The sun had not set so much as been swallowed by grey storm clouds one November evening in Galle Fort, along the southern coast of Sri Lanka. The packs of teens with selfie sticks, giddy newlyweds walking with intertwined fingers and dads with gigantic DSLR cameras had all been promised a spectacular sunset, and so they’d stationed themselves along the 16th-century wall, hoping the cloud cover would pass and they’d see the sky turn the colour of cotton candy and the sun sink into the Indian Ocean. It never happened.
In an instant, a heavy rain came down and the dozens of tourists who’d gathered ran for shelter, away from the water. But it didn’t matter – the better sights were away from the shoreline anyhow.
When it comes to tourist draws, Sri Lanka is known best for its beaches: those lined with palm trees in Mirissa, the whale-watching ones in Kalpitiya, the kind that draw surfers in Arugam Bay.
But I didn’t so much as dip a toe in the Indian Ocean on this journey. I had come here to explore how, in the aftermath of a long civil war and a catastrophic tsunami, this tiny island country has quietly established itself as a design destination.
The trip that took me from the southern coast up to the capital was a journey through both space and time.
I saw some of the continent’s best preserved Dutch colonial architecture from the 18th century in Galle, the modernist design that blossomed on the island in the second half of the 20th century in Bentota and the best of contemporary art and design that has emerged in the postwar era in Colombo.
Dutch colonialism in Galle Fort
On account of the sunset-interrupting rain, dinner service had started early that day at the Fort Printers hotel. By 7 p.m., the dining room was full of couples trading bites of Sri Lankan lobster curry and lamb tagine as their umbrellas made small puddles on the floor.
The bones of the Fort Printers hadn’t changed much since it was built in the 18th century. From the wide, arched doorways to the wood-shuttered windows, all details unique to colonial architecture of the time were preserved by mandate of UNESCO, as is the case with all other buildings constructed during that period within the fort. In its many lives, the Fort Printers was a school, a bank, a printing press and now a hotel (my room for three nights, on the top level, was once the headmaster’s office when the building was used as a school). Since its construction, one of the only changes permitted was the addition of a narrow pool flanked by frangipani trees, Petar Prokic, the residence manager at the hotel and restaurant, told me.
“It’s because we put it in in 2005, just after the tsunami, when the country was still at war,” Prokic explained with a nervous chuckle. “They’d never let us do it today.”
He saw the reservation log from 2005, the year after the Boxing Day tsunami, when the country was still in the throes of what would be a 25-year civil war: There were five reservations, for the entire year. The war ended in 2009 and until then many foreign tourists wrote off Sri Lanka as too dangerous to visit. The few souls that ventured to this part of the country were rewarded for their bravery with incredibly long journeys, as the road between Colombo and Galle was littered with military checkpoints.
The quietness of that time remained during my mornings within the fort. The streets were silent save for the occasional polite “watch out, pedestrians, I’m coming up behind you” honk from a passing scooter, or the familiar bars of Fur Elise (as composed for an arcade game) that played from the speakers of passing auto rickshaws that sold fresh bread.
By afternoon, when we set out to find a late lunch (one afternoon at A Minute By Tuk Tuk, where I feasted on a plate of grilled prawns; the next day at Poonie’s Kitchen, which serves a killer salad thali) the streets were alive. There were packs of German and British tourists toting Lonely Planet guides and parents on scooters, picking up their daughters in starched white uniforms from the all-girls’ school in the centre of town. The whole fort could be explored on foot, without a map, in a day. But I’m married to an architect who likes to admire nice joinery, so we needed a full 2 1/2 days to properly stare at, photograph and comment on the impressive gables on the Dutch Reformed Church, the stately courtyards and restored teak beams on the house-to-inn conversions, the thick walls at the National Maritime Museum and Old Dutch Hospital, the latter of which has been converted into a shopping and eating hub.
After dinner each night we’d wander the winding streets, peeking in through the windows of the Dutch colonial homes that hadn’t hung curtains. Though the exteriors were in keeping with UNESCO’s strict guidelines on colours (ash, light yellow and white were permitted), finishes and doors in keeping with the original design of the properties, many current owners had furnished their spaces with the colonial furniture that become popular during the British rule. They arranged their elegantly curved cane-woven planter’s chairs and long teak benches around the living-room TV, where they watched cricket matches or the evening news or, on a few occasions, looked out the window to return our curious stares.
