Sweeping up under the entrance arch at the Galle Face Hotel, greeted with wide smiles from underneath the immaculately-groomed moustache of 91-year-old Kuttan, the longest serving hotel employee in the world, you will immediately be impressed by the old school grandeur of this fabulous 19th century seafront building. Aside from the hotel, with its creaky wooden floorboards and breezy veranda, it is characters like Kuttan and the delightfully entertaining staff that make the place such a great experience.
Kuttan, a legend
Having a chat with Kuttan, the hotel’s famous doorman covered in badges, is sadly no longer possible daily as due to age he is no longer at the hotel on a regular basis. However, if you are lucky enough to coincide on a day that he is there, do go and have a chat with him as he will reveal far more about the hotel’s secrets than any guidebook or travel brochure. In 1942, he travelled from his birthplace in Trivandrum, India, on a boat to Mannar on the west coast of Sri Lanka. He remembers the ‘loku ticket’, the large old-fashioned ticket, and the way he arrived without a passport. He came simply out of interest to see the island but ended up staying with some relations and finding work for a wealthy Colombo family. Four years later, he began working at The Galle Face Hotel and charmed visitors in the restaurant for over 50 years ever since, meeting famous and infamous people such as Indira Gandhi, Colonel Gadaffi, the Prince of Denmark and even Queen Elizabeth II on her royal visit in 1953. “She stayed at the Governor’s restaurant but visited the hotel with Lord Mountbatten.” Perhaps fittingly, Kuttan’s favourite VIP guest was Pandit Nehru, who visited in the 1950s. “I liked him, he was a warm person and came and talked to me.” With a more serious look, Kuttan recalls the time during the Second World War when the Japanese dropped three bombs on the city and the sound of humming aircraft and then loud explosions filled the air. He also remembers the time when Prince Philip served as a naval officer in Colombo in the early 1940s and used to drive a Standard Nine car around the city. He proudly points out that it is now housed in the hotel’s new museum in the modern, fully-restored Regency wing.
At some point, one of the hundreds of badges pinned on to Kuttan’s smart white jacket, with gold plaiting on the shoulder pads, drops off. He slowly fiddles with the pin and puts it back on, explaining: “I started this collection seven years ago; it was my idea. I wanted to keep memories of my experiences, like a diary and this seemed a good way.” The badges come from all over the world; a gold kangaroo badge from Australia, a 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics roundel, a badge from the Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential Campaign, Oxfam and leukemia research charity badges, and badges with mottos such as ‘unity is strength’ and ‘stride and strive to success’. Hanging around his neck is also a pendant from the University of Ireland, founded in 1845, and dangling from a large gold button on his front is a red Chinese New Year decoration. Surprisingly, his favourite is the first badge he was given, which is a heart-shaped Union Jack. He laughs and says, “When I first started working here, there were British people everywhere. I got used to their ways and habits. There were no troubles when they were ruling. The past thirty years of war have been very distressing. I remember the grand functions at the hotel, with women in full ball gowns, sparkling with jewels, and the tram cars that used to transport office workers around the city. People knew what was important about life and that it was to live it to the fullest.”
Despite his fondness for the past, Kuttan believes the restoration of the old side of the hotel, established in 1864, is a good thing. He likes the new Regency wing, with its trendy 1864 fine dining restaurant and luxury air-conditioned rooms. When asked what led him to stay on at the hotel past the normal age of retirement age, he reveals, “It is because of Mr. Sanjay Gardiner, the owner. He takes care of me really well.” Apart from drinking plain tea with a little sugar each day, Kuttan discloses with a cheeky smile, his top three tips to live to a ripe old age are to “eat a vegetarian diet, and not to drink or smoke.”
The hotel is full of fascinating spots such as the penthouse apartment, which boasts the largest sitting room in Colombo as well as a personal butler service. If you fancy a touch of luxury, ask for one of the four splendid royal suites. One of the regular royal visitors to the hotel was the Queen of Denmark, who came to the island regularly to see an ayurvedic doctor in Giritalay in order to help treat her asthma. One of the greatest compliments the hotel has received, and etched on a stone in the high-ceilinged entrance hall, was written in 1993 by her daughter, Alexander, Princess of Denmark:
“The peacefulness and generosity we encountered at the GFH cannot be matched. Time is experienced in a different way.”
This must hold more than a grain of truth because the hotel has so many returning visitors. Kuttan says, “The children of fathers and grandfathers who used to live here during the British period, when bachelors who couldn’t be bothered to run a whole house had rooms here, still come today. Only a few years ago, a British man called Weaks, who worked in the hotel at that time, came to visit.” He explains “When planters arrived fresh off the ships from England, they would stay here and then take a horse and carriage to Queen’s Hotel in Kandy, where they would break the journey before travelling deeper into tea estate country. This was a time when the Sea Spray seafood restaurant was the stable block, the building at the front of the Taj was the racing grand stand and tea kades with large copper boilers lined the roadsides.”
Whether you want to take a stroll on Galle Face Green in the hot sun or fancy a delicious dinner this is the place to head to. Visit the fascinating museum that reveals how even Hollywood icons such as Roger Moore who played James Bond has stayed in this luxury heritage masterpiece created by British entrepreneurs, and rightly known since 1864 as the emerald on the green. It has received numerous awards including Best Heritage Hotel in Sri Lanka in 2011.