After all the outdoor excitement of the National Parks our next destination was the historic town of Galle on the south west coast. Originally founded by Portuguese and then taken over by the Dutch and eventually the English the old town is sited inside Galle Fort an imposing stone fort situated on a peninsula of land with ocean on three sides. Our hotel, the Fort Printers was right in the middle of the Fort. Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site, we are beginning to think we may have seen them all on this trip!
Most of the trip from Yala to Galle was along the coast, we noticed quite a lot of new building going on and Odi explained that this area was badly hit by the Boxing Day Tsunami which destroyed many communities, that certainly gave us pause for though. Odi lives about an hour from Galle near the town of Bentota (our next stop) so we agreed that he would drop us off and then go home and see his family while we explored Galle on our own.
We reached the hotel in the early afternoon and checked in. The hotel was in a very old building which had originally housed the fort printing press and later became a school. As a listed building in a world heritage site it has been very carefully and sensitively converted to a hotel, most of the fabric of the building is original and modern additions, such as ensuite bathrooms have been cleverly constructed so as not to interfere with the historic structure. Our room was on the first floor and opened of a long, enclosed veranda, the rooms are named after their function when the building was a school, we were in History, Mark was disappointed that we weren’t next door in Geography but we didn’t complain. I must admit it did amuse me when we had to ask reception for the key to history.
After a long morning in the car we decided to walk the walls of the fort to stretch our legs and get an idea of the scale of the fort. From the hotel it was only about 100 meters to the fort wall and very conveniently there was an ice cream shop at the half way point – that was lunch sorted. The walls were amazing, solid stone and about 5m thick, inside there were grass covered promenades shaded by ancient trees, outside they dropped straight down to the Indian Ocean crashing on the rocks. We walked half way around but the clouds closed in and threatened heavy rain so we made our way back to the hotel. The little streets were lovely, lots of historic buildings and nice shops to browse in, quite touristy but not tacky. There were also loads of jewellery shops, some looking more trust worth than others, maybe I would have another chance at buying the bracelet I wanted? We had dinner in the hotel restaurant that night which was excellent.
The next day we had nothing planned so we spent the day exploring the fort, ducking back to the hotel to cool off when it got too hot. I had done a bit of online research about the jewellers so as we wandered I had a look in some to see if I could find what I wanted, most of them had similar stock very traditional and glitzy, not me at all. Eventually, whilst wandering along with another ice cream we came to a shop with a different selection in the window. We went in to have a look and were greeted by three very friendly and very unpushy brothers who run the business. They explained that they designed and manufactured all the jewellery themselves in their own workshop using only certified Sri Lankan gem stones. They had some lovely items but not quite what I wanted, I tried on a couple of bracelets but they weren’t cheap and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something that wasn’t just what I had in mind. The chap serving us asked how long we were staying in Galle and we explained that we only had two more nights and would be leaving on Sunday morning, apparently that was long enough for them to make a bracelet to my own specification. Over the next half hour we agreed a very simple design combining features from two bracelets I had liked; picked out a pair of beautiful, cornflower blue square cut sapphires; and bartered on the price. Once it was all agreed we arranged to collect the bracelet on Sunday at 10.00. I was so pleased and excited.
We had dinner in one of the town restaurants that night fancying something much simpler than the silver service fine dining at the hotel, we found a place called the Heritage Café and enjoyed a simple meal and a couple of bottles of Elephant Ginger Beer which has become our drink of choice in Sri Lanka, although Mark has managed to consume a fair amount of the local Lion Larger.
On Saturday Odi picked us up at 05.30 (again) and drove us down the coast to catch a whale watching boat, this wasn’t on our itinerary but it was peak season for viewing Blue Whales which seemed too good to miss and Odi got us a good deal on two tickets. It took about an hour to get out to sea to where the whales were and it got progressively rougher as we went, but time spent scanning the surface was rewarded when I spotted the flukes of a whale’s tale in the middle distance and shortly after another one broke the surface alongside the boat. About 20 minutes later we saw another whale ahead and one gliding right alongside, it stayed with us for a minute or more and then disappeared with a wave of its tale. Odi had taken our camera up front and managed to get a video of the whale which left us free to just watch it. The whales were huge but so graceful, they glided along just below the surface rising to breath and then disappearing without a trace. Another magical wildlife experience. On the way back to shore we spotted a couple of pods of dolphins which are always fun to watch, it was still very rough and we were very glad to get back to the harbour. I was seasick at one point and felt pretty poorly for a while but it soon passed when we got ashore and it was well worth it to see Blue Whales up close.
Back in Galle we had lunch in the Calorie Counter Café (interesting name!) and a siesta back at the hotel. Dinner was pizza at a little street side counter just down the road followed by coffee and ice cream in the hotel bar and then to bed.
We have stayed at some lovely hotels during our travels but The Fort Printers stood out because the staff were so proactive, when we left to explore the fort on Friday the porter at the front door insisted we should take some bottled water with us and rushed off to get two bottles of chilled mineral water. Another waiter asked us if we would like to order a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast for one morning of our stay and made the arrangements for us to have it before we checked out on Sunday; and when they learned we were leaving early to go whale watching on Saturday a waiter came to our room to ask if we would like a packed breakfast, we said no thank you but later that evening the manageress came herself and persuaded us to take something with us just in case we were hungry. Finally, at about 08.00 on Sunday a porter came to the room and asked us what time we were leaving and offered to collect our cases 10 minutes before we planned to check out. Great service and real attention to detail, it takes effort to think what your customers might want before they realise it themselves.
All too quickly it was Sunday morning and time to leave. We enjoyed our delicious Sri Lankan breakfast, tropical fruit, egg hoppers (like crepe baskets with a fried egg in the bottom), string hoppers (nests of fine rice noodles), fish curry, daal and coconut sambal. Then we popped out to do some last-minute shopping and collect my bracelet. Back at the jewellers they teased us by pretending the bracelet wasn’t ready but then presented me with exactly what we had discussed (it is beautiful) and provided detailed receipts and certificates of authenticity. Back to the hotel just in time to meet Odi as agreed and head to Bentota and our last stop in Sri Lanka.