouse was built at the end of the promontory, and here a flagstaff used to fly the P&O flag. Annette Swan writing on the Times of Ceylon Annual, 1971 speaks of the housewarming party.
‘When it was completed there was a sumptuous house-warming party. Wine flowed freely, and sharp on the stroke of midnight Bailey stood on the threshold of his house in the midst of goodly company and bashed a bottle of champagne on the rocks below.’
Mrs. Bailey was an artist, and decorated the house and filled the gardens with the finest varieties of ferns and blooms. The plants arrived from the far corners of the P&O trade route that extended from Calcutta to the Suez. The Baileys lived in the house till 1871, and sold it to the P&O Steamship Company for use as the official resident of the agent. As bailey was the agent he continued to live there until the agency shifted offices to Colombo. It would have broken Captain Bailey’s heart when he was compelled to sell his house in 1889. In 1870s the new breakwater of the Colombo harbour was completed and gradually all merchant shipping activity shifted to Colombo. With this, Captain Bailey too moved and settled in Colombo. Closenberg remained closed, and Galle lay asleep.
Entering the compound of the Closenberg Hotel, one is greeted by a huge milky-white wall, which certainly suggest it’s meaning of a ‘cliff Citadel’. The massive gate you encounter first, was at one time the entrance to the servant’s quarters and the stables. Continuing up the driveway one comes across the front porch and the main entrance to the house. The new hotel reception and entrance has been shifted onto the side of the building with ample parking space for the visitor. The promontory narrows beyond this point and runs further along to the sea, and ends in a summer hut, which gives the visitor a panoramic view of the Galle harbour and the Fort, now a world heritage site. The Rumassala Range and Unawatuna bay, a surfer’s paradise lies a little further to the south.
Entering thru the reception a visitor is taken to its spacious verandah with the now closed main entrance and stairwell. In olden days this spacious verandah offered a breath-taking view of the old town. It is said that Captain Bailey being a seafarer, designed this part of the house to resemble the bridge of a ship. One is still tempted to relax in the authentic antique chairs from the 19th century, and gaze into the distant fort now totally obscured by the Navy Galle Port Complex. Antique brass lamps hang from the high ceiling. Right above the main entrance stairwell is found the coat of arms of the present owners of this property, the Perera Abeywardena family. The Coat of Arms carries emblems such as the pearl umbrella handed down to members of the Karava clans by the Singhala Kings, and the motto in Singhalese, which reads “Service on to others comes first”.
Crossing the lounge area filled with lovely antique cupboards and treasure chests, one comes to the famous indoor fernery. This has now been converted as a dining area. Closenberg in its day was famous for its varieties of ferns set up in this indoor fernery. Norah Roberts in her book “Galle as quiet as asleep” gives an account of the house built by Francis Bailey.
“The tops of the doors were embellished with the P&O Crest of the rising sun carved in English Oak. An extra-large ornate oak crest tops the heavy beam across the fernery in the back verandah.”
These remain to date and so do the structures built entirely of patterned coral stones. The fountain in the middle and the ship shaped structures on the sides once contained exotic ferns. The enclosed grotto like structure at one end was once the aviary, housing exotic birds that the Baileys got down from different lands. A picture published in the book ’20th Century Impressions’ contains a photograph showing this beautiful fernery around the beginning of the 20th century.
Pergolas covered with bougainvilleas frame the side garden and the entrance overlooking the ocean. On both sides of the entrance stand two unusual palms of breath-taking beauty. These palms native to Egypt and known by the name ‘Doum Palms’ (or Doom Palm), was brought down especially by Captain Bailey around 1861 for propagation here. Earnest Haeckel who visited ‘Villa Marina’ in 1886 mentions his discovery of these fine specimens of the plants in his book ‘A visit to Ceylon’. Haeckel lived and studied the flora and fauna of Ceylon from around 1881 to 1888. He was an eminent German Zoologist and coined the much-used term ‘ecology’ (he called it “Oekologie”) to describe the interaction of animals with their environment.
‘Among the many ornaments of this garden I was particularly interested to find several fine specimens of the Doom palm (Hyphaene Thebaica). The stalwart stem of this species does not, as in most palms, form a tall column, but forks like the stem of the Dracaena, and each branch has a crown of fan-shaped leaves. This palm grows principally in Upper Egypt, but I had already seen it at the Arab town of Tur, at the foot of Mount Sinai, and it is represented in my work on the Red Sea corals. How surprised I was, then, to find it here under all aspect so altered that I could scarcely recognize it’.
A short flight of stairs takes you down to the old stables and the servant’s quarters. As water was a problem, Bailey the master craftsman designed the house to collect all the rainwater thru a series of gutters into two tanks, which he had placed in the stables.
Closenberg also lent its name to the beautiful sandy bay that was found between it and the adjoining island. The Closenberg bay was enclosed and offered a safe bathing place for the visitor, with many a rock pool for the children to waddle in. The area around Closenberg has been one of the most picturesque areas down south. It gradually eroded over time with the reclaiming of Closenberg bay for the Galle Port Development Project, never to regain its former self. Today it contains warehouses and derelict buildings of the Ports Authority, old oil storage tanks and other rusty paraphernalia encircled by a massive wire security fence put up by the Navy.
