Hotel Review: Fortaleza Hotel, Galle Fort in Sri Lanka
Leading travel writer Kaspar Chambers enjoys the historic Fortaleza Hotel in Galle Fort, Sri Lanka.
A walled city barely a kilometre wide and surrounded by sea on all sides, it’s easy to see how Galle has gained its reputation as Sri Lanka’s most charming holiday destination. Steeped in five hundred years of colonial history – Portuguese, Dutch and British – Galle Fort combines crumbling medieval architecture with the spice and heady chaos of modern Asia. Add a great selection of restaurants, boutique shops, and palm-lined stretches of sandy beaches to the mix, and Galle is an absolute must for any trip to Sri Lanka.
Most of us will factor in a day trip to Galle, reluctantly dragging ourselves from the beaches of nearby Mirissa for a spot of culture, and it’s certainly true that the tiny city can easily be ‘done’ in an afternoon: Its sprinkling of heritage sites and museums ticked off, the high ramparts admired and the lighthouse selfie snapped – indeed it only takes a couple of hours to walk the circumference. But in order to soak up the magic of Galle, to get behind the layers of history that make up its allure and really make the most of it, a stay in Galle Fort itself is unparalleled.
Hotelier Natalie Rogers clearly understood this when she took over a derelict site in 2012 and founded Fortaleza. A sleek and corporate hotel this is not. Instead, it’s a collection of five boutique properties sprinkled across the fort, each with its own unique history and charm. Staying at Fortaleza is stepping through the looking glass into half millennium of turbulent colonial history, a rare opportunity to live and experience Galle’s heritage sites as your own home.
Fortaleza begun with No. 9 Church Cross Street, an 18th century Dutch spice warehouse which Nathalie and her husband Liam transformed into a boutique four-bedroom hotel, restaurant and bar. The rooms are all different, dotted with antique Bakelite wind-up telephones and mahogany chaise longues, and with shuttered windows onto the medieval streets below. High ceilings and exposed coral walls remain from the origin infrastructure, and four-poster beds provide a touch of grandeur. Like Galle itself, the rooms are packed with character, and creaky floorboards and frequent power cuts (for while candles and lanterns are provided) are all part of the charm.
As Fortaleza flourished and grew, Natalie was introduced to many homeowners in Galle struggling to rent out their luxury pads (a nice problem to have, one may argue). While property inside the fort is among the most highly sought after in the country, most holidays only stay in Galle for around three nights, which isn’t cost effective for villas. Thinking outside the box, Natalie took a number of underused properties under the Fortaleza umbrella and came up with a happy medium between hotel and villa. The homes, all steeped in history, come with the flexibility and luxuries of a hotel service (turn down service, luggage transferral, concierge and breakfast) combined with the space and privacy of your own pied-à-terre.
The properties range in size and style: A spice warehouse from the early 1700’s, colonial Dutch merchants’ residences and a lawyer’s chambers all offer excellent boltholes for couples and large families.
For honeymooners, No 1A Court Square offers a romantic hideout like no other. A bijou one-bedroom, two-floor fairytale cottage a short walk from the main hotel, the property was once the chambers of an eminent family of lawyers, who owned it since 1826. A heavy, foreboding front door locks out the hustle and bustle of the outside world, with a fabulous Moroccan-style rain shower at the entrance. Low lighting and burgundy walls in the sumptuous ground floor bedroom (watch out for the low hanging chandeliers!) are a cosy contrast to a light and breezy upstairs sitting room, with the balcony a perfect spot to watch the world go by. Many an afternoon can be whiled away sipping Ceylon tea here, overlooking impromptu cricket practice and Saturday flea markets in the idyllic courtyard below.
Though you may not suspect it from the medieval bedroom, the suite is subtly kitted out with all the mod cons – Smeg fridge, Bose speakers and espresso machine – conducive to luxury living. Indeed, for those who really don’t want to leave the comfort of their little home, a breakfast tiffin box can be delivered to your doorstep and enjoyed on the balcony.
For guests across all the villas, breakfast is served in the leafy courtyard at Church Cross Street: a bounteous buffet in high season and a set menu brought to your table in low season. Here too, minimal work has been done to the Dutch-period architecture, and exposed lime walls give a timeless elegance to the dining atrium. The buffet includes a platter of huge papaya, banana and pineapple; clay pots of Sri Lankan favourite curd and treacle; bacon, eggs, sausages and much-appreciated granary toast – a rarity in Sri Lanka – for those craving a taste of home. The highlight for us was a hopper stand, where the congenial chef whips up fine examples of this traditional breakfast dish to order.
Whether you’re visiting as a couple or as a group of family or friends, Fortaleza allows guests to feel like resident in the city rather than merely spectators in a homogenous hotel chain. Immersed in the heart of Galle, the properties strike the perfect balance between character and comfort, service and privacy, making it one of the most unique and appealing hotels in Galle.