Tropical modernism in Bentota
It was almost noon, the sun cresting in the sky, when our car pulled up beside a group of farmers standing in a field, whacking at tall green stalks with their blades.
Our driver rolled down his window to confirm we were on the right path to our destination. “Lunuganga?” he asked, interrupting the half-dozen farmers who had been loudly chatting in Sinhala, naming the estate we were looking for.
They beamed knowingly. “Geoffrey Bawa?” they asked in reply. Our driver nodded and they pointed down the road.
The late Bawa, the Frank Lloyd Wright of Sri Lanka, is a household name here. His most famous work is in Colombo – the Sri Lankan Parliament building, the Seema Malaka Buddhist temple – but here, to his former country estate in Bentota, halfway between Galle and Colombo, to see the best example of the style of architecture he pioneered: tropical modernism. On a previous trip to Sri Lanka, we visited C. Anjalendran, an architect who studied under Bawa, who insisted that this was the best place to observe his mentor’s genius.
Before Bawa bought the land in 1948, it was a rubber plantation and before that, a cinnamon estate. Now the landscape, marked by mahogany, jack and blue olive trees, seemed inspired by an English garden but with a certain wild, untamed quality: moss-covered concrete stairs that led up to Bawa’s buildings echoed the terraced land around it, simple concrete structures framed spectacular panoramas of wide green fields, an intentional clearing in the trees opened up the view over Cinnamon Hill. There was no prize-winning rose garden. Vines that hadn’t been pruned back in ages had twisted recklessly over small buildings, becoming secondary roofs.
Included in the garden tour was a traditional thali lunch – rice with nine Sri Lankan side dishes, including shrimp curry and gotu kola sambol (shredded greens with coconut) – eaten on the back patio of one of the many tasteful properties on the estate. The interiors were luxe, but, like all of Bawa’s work, gave importance to local context: the palette was mostly stark black and white with a few nods to the natural surroundings in pops of green, brown and beige.
After lunch, Lahiru, our guide from the garden tour let us explore a bit more, and we caught a few glimpses of the envy-inspiring guests who had booked one of the property’s six vacation suites. I broke away from Lahiru for a moment to stand under the Glass Room, a suspended windowed suite that was the bridge between two other buildings on the grounds that Bawa designed in the eighties, and it was then that I realized why Anjalendran was so adamant we visit this place. A woman in a tank top and shorts was lounging in an easy chair under the gabled roof with exposed beams and through the glass behind her, I could see a thick tangle of foliage planted behind the building. Even in this modern space, the wild exterior was within reach.
After seeing preserved colonial architecture in Galle and Bawa’s 20th-century vision in Bentota, it made sense to end our trip jumping to the present, to Colombo: the most aggressively contemporary part of the country. Construction crews were at work building luxury hotels on the city’s waterfront – a major development project that had been stalled for decades by the war – and the art world, too, was also trying to make up for lost time.
“Where I find Sri Lankan art is strong lies in its history,” Annoushka Hempel, the founding director of the Colombo Art Biennale (which had its fourth run in December), told me in her eponymous Colombo gallery. “[The war] isolated it from most of the region and world.”
From that incubator, paintings, photographs and installations that dwell particularly on themes of identity, conflict, loss, separation and memory have flowed out – many by young, emerging artists. When we visited, the chic Saskia Fernando Gallery was exhibiting a series of haunting photographs of rescued family albums washed up on a shore in the final stages of the country’s civil war. But not everything was as sobering.
After a lunch of red-snapper head cooked in a creamy red curry and thick, crispy slices of fried fish at Upali’s in Cinnamon Gardens, we jetted south to the Colombo 3 district, home to Barefoot, a bright gallery and shop whose wares borrowed from the traditions of Indian craft but were injected with a playful, uniquely Sri Lankan vibe: highly pigmented cotton sarongs, dumbara-woven tablecloths, wild-boar stuffies in orange and red plaid. Most alluring was the shop-within-a-shop for Stick No Bills, a purveyor of cheeky, mod Sri Lankan posters. Some designs were actually pulled from the archives and restored such as the smart 1950s-era Air Ceylon ads), others were new designs, evoking that impossibly slick mid-century aesthetic and casting Sri Lanka as a glamorous, stylish travel destination. It was as if they’d been carefully preserved in a time capsule during the war and now were now being reissued.