Running north from the summerhouse towards Galle Fort is a rock filled breakwater, which encloses the Galle Port Project and the Naval Command. Part of this land was reclaimed by dredging the bay, and pumping the sand and the water mix in to this area. The water gradually drained away leaving the filled-up land mass that was once part of the Closenberg Bay. Only a few pictures remain of this once beautiful bay.
Annette Swan remembers the great times spent on this beach.
‘I dreamt that I swam in the blue waters of the enchanting bay, lazed on its golden sands, and wandered around in the fabulous gardens of “Closenberg House”, which stood like a bastion on the crags above.’
Three well-known paintings capture the beauty of Closenberg Bay. The most famous of them painted by Capt. Charles O’Brien shows the Fort of Galle from the P&O station in Closenberg Island. The other by an unknown artist shows the Galle harbour from the Rumassala range, with the Closenberg House on the extreme right. Its flagstaff placed near the summerhouse is shown flying the P&O flag. The third is by Andrew Nicholls who lived and painted in Ceylon during the period 1846 to 1850, and again shows the view of the Galle harbour from Closenberg Island.
All three of the above paintings also show a rocky island adjoining Closenberg. This was called the Gibbet Island or ‘Pransa Kande’ (Frenchman’s Creek) and this too has an interesting history. Gibbet is a French term for the guillotine, but in this case refers to the hangings that have taken place there. It has also been used as a cemetery and the locals believed that these unfortunate souls still haunt the place. But this did not stop an enterprising Frenchman from buying the island and building his home on it. He built up the side of the island with rock and cement and built a jetty to bring his boat alongside. His office was in the Fort of Galle and went to and from in his little rowing boat. He may have been an assistant in the French shipping company – The Messageries Maritime. The Agent of the company, who was also the Consular for France, lived inside the Fort, opposite the windmill. With the shifting of the agency to Colombo, this island also fell into disuse. Nobody ever lived in this island thereafter. In later years Simon Perera Abeywardena bought this island to be used as a dump yard for his salvage business. Today it is part of the reclaimed land used by the Port Complex. The rocky outcrops can be still seen from the summer house of Closenberg.. The only clue to its existence today is a road named ‘Gibet Lane’, that a sharp-eyed visitor may catch as they turn in to Closenberg from the main highway.
Christopher Perera Abeywardena obtained a contract with P&O Steamship Company as a ship chandler to handle cargo, especially coal, rice and supplies, and founded the Shipping and Wharfage Co. He bought a fleet of barges, employed a number of hands, and established a business that lasted many years and brought him and his family much wealth. His sons too joined him in the business. In later years this association brought his son Simon in close contact with Captain Bailey. Simon was a regular visitor to Closenberg and even named his eldest son ‘Francis’ in honour of Captain Francis Bailey.
With the shifting of all shipping and the agency activities to Colombo, Captain Bailey too moved to Colombo. From around 1884 to 1889 Closenberg was in the market for the ‘correct’ buyer, under a caretaker who took visitors on tours of the house and gardens. One such visitor was Francis Perera Abeywardena, then aged 9, who went to see all the great things in this house that his father Simon used to describe to them after his visits to see Capt. Bailey.
Therefore in 1889 it was to Simon Perera Abeywardena that the P & O was eventually persuaded to sell ‘Villa Marina’. The condition was that the property had to remain entailed to the Perera Abeywardena family. Simon Perera bought the property and changed the name of the mansion to ‘Closenberg’.
Over a century later the building still belongs to this old Galle family. Managing Director Kumar Perera Abeywardena is the present owner and proprietor of the hotel. Today it is a very popular hotel in Galle, and a favourite for weddings. In 1991, a copy of the P&O Coat of Arms and the flag of P&O were presented to him by Mr. Alan Bott, Director P&O Containers, in memory of the origins of the house.
Continued – Closenberg; The Perera Abeywardena Family
it’s no surprise that the Tintagel Colombo was favoured for a stay by Royalty during 2013 visit to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Summit by HRH The Prince of Wales.
Whether you’re looking for chic minimalism or glorious glamour to spice up your luxury holidays to Sri Lanka, the sense of energy in these regenerated old buildings is irresistible. Relax at a former spice merchant’s home or make your way to the now opulent abode of a village Chieftain in the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka.
Built in 1930 as a private residence in Colombo’s prestigious neighbourhood, Tintagel was commissioned by the British Military to house one hundred soldiers in the 1940’s. When the military occupation ended the run-down property was sold by the owner to Sri Lanka’s famous political family and became the home of the Bandaranaikes, and an edifice entrenched in Sri Lanka’s political history. Here, in its now art deco filled verandah was where Prime Minister Solomon West Ridgeway Bandaranaike who became the country’s Prime Minister in 1956 was shot. His wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike later etched the island’s name into global history by becoming the world’s first woman Prime Minister. The Asian political dynasty continued as their youngest daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga became the first female President of Sri Lanka.
Leased in 2005 by Colombo’s trail blazing designer, retailer, restaurateur, Udayashanth Fernando, this ancestral home was converted with meticulous attention to detail as a private luxury boutique hotel bearing the hallmarks of Fernando’s personal taste in muted stylish design. Given that he also owns one of Colombo’s most famed restaurants.