Man on bicycle riding past old stone house

Spices & tea in Galle

Before staying in Galle, I knew two things about this coastal Sri Lankan town, looking out over the Indian Ocean.

First that it was popular with the boho-chic set from London’s Notting Hill. Second, its cricket stadium had been destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, with the pitch 30 metres under water.

When I arrived in the town in January 2016, I was still drifting in my personal nirvana following a nine-day holistic retreat at the Sen Wellness Sanctuary in Sri Lanka.

I had designed my stop-over in Galle as a way to help me adjust back to the real world, having come from one of chanting, meditating and holding yogic poses, all while sticking to an Ayurvedic diet.

Galle is located nearly two and a half hours’ drive from Colombo’s international airport, on the south-west tip of Sri Lanka’s 1,340km (830-mile) coastline. Many visitors skip Colombo altogether and arrive in Galle straight from the airport.

Sen Wellness is a two hours’ drive further east, along the coast and past another historic town, Matara, but when traffic is bad on that coastal road it can take four.

Old stone entrance with moss
One of the two historic entrances to Galle Fort
Men pushing fishing boat into the sea
Fishermen down in the port

Cricket is all out in Galle

The first thing you see when arriving in Galle is the cricket stadium, located at the northern neck of the Galle peninsula, home to the historic Galle Forte, whose ramparts form the boundaries of the old town.

Galle may have a population of a mere 93,000, but the cricket stadium is the ‘international’ cricket stadium. Cricket – introduced under the British occupation – is the most popular sport in Sri Lanka. Everyone talks about cricket. On the day I arrived, the match being played was against an English team, my taxi driver explained with great excitement.

Cricket seen through grill
I took a peep through the oleander bushes at the cricket match being played.

Galle Fort & the link with cinnamon

Arab traders were the first to arrive on the peninsula; then the Portuguese, who built the fort in the 16th century; followed by the Dutch, who extensively fortified the fort and named it Point de Galle. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cinnamon, a plant native to the island was at the heart of of Galle’s trading history. The British made coffee the big crop when they arrived in the 18th century, switching to tea after a fungal rust ripped through the coffee plants. And tea, Ceylon tea, it has been ever since.

The Fort Galle ramparts are the perfect spot for watching the sunset and mingling with the mix of cultures, from local Singhalese and Muslims, to Asian tourists with selfie sticks – I got nervous as they liked to go very close to the edge of the rampart – as well as Europeans, especially French and Italian.

People watching the sea from top of rock with rampants

Part of the evening entertainment was to watch the young men dive dangerously off the top of the ramparts into the Indian Ocean. They don’t do it just for fun … I noticed a tourist giving one of them Rp1,000 (£5).

Man climbing cliff with hands
Evening entertainment: if only I could do this

Staying in the historic area

The historic part of town can be a bit frenetic for a good’s night’s rest, unless you’re staying at Amangalla, the Aman Resort, set near the entrance gate to the Fort. The building is the former Dutch Governor’s house. This is THE hotel in Galle.

Instead of staying in one of the rooms – for next time – I went there twice for afternoon tea and to escape the heat. The feeling of spaciousness, the impeccable service, and colonial style & comfort does wonders for the spirits.

My first tea was a Ceylon and then my second one was a Virgin White Tea, from the nearby Handunugoda Estate – a tea said to have the highest level of antioxidants. I’m not sure what antioxidants do to your body, but I know they are good.

One of my yogi friends stayed at 42 Lighthouse Street. I went past, and it was so discrete that there was not even a sign outside. I managed to pop my head in, and it did look the kind of place I would like.

Interior of white walled room with plants
The entrance to 42 Lighthouse Street
Street with tuk-tuk and motorbikes
A typical street in Galle, full of tuk-tuks and motorbikes

Staying in the hills

To escape the hurly burly and flows of tourists in town, there are several hotels in the hills overlooking Galle Fort. The Sun House, once owned by a Scottish spice merchant, has only seven rooms and, like so much of Sri Lanka, is full of colonial charm.

I went for an evening cocktail at Dick’s Bar followed by dinner on the terrace overlooking the frangipani garden leading to the swimming pool. Very pleasant.

Tree branches illuminated in dark with white lights and pool
The frangipani garden at The Sun House

Across the road from The Sun House is The Dutch House, with four suites, more space, a large tropical garden, an infinity pool and a croquet lawn. Together with The Sun House, it’s owned by Geoffrey Dobbs, the British-Australian founder of the Galle Literary Festival, who in 2014 got in trouble with the national government for hanging the Sri Lankan flag upside down.

For those looking for a ‘simpler’ option, I stayed at Kikili House, owned by Henri, a stylish boho-chic Englishwoman, and her Sri Lankan husband Kokila. It’s a true home-from-home. For breakfast, we had hoppers, a small pancake made out of fermented rice and coconut milk. And Harshana the tuk-tuk driver is on hand to drive you down-town.

Flags hanging in a garden
The lush, small garden at Kikili House
Dish of fruit in blue bowl with orange tablecloth
A colourful breakfast at Kikili House

Eating & drinking in Galle

In town, for lunch,  I thoroughly enjoyed KK Boutique, where the focus was on doing a few simple Sri Lankan dishes with really fresh ingredients. KK Boutique, as its name suggests, is a store, selling stylish, locally made items, including some fabulous clothing.

KK Boutique is part of KK Collection, who have a selection of boutique hotels in Sri Lanka and which was founded by an acquaintance from my schooldays, interior designer George Cooper. I had a chance meeting, as he also happened to be at KK Boutique when I was there that day.

Dish of food with tomato
At KK Boutique: kottu – roti flatbread cut into strips and mixed with vegetables and some egg
Courtyard with plants and table set for a meal
The restaurant in the courtyard at KK Boutique

Next door to KK Boutique is Punnie’s Kitchen, another good place for lunch. It was closed for a private party on the day that I had hoped to eat there.

Green shelves with fake pineapples

Kahanda Kanda – 40 mins from Galle

My best eating experience was not in Galle but at Kahanda Kanda Boutique Hotel, part of the KK Collection. It’s a 40-minute drive along the coastal road and then inland, through the tropical forests, plantations and rice fields. If you’re just going for dinner, ensure to arrive before sunset to catch the view once you get to the hotel across the plantation and down to Lake Koggal.

Sunset with palm trees and pool
The view over the swimming pool at KK Boutique Hotel just after sunset.

The Kahanda Kanda Boutique Hotel offers expanse and tranquility, and plenty of nature, all hard to find in the built-up coastal areas around Galle. The evening when I was there, the tropical skies opened and the heavens unleashed, so I took refuge in the ‘Living’ Pavilion. I stretched out on a banquette, and ordered the signature KK Cocktail, and listened to the soothing, tapping sound of the rain pour down. Cocktails are tropical by nature, and there’s no better place to have a cocktail than in the tropics.

What I ate at Kahanda Kanda

Dinner at Kahanda Kanda was on the terrace of the Dining Pavilion, with its magical views of the surrounding hills and lush tropical vegetation. I had re-found my nirvana.

The fruit, vegetables and herbs are all grown on the estate. The style of cooking is fusion, with a strong Sri Lankan & Thai theme. I had a Soba Noodle Salad with Aubergine & Mango for starters, followed by a Fish Tagine with Couscous Salad & Vegetables and then Homemade Ice Cream & Sorbet.

Dinner at Kahanda Kanda was definitely worth the Rp2,000 (€27) taxi ride there and the Rp1,500 tuk-tuk back, as well s the Rp6,400 (€85) for 2 cocktails and a 3-course meal. Arriving by taxi kept my curls  in place, while returning by tuk-tuk meant I arrived at my hotel in Galle slightly windswept.

The entrance to Kahanda Kanda. The owner is an interior designer.

Time for tea: Handunugoda

Not far from Kahanda Kanda is the Handunugoda Tea Estate. Yes, it’s touristy, but it makes for a good morning or afternoon out. Visits are free, and include a slice of cake and a cup of tea in the old planter’s home, a visit round the factory. And then, of course, there’s the chance to taste and buy all the teas, including one of my favourites, lemongrass, and a new one on me, Cambogia Garcinia, which is good for losing weight, I was told.

Woman picking tea leaves
The art of picking tea
Lemongrass growing at the Handunugoda Estate.

My two nights in Galle passed quickly. I then took the train to Colombo; a journey which cost little over an euro. Most tourists I met prefer to take the car to the capital. I’d far prefer to spend the money on a good restaurant.

Boy looking at ruined train carriage

Other travel tips for Galle

  • I wore three tops a day when I was there in January. The weather was very humid and hot, reaching around 35oC.
  • Mosquitoes are plentiful on the coast in Sri Lanka. A fan or citronella essential oil are good deterrents.
  • Buy a sarong from Barefoot Ceylon, who produce ‘ethically’ in Sri Lanka.

This post was rewritten and fact-checked in March 2023.

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