Colombo is such a small and manageable capital city that three days was enough time to pick up on the city’s patterns and to establish routines, as if we were locals. We avoided travelling at rush hour with one exception, and as a result had no trouble hailing a metered taxi or calling an Uber to jet around the city. We spent our evenings with what felt like a large swath of the city’s middle class, sitting on a bench at Galle Face, a seaside park, and snacking on freshly fried sticks of jackfruit in white paper sleeves and little bags of tart mango slices tossed in chili we bought from boardwalk vendors. With the exception of one splurge dinner at the famed Ministry of Crab, we relished meals at local kades (small shops or eateries), where a family-sized portion of red rice was served with vegetables, sambols, pickles and any combination of fiery meat and fish curries one’s heart desired. We ate till we were full, ambled about and looked at art till we were hungry again and then repeated the cycle.
Surprisingly, our favourite stop on our eat-and-art crawl was the unassuming Sapumal Foundation, a gorgeous, rambling bungalow down the same quiet lane as Hempel Galleries. The house was originally occupied by Harry Peiris, an iconic portrait artist and the founder of Sri Lanka’s influential ‘43 Group, but now resembled the comfy home of a serious art collector. I wouldn’t be surprised if the endless rooms filled with Peiris’s work and that of comrades George Keyt, Lionel Wendt and Ivan Peries might be the largest private collection of art, private or public, in the country.
Though the art on display was the least appealing to us, the one space we returned to again and again was Paradise Road Galleries (the former office of Bawa) which was just a short walk from Colombo Courtyard, a hotel we’d booked for its proximity to so many design points of interest. The space was moody and stylish, a contemporary restoration of a colonial bungalow, and – because it housed an upscale restaurant – that seemed to be thriving the most of all we visited (and had the best-curated gift shop of any I’d seen in the country).
On my third visit to Paradise Road, which was just meant to be for dessert, it was raining lightly outside. As soon as I stepped into the long, white-washed hallway in front of the courtyard, the most jaw-dropping part of the property (and where much of the art is displayed), I stopped, mesmerized. The narrow pool that cut through the centre of the courtyard had come alive. The pool’s inky water, which would otherwise sit undisturbed, was brought to life by the raindrops dancing on its surface. It seemed like a perfectly executed art installation, but was merely nature entering a space as it was designed to do. “Really,” I thought, while snapping one mediocre photo after another, “who needs the beach?”
If you go
Fly to from Toronto to Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo via London with SriLankan Airlines. You can hire a taxi to take you to Bentota and then on to Galle. Head to the Galle railway station just outside Galle Fort and buy an inexpensive same-day ticket to return to Colombo – make sure you sit on the side of the car where you’ll get an ocean view for much of the journey.
Where to stay
In Colombo, the sustainability-focused Colombo Courtyard Hotel is the base to explore some of the city’s best design attractions by foot (the rest are a not-so-far taxi or metered tuk tuk ride away). On lazy or rainy days, the hotel is a gallery unto itself, which displays the inventive sculptures of Prageeth Manohansa and drawings of Anup Vega among others. Rooms from $112.
For architecture buffs, the Fort Printers hotel is the best place to rest your head in Galle Fort. The property has been impeccably maintained in a way that preserves its 18th-century roots but with (UNESCO-approved) contemporary touches so it doesn’t feel stodgy or museum-like. Opt for the Sri Lankan-style breakfast by the pool and at least one lunch or dinner at the restaurant, which offers Mediterranean and nouveau Sri Lankan cuisine. Rooms from $212.
The art and design must-sees
In Colombo: Sapumal Foundation, Paradise Road Galleries, Saskia Fernando Gallery, Hempel Galleries, Barefoot, No. 11 (home of Geoffrey Bawa)
In Galle Fort: Dutch Reformed Church, Old Dutch Hospital, Meera Mosque, Stick No Bills
The writer’s stays at The Fort Printers and Colombo Courtyard were covered by the hotels. Part of her travel was sponsored by SriLankan Airlines. They did not review or approve this article.