Sri Lanka looms as the new alternative to Bali, sans the over-development and the undesirables, with the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Galle Fort already one of the island nation's genuine, if faded, gems. Dating to the early 16th century when the Portuguese established the first fort here, the historically rich Galle Fort is also the place to experience the stylish side of modern-day Sri Lanka with its array of attractive boutique lodgings, fashionable restaurants and stylish bars, and a host of enticing shops.
Take a stroll along Church Street, more or less Galle Fort's main thoroughfare, for a sense of Galle Fort's extraordinary 400 years of history spanning British, Dutch and Portuguese colonialism. Essential stops include the imposing and the still operational 18th-century Dutch Reformed Church and, nearby, the early 19th century library, which, largely unchanged, still functions as a public facility. But Galle Fort's not all a history lesson. Pop into the branch of Barefoot Gallery renowned for its vibrant fabrics, linens, bags, books and toys as well as Stick No Bills for its collection of retro Ceylon travel posters.
A private tour with an expert local guide, organised via your travel agent, tour operator or hotel, will bring Galle Fort alive, including visits to easily overlooked and hard-to-find sites such as the ancient dark and forbidding colonial-era prison cells built within the fortifications. You can also take a self-guided tour with a copy (available at Barefoot Gallery) of the useful, small-format Galle Fort World Heritage Site: A Visitor's Guide and llustrated Walking Tour by Mark Thompson and Karl Steinberg.
Climb up to the expansive grassed ramparts of the fort where there are fine views of the city of Galle and its renowned test-level cricket ground, both of which were devastated by the tsunami of 2004 but which have since been fully restored. You may even encounter an informal cricket game among youngsters atop the fort or sneak a glimpse of a game in progress at the Galle Cricket Club below.
One of Galle Fort's newest boutique hotels is the 18-room Fort Bazaar, an elegantly and meticulously restored 17th-century townhouse on Church Street with a large internal courtyard. The front section of the hotel, operated by an enterprising and rapidly expanding group called Teardrop Hotels (named in honour of the perceived physical shape of Sri Lanka), was once the home of a local merchant who traded in spices and gems. Doubles start from $US176.
Dine in-house at Fort Bazaar's cool Church Street Social restaurant with its menu reflecting Galle Fort's Middle Eastern influences as well as Sri Lankan dishes. Next door is the Galle Fort Hotel, which, along with Amangalla (aman.com) up the road in the building that once housed the 19th-century New Oriental Hotel, led Galle Fort's post-civil war tourism revival. The Galle Fort is a fine spot for a pre-dinner drink and snack, especially if you position yourself on the shaded terrace right on Church Street. Elsewhere, you'll find good eating and drinking opportunities, including the swish Galle branch of Sugar Bistro & Wine Bar at the attractive 17th-century Old Dutch Hospital retail and dining precinct on Hospital Street.