Can you guess where I am? I am standing in the shadow of a dark and imposing bluestone mansion, at least I would be in shadow if there were any sun. Mist creeps around me, leaving moisture on every surface, too small to see, but easy enough to feel. The mansion and the inclining garden behind it are not so lucky, the cloud fully envelops them from time to time, cutting off trees and parts of the rooftops, and for all I know, transporting them to another dimension or era.
My sons are untouched by the sinister feel of the place, and while they stamp their be-wellied feet in soggy turf, I shiver. Is it because this is the coldest I have been since I moved to Dubai? Or is it because I feel like I am in an episode of Midsummer Murders or within the pages of The Bleak House?
So take a guess. Highlands of Scotland? Dartmoor among the Baskervilles? The barren Normandy coast? Wrong.
I am 7 degrees north of the equator, at the Hill Club, on the outskirts of(pronounced newerellia). Altitude is around 2000m, mean daily temperature in February is 15C, and despite the fact that it’s the dry season, the township sees less than 6 hours of sunlight per day. So while its name translates as “city of light”, even the locals call it “little England”
In 1815, the British were handed the colonial mantle of Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was then) by the Dutch, who had in turn taken it over from the Portuguese. But the British were the first to delve deeper in the the mountainous central region, then named Kandy after it’s capital city. They planted coffee and failed, then tea to great success, and left their footprint everywhere, not least at the hotel where we have taken up residence for three days.
If you go onto Trip Advisor and read the reviews for the Hill Club, you will not stay there. “Dirty”, “Stuffy”, “Unkempt”, “Outdated colonial bigotry” are some of the comments that come up. And, it’s true. The Hill Club is a pompous, old-monied, balding man in tweed with velour elbow patches and gravy dribbled on his jodhpurs. And….
Booking was a disaster – we booked two rooms months ago on otel.com, and only days ago, discovered that everyone had ignored my four requests for adjoining rooms “because of our young children”, and suddenly we found that we could not stay there because children under 5 were not allowed in the club. After about 15 emails and two international phone calls, they finally managed to fit us in a Family suite in the “Chalet”. We had also booked a room for our Sri Lankan Nanny (who joined us from Dubai), and were told at the last minute that she could not stay at the club because she was Sri Lankan (???!!!) And….
The rooms are cold, and only supplied with a one-bar heater. The carpet is worn and even ripped in places. They only supply our room with three towels despite the fact that obviously we are a family of four, in a four-bed room. Because of our three year old son, we are banned from dining in the club, instead having to take our meals in the Chalet. The service is slow beyond compare.
Our booking company Red Dot Tours, stepped in just before we arrived and handled everything, putting otel.com and the Hill Club management to shame, even though I had stupidly booked through another company and they made no commission off our stay there.
The Hill Club apologize obsequiously (quite fun to watch, really) for the inability to house Mary, and quickly arrange a room for her at an almost sickly sweet B and B called Glendower, just around the corner.
The rooms are enormous, the Chalet charming, and there is a dining room with a sofa and TV and over 1000 free DVDs to choose from. Given that it is a family area, noise and mess flourish. Two butlers are to serve just our family for the duration, bringing us Tanquerays at sundown, silver-serving us dinner on the crispest of white linen, gently warming our marmalade for breakfast, and even putting velour-covered hot water bottles in our beds as we finish our dessert. How could you NOT like a hot water bottle?
The gardens are immaculate. Hedgerows, fuchsia, velvet lawns, pristine vegetable gardens, winding flagstone paths, enchantingly crumbing tennis courts, ancient conifers, smiling security guards with