Changes for better and worse in Galle

The New Oriental Hotel in Galle, once family run, is now in the hands of Aman, who revitalised the hotel. If only the same could be said for the surrounding area, notes Rupert Wright.

The old Fort walls and British ClockTower of Galle, originally built by the Portuguese with a moat, the fort was subsantially enlarged by the Dutch in 1667
Powered by automated translation

Last week I visited a hotel in a town that I hadn't visited in 22 years. The New Oriental Hotel in Galle on the south-west tip of Sri Lanka was a splendid place in those days, full of plantation chairs with arms that you can swing out so you can put your feet up, fans that turned lazily with just enough force to keep the mosquitoes at bay, and a troop of waiters willing to administer to your every request.

Sri Lanka wasn't a popular location then so we had the place more or less to ourselves and a giant suite full of four-poster beds that cost about £10 (Dh60) a night. It was run by a marvellous grande dame called Nesta Brohier. I spent a month there, playing regular rounds of golf at Royal Colombo with her son, who was in the process of taking over the property.

Nesta has died and so has the son, killed apparently in a car crash on the country's dangerous roads, but the hotel had the good fortune to fall into the hands of those clever people at Aman, who run a chain of luxury hotels. I may have aged slightly since my first visit, but the NOH, as it was known to its devoted followers, has received the equivalent of a makeover, complete with Botox, facelift and liposuction.

It now gleams like a white pearl, there is a hint of fantasy in the new steel chandeliers, but otherwise the place does not seem to have aged, but just been re-energised as if it has spent the past few years in a spa. There is a splendid new swimming pool and the menu is funkier than I remember, so we enjoyed a lunch on the verandah and rejoiced that not all progress is bad, although it's a shame that the hotel is now called the rather ugly Amangalla.

However, the rest of the country - at least the small south-west corner that I saw - has failed to show similar improvement. Galle Fort, despite all the rave reviews it receives from guide books, is pretty dismal. The new shops that have opened are all full of rubbish and there is a hopelessness about most of the inhabitants who hang around the fort walls.

Luckily, there are few signs of the devastation wreaked by the tsunami of 2004, but the expected peace dividend has yet to bear full fruit. A travel agent I spoke to said that there were fewer visitors this season. I think this is because while it has many natural attractions, its infrastructure is bad and its prices high.

The coast road from Colombo to Galle, a distance of not much more than 100km, took us more than four hours to cover, as long as it takes to fly to the country from Abu Dhabi. There is a new highway under construction that is due to open in December. That might finally bring the prosperity that Galle so badly needs.

In the meantime there is the option of taking the most glamorous mode of travel I have yet encountered. Dreading the dreary roads, we returned to Colombo in a twin-engined Otter seaplane. It makes you feel like Indiana Jones and gets you to the capital in half an hour for about US$60 (Dh220).