Resort Report By Royston Ellis
“We were very surprised to find a hot water bottle and some lovely flowers on our bed,” wrote Mr & Mrs Struychen of Holland in the guest book at the Bandarawela Hotel.
Beds adorned with tropical flowers are not unusual after the evening turn-down service in Sri Lankan hotels, but the presence of a rubber hot water bottle to warm the sheets is evidence of a more caring, traditional style of hospitality. It is no surprise to learn from the directory entitled Bandarawela Hotel – Since 1893 placed in every bedroom that it was originally called The Grand Hotel, Bandarawela. The hotel was once owned by the father of Nesta Brohier, late proprietor of the erstwhile (and much lamented) New Oriental Hotel in Galle Fort.
The hotel’s pedigree is apparent on approaching it up the steep drive above the town, next to the post office. The first sight is of a gateman in the khaki uniform and hat of a 1950s’ ranger. A classic Wolesley car is parked outside the hotel and a genuine BSA motorbike stands by the entrance steps. The receptionist wears broad black braces as part of his uniform and there is an old British-built iron safe on display behind him. Colonial chic governs the hotel, giving it character that contemporary boutique hotels cannot match.
One industry expert suggested that if the hotel were to charge five times its current room rate, it would be packed by trend-setting fashionistas bragging about the experience of staying at this quaint and original hotel. However, for that to happen, the bathrooms would have to be brought into the 21st century.
Every one of the hotel’s rooms has a bathroom ensuite, with the added feature of a back door remaining from the days when, according to the directory, “There were two lavatory coolies (who) used the back door to the bathroom to change the toilet of every guest. In the evening, the bath boys used to deliver two buckets of hot water so guests could bathe before dinner.”
Now there is plenty of piping hot water but the shower is an appendage suspended above an ancient cast iron bathtub with lion paws feet, and the floor is red polished concrete. The washbasin is in the bedroom. While modern touches like a television set and a minibar have been introduced into the bedrooms, the furniture remains appropriately ponderous.
The beds, relics from the days when the hotel catered for those taking rest cures, are adjustable with a profusion of brass knobs. Each has only one slim pillow, but there are spares in the room’s almirah. A mosquito net envelops the twin beds to create the illusion of a curtained four-poster.
The hotel spans two floors embracing three inner courtyard gardens overlooked by the room corridors. In 1993, Nesta Brohier recalled: “I remember that another row of rooms was built at the back of the Grand Hotel, Bandarawela, during our childhood about 70 years ago, to enable planters (strictly Europeans) to stay over night.”
The old public bar that used to be the haunt of carousing locals and accessed by a flight of steps behind the post office, now has a pool table and a karaoke facility and is open only to residents. Drinks are brought to it from the lounge bar but a log fire is lit on request and guests can sit on the old wooden stools defiantly designed for broad backsides. Next to it, the linen room has become a conference hall.
The hotel has formidable public rooms with a long lounge with polished floorboards and reproductions of old photographs on its walls. The cosy lounge bar used to be a reading and smoking room. Smoking is no longer permitted in the public areas because the hotel has more than 30 rooms. A notice quoting the law appears on every coffee table.
The restaurant resounds with the tread of sarong-clad stewards hurrying across the wooden floor to serve visitors. Four kinds of freshly baked bread are offered with the table d’hote dinner and there is a satisfying wine list with a knowledgeable wine steward on hand. The a la carte menu features attempts at traditional dishes like Shepherd’s Pie. Portions are massive. I had Scotch Egg (a hard boiled egg coated with sausage meat and deep fried) as a starter and it was enough for a full meal.
With over 60 possible excursions to local places of interest listed in the room directory, the Bandarawela Hotel is a convenient – and inexpensive – place to stay while exploring lesser known Sri Lanka. And it lives up grandly to its slogan “where time stands still”.