COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - After completing a landmark restoration of its historic North Wing, Galle Face Hotel is launching history tours this month for in-house guests. The half-hour tour unveils hidden art from a famous painter, ushers guests into storied spaces not normally open to guests, and shares numerous tales of famous visitors.
Four British entrepreneurs opened the hotel in 1864, positioning the hotel as a pivotal player in Sri Lanka’s history.
“Over the last century and a half we have been the setting for historic events, both in fiction and in real life, hosted numerous famous visitors from royalty to movie stars, and we have more than our fair share of stories to tell,” said Antony Paton, the hotel’s general manager. “These tours are designed to share those stories and give guests a taste of old Ceylon and the hotel.”
The guided tour takes in a number of hotel highlights, including an on-site museum displaying Prince Philip’s first personal car, a 1935 model Standard Nine that he bought for £12 (US$18) when he was stationed in Ceylon.
Glass cabinets feature images and stories of famous guests, including Harrison Ford, who was a guest while shooting Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and even Mark Twain.
A cannonball from 1845 that misfired during artillery practice and crashed into the hotel (at what was then a boarding house) is also on display in the museum. Each year in March the hotel hosts the Cannonball Run along the Galle Face Green to commemorate the incident.
As well, the tour takes a peek at spaces not normally open to the public. What is currently the chairman’s office, was once the room where Arthur C. Clarke penned the final chapters of 3001: The Final Odyssey. Half finished wall murals from Russian painter Alexander Sofronoff are tucked away there. (It is rumored that the famous artist took on the extra painting work around the hotel to pay for his growing bar tab.)
The tour comes to an end at the Grand Ballroom, the hotel’s original ballroom, and once the city’s most happening party spot. Many revelers missed their ships due to over-the-top events there and in WWII the parties were said to be so loud they drowned out the air raid sirens. In the 1950s and 1960s the Jubilee ballroom, next to the Grand Ballroom, was known as the Coconut Grove and was where Mignonne Fernando and her band The Jetliners got their big break.
Tours are held every week on Tuesday at 11am and Thursday at 3pm and are free and open to hotel guests.