Sri Lanka's Crumbling Colonial Charm

On this island-nation south of India, visitors can still enjoy exquisite old hotels

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

BAREFOOT but otherwise immaculately dressed in a floor-length sarong and spotless white jacket, the Hill Club waiter appeared only vaguely embarrassed as he led us to the grandly titled ''Gent's Toilet,'' where a large wooden armoire was propped against one wall.

In the genteel English dining room, sunburned European tourists had dressed for dinner and were digging into their lamb cutlets and mint jelly with gusto. But my companion had arrived at what used to be Sri Lanka's most exclusive club minus jacket and tie -- and had been firmly, albeit politely, denied entrance.

Our waiter was quick to rectify the situation. Making sure the door was securely closed behind him, he flung open the armoire, revealing two racks of moldy woolen jackets and an amazingly outdated collection of men's ties. An odor of mothballs wafted toward us.

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Some of the jackets, it seemed, were as old as the Hill Club itself, a gray stone mansion built in 1876 for the British colonial elite amid the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya (''Little England'') in what was then Ceylon. For a 100-rupee ($2) deposit, we rented a loud checked number and the world's widest tie and were ushered into the Club's inner sanctum. (We women had no dress code, provided we looked ''nice.'')

Almost 50 years after Sri Lanka gained independence, remnants of the colonial past still exist on this teardrop-shaped island of 11 million people. The past is most spectacularly present in the South Asian nation's exquisite colonial-era hotels, many of which are former plantation homes or mansions.

We discovered this during a recent car journey (we hired a driver as well) that took us from the capital of Colombo along the southern coast and up into the verdant Hill Country, a harrowing trip from one crumbling hotel to another along precariously narrow highways. We whizzed past donkey carts, careening buses, fishermen on stilts, and the occasional elephant.

Just 30 miles off the coast of southern India, Sri Lanka was colonized starting in the early 16th century by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. With a population that is mainly Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamils, Sri Lanka is still a divided nation, as witnessed last month by several deadly attacks by Tamil rebels on government troops.

But while security has been beefed up in Colombo, and roadblocks and armed soldiers are now common sights, Sri Lanka is still largely regarded as safe for tourists -- as long as they avoid the north.

Despite recent violence, the struggling tourist industry is trying to revive -- and woo -- much-needed foreign investment. If outside investors have their way, the aging hotels may soon undergo 20th-century facelifts. That means their dilapidated, rough-around-the-edges, Old-World charm could be lost forever.

With its English-style snooker parlor, men-only bar, and strict dress code, the formerly private Hill Club was among the most impressive hotels we visited. But it was the New Oriental Hotel (affectionately called N.O.H.) in the old Dutch fort city of Galle that most captured our imaginations.

Built as the Dutch command headquarters, the N.O.H. became a hotel in 1863 and has been run by the Dutch Brohier family since 1902. But with no heirs, the gracious Mrs. Nesta Brohier, trailed everywhere by an overweight dachshund, has decided she has no choice but to turn it over to a Western hotel chain this summer.

Our rooms at the N.O.H. had a cavernous bathtub, antique four-poster beds swathed in mosquito netting, shuttered windows, and a drawing room with ceiling fans. (The lobby still has hooks used by 19th-century punka-wallahs, who fanned colonials with large fans suspended from the ceiling.)

Antiquated notices require ''personal servants'' to stay elsewhere, and the only fire extinguishers were red buckets filled with sand or water. In previous times, a brochure informed us, the hotel's female patrons sipped chilled drinks on the wide veranda, wearing crinoline hoop skirts and carrying parasols to shade them from the sun.

That evening we strolled the ramparts of the fort as families paraded along the coast in their Sunday best. Schoolboys in blue-and-white uniforms played impromptu cricket games against the backdrop of a whitewashed mosque, and young lovers huddled together at sunset, holding hands on rocks near the sea.

COLOMBO'S Galle Face Hotel was a close second to the N.O.H. Billed as the oldest hotel in Asia (it opened in 1856), it retains much of its original flavor, with its landscaped lawn and veranda bar dotted with wicker chairs. But it may soon undergo a drastic renovation when it is taken over by the chain that now runs the famous Raffles hotel in Singapore.

Perched on a seaside promenade, the Galle Face overlooks the spot where the British enjoyed horse racing, the unofficial ''sport of kings.''

The nearby Viharamahedevi (formerly Victoria) Park on the old Slave Island is home to cinnamon and lemon trees and thousands of fruit bats, or flying foxes, who at dusk leave the treetops en masse, turning the twilight deep black.

But while Colombo may be the nation's capital, Kandy is the spiritual center -- and the seat of the ancient kingdom that held off the colonials until 1815. The cultural mix means that the Hotel Suisse stands near the temple that holds the sacred tooth of Buddha, which was on rare public display during our visit.

The line of people to see the tooth stretched for almost a mile, and did not disperse even as a seasonal monsoon ripped through the city, turning the queue into a sea of colorful umbrellas. We sat out the storm drinking coconut juice in the Suisse, enjoying the splendor of one of Sri Lanka's last colonial-era hotels.

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