Memories of my first visit to Sri Lanka 20 years ago are intense. A country so naturally beautiful, its inhabitants so full of grace, that each day brought fresh delights.
Being driven in a 1950s white Mercedes saloon at a leisurely pace along empty narrow roads full of potholes, seeing wild elephants in the distance. Swimming off a long, white-sand beach with a ferocious undertow north of Trincomalee at Nilaveli. Fishing with the locals and catching shiny silver fish. Buying black coral from a diver and having a necklace made by a jeweller in the village.
Hoisting myself up the terrifying steps hewn into the rock at Sigiriya, where a king had carved the paws of a recumbent lion and built a monumental palace on the top. Seeing so many temples I begged for a day off recumbent Buddhas, giant Buddhas, happy Buddhas and pensive Buddhas. Travelling through the mountains to Kandy to watch the elephant festival – a four-hour parade of fire-eaters and dancers, the elephants festooned with fairy lights powered by car batteries strapped between their ears. Arriving at Nuwara Eliya, a resort built for tea planters and their families. Staying at the posh Tiger Club, where the clocks stopped in the 1940s, where a man in a turban chalked my billiard cue and a pink hot-water bottle was placed in my bed every night.
It has taken me more than two decades to return to this captivating country. There are two reasons why I – and plenty of other tourists – have taken our time. Civil unrest, the prolonged struggle by the Tamil Tigers seeking autonomy for the far north, and the catastrophic effects of the tsunami in 2005, with the loss of thousands of lives, homes, hotels, businesses and farms along the shoreline on the eastern and southern coast.
For this short trip, I planned to visit the Amanwella resort on an unspoilt beach on the south-west coast near Tangalle, and then Amangalla, a hotel created from a heritage building in Galle Fort, a once-thriving port and trading centre at the southern tip of the country. Both hotels are part of the Aman group, a byword for understated luxury, built using local materials, employing local people and serving local food. Would the eccentric gorgeousness that I remembered so clearly about my previous trip to Sri Lanka have survived and would the tsunami have left a visible scar?
From the capital Colombo a short flight by sea-plane took me to the port of Tangalle, over hills and mountains covered in thick forest, with tea plantations curving sinuously around high slopes, bisected by wide, mud-coloured rivers. I landed in a shallow lagoon, and my driver followed dirt roads through a village to the hotel.
Amanwella is a series of understated terracotta single-storey buildings that blend into the hillside, unobtrusive and elegant. There is no reception desk here, just a warm greeting from the managers, a couple called Raymond and Janet Perfecto. My room was the size of a small bungalow, with a freestanding bath, huge bed, long terrace for lounging and a small plunge pool for cooling off. Dark-wood floors, shutters, a large dressing area and easy chairs added to the feeling of luxurious comfort.
After my massage, I feasted on a selection of delicious fish and vegetable Sri Lankan curries, followed by a pancake with syrup and coconut; this wasn't going to be a slimming week. Days fell into a pattern – sandhoppers (local string noodles), fresh fruit and coffee for breakfast, overlooking the empty beach. A spot of reading, a manicure or a pedicure – lots of dozing. Lunch at the beach café – lamb wrapped in a banana leaf or grilled chai, a local fish. More dozing.
The folder in my room listed a number of nature reserves within a couple of hours' drive: the Bundala wetlands where elephants, crocodiles and monkeys live; Uda Walawe, home of spotted deer, water buffalo and wild boar; and Yala, a haven for fantailed peacocks and white monkeys. Between January and March guests can watch giant turtles come on to the beach at night to lay their eggs – a record 23 had been spotted in one session.
I donned "modest" dress for a temple visit, half an hour's drive away, passing carts pulled by donkeys, crazy taxi drivers and lorries, all honking wildly. Not a place to get behind the wheel unless you have plenty of confidence. Along the route there was plenty of evidence of rebuilding, with numerous housing projects under construction.
Our destination was a giant pink Buddha hundreds of feet high at Buduraja Mahawehera temple. Behind it stood a five-storey building covered at every level with religious murals, some depicting horrible torture endured by non-believers. Climbing up to the top, I gazed out over the Buddha's head and surveyed the bustling scene in the courtyard below.
The following day, I took a two-hour drive along the coast to Galle. Clear evidence of the damage caused by the tsunami was visible; piles of debris and watermarks on buildings well back from the shoreline. But scores of huts, homes and hotels had been rebuilt at the water's edge, and everybody was going about their business as normal.
Entering Galle, we passed through the grand gate in the rampart walls, and into another world. The fort dates from the 17th century and was declared a World Heritage site in 1992. Although it withstood the tsunami, heritage status does not entitle it to any grants from the cash-strapped government, so most of the restoration has been funded by foreign investors and charities. Strict planning guidelines have prevented unsuitable redevelopment within the ramparts; there are 500 historic buildings, all in varying states of disrepair.
There's a thriving expat community at Galle and many of the small villas have been restored exquisitely at huge expense. Boutiques, small hotels, restaurants and shops all cater for the new breed of tourist. My hotel, Amangalla, was formerly the New Oriental, a grand lodging house dating from 1863 constructed from two buildings occupied by Dutch officers a century earlier. Next door is the Dutch church, built in 1752, with its remarkable tombstones intricately carved with skeletons and skulls and a beautifully preserved interior.
The construction of the ramparts was started by the Dutch in 1663 and African slaves reinforced them in 1726. By 1796 the Dutch handed over Galle to the English, who constructed the lighthouse in 1848. The fort inside the ramparts became a garrison for English troops. Soon afterwards the pretty clock tower was erected at the entrance to the ramparts and the Galle gymkhana club founded nearby to promote English sports. The first trains arrived in Galle in 1894, but by then the port was in decline. At its peak in the late 1860s, boats carrying wool from Australia and tea from China had stopped en route to Europe. But when a new deep-water harbour opened in Colombo in the 1880s, Galle went into decline.
Early in 2005, Aman reopened the New Oriental and renamed it the Amangalla, having spent millions bringing the place back to its former glory, restoring the vast colonial dining room, the splendid bedrooms, the library, and the secluded gardens, installing a pool and a spa. My second-floor corner room with six-foot-high windows on two sides faced out over the bay and the Dutch church, with a dark polished hardwood floor, a four-poster bed and a huge ceiling fan.
I resisted the urge to go downstairs for a tea dance, instead luxuriating in the freestanding bath. Then I sipped a gin and tonic in a cane chair on the verandah outside my room, a long corridor with windows running the whole length looking out over the gardens and the western side of the fort to the Indian Ocean and the setting sun behind. Next day I spent hours basking in the unique atmosphere of the fort, visiting antique shops, art galleries, a great clothes shop for beachwear, checking out the cafés and the boutique hotels.
Galle is a crumbling gem, and walking through the tiny grid of atmospheric streets is like entering a film set, with surprises at every corner. I took a walk around the ramparts at sunset, an unforgettable experience – groups of kids played cricket on a makeshift pitch; a posse of schoolgirls in white frocks followed their teacher in a neat phalanx and little boys wearing torn underpants dived off the rocks in the hope of getting a rupee. By the rebuilt lighthouse a couple of lads had set up a ghetto blaster and were dancing away as the gulls swooped by.
As the muezzin called people to Friday prayers, a couple ate ice cream in an ancient car, watching the large white stupa (Buddhist temple) on the far side of the bay turn pink in the evening sun. I managed to walk up and down every little silent street I'd missed during the day and through open doorways spied families chatting inside houses which seemed far more spacious than their exteriors indicated. I discovered some astonishing dilapidated Art Deco villas with elaborate ironwork. My only company was a couple of dogs – no taxis, no motorbikes, no cars, the odd security guard dozing in a chair outside a ruined building. Silence, except for the sound of birds and the waves. I can't wait to return.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Sri Lankan Airlines (020-8538 2000; srilankan.aero) offers return flights to Colombo from £552 in economy and £1,737 in business class. Aman Resorts (00800 2255 2626; amanresorts.com) offers two people six nights' room-only at Amangalla and Amanwella from $2,648 (£1,316) until 30 September. Road and seaplane transfers can be arranged.
Further reading Check out 'Sri Lanka Style: Tropical Design and Architecture' by Dominic Sansoni and Channa Daswatte, Tuttle PublishingReuse content