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Galle Face Hotel:

Colombo's Iconic landmark

The Galle Face Hotel was originally a Dutch villa called the Galle Face House which housed boarders, probably, even before the British took over the Maritime Provinces. One of the first references to Galle Face Hotel is that, in 1820 the horse races began at Galle Face House. It was the only building on the southern side of the Galle Face Green, and it appealed to the Europeans who needed to stay somewhere until they found permanent accommodation. After the coffee estates were opened in the 1830s, the planters too stayed at Galle Face House until they went upcountry. Started as a proper hotel in 1964, to this date, it is the only major hotel in Colombo with its own beachfront, at least until the Grand Hyatt begins operations.

Empress

The hotel has many heritage suites and the Empress Eugene suite is the largest. Empress Eugene of France came to Sri Lanka in 1908 as a guest of Sir Thomas Lipton. She occupied about 10 or 12 rooms for a few weeks. Many film stars, Emperors, writers and politicians have stayed there. Famous guests include, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Arthur Conan Doyle, Noel Coward, Che Guevara, Yuri Gagarin, Sir Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, MGR, Anton Chekov, Arthur C Clarke and Rabindranath Tagore.

The hotel's small, but impressive library has a collection of books by some of the famous authors who stayed and wrote novels or short stories at the hotel. It was usually overbooked, and in the 1920s the directors were convinced 200 rooms were insufficient. They contemplated demolishing and re-building the North wing. The directors consulted Sir Banister Fletcher in London but the plan was abandoned.

The Galle Face Hotel (also known as GFH), listed among the 1,000 Places to See Before You Die in the book of the same name, was re-designed by Edward Skinner in 1894, and again renovated in 2015.

It was the most extensive renovation in its 151-year history, with 72 rooms and suites, restaurants, bars, executive wing and the lobby of the north wing completely refurbished over two and a half years.


Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru stayed at Galle Face Hotel in 1951


Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi stayed in 1976


British actress Jean Simmons stayed in 1960

The renovated hotel was opened by President Maithripala Sirisena and Tourism Minister John Amaratunga, in the presence of GFH Chairman Sanjeev Gardiner, son of the legendary Cyril Gardiner.

The story goes that, when a foreigner once asked Gardiner Senior why the GFH does not have a name board, he had shot back - "does Buckingham Palace have one?". The idea was, of course, that the GFH was so famous.

Intact

While renovating the hotel the original features were kept intact as much as possible. The original porch was restored without interfering with the basic design. A shopping arcade was added a few years ago, but demolished later on.

The ground floor has a bigger parking area to accommodate more cars and tour buses; and a conference hall was built recently. From the 1960s all the rooms were air-conditioned. The restaurants, lobby, ballroom and Coconut Grove were also air-conditioned. The Sea Spray restaurant was refurbished recently and is now open to the public. It is an upscale seafood restaurant which boasts the largest oceanfront dining perch in the capital. The hotel has a Museum in the Regency Wing which houses Prince Philip's car, which has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Prince Philip was posted to Sri Lanka during World War II.

Directors

Lalith Rodrigo, a director of the hotel, says, the directors were expected to have a share qualification. Most directors were recruited from the Mercantile sector such as Finlays, Forbes & Walkers, Mackwoods and George Steuarts. G.D. Brabazon and later W.B. Bartlett were from the Estate sector. F.D. Loos, a Dutch burgher was the largest shareholder. Among the directors a few stood out. Major Oldfield, OBE, was from Lee Hedges.

He lived in the hotel and was a Member of Parliament until he died in 1955. Walter Shakespeare worked at Carson & Co. and was a Director and Managing Director of Galle Face Hotel on several occasions.

T.W. Hardstaff was the full time secretary of the hotel in 1935. Cyril Gardiner was appointed as Chairman on September 25, 1965.

European

The chefs were usually French in the days gone by. In 1914, Chef Laurel was summoned back to France for war service. The Housekeeper and Linen Matron were usually hired from English families living in Ceylon and worked for long periods at the hotel. The Manager, Assistant Manager, Restaurant Manager and Head Barman were also European. The General Manager is usually an expatriate. During that time the guests dressed for dinner in coat and tie, and the policy was relaxed only after Cyril Gardiner took over the restaurants.

Service

The doorman, Chattu Kuttan, who died at 94 while still in service, was very popular among guests. In fact, he was the oldest hotel employee anywhere in the world. His pupil Ratnayake Mudiyanselage Punchi Banda (71) too completed 50 years of service recently and was felicitated by the hotel.

The hotel is famous for the Cannonball Run, an annual tradition celebrated on Galle Face Green, to mark the incident of a cannonball misfired by a member of the British Artillery in 1845. The cannonball had crashed through the roof and came to rest near a chair. No one was injured. The cannonball is preserved to this day, in the hotel's museum. The Cannonball Run starts at the Cannon on the Fort end of the Green and ends at the cannonball preserved in the hotel. Members of the diplomatic community are avid participants of this race.

Over the years, the hotel has won many local and international awards. Among them are Presidential Award for best Heritage Hotel (2010); PATA Award for Best International Heritage Hotel (2011); World Travel Award for Best Business Hotel (2011); Sri Lanka Tourism Award for Best Heritage Hotel (2012); Hall of Fame of Sri Lanka Tourism.

GFH is one place you must see, and be seen in.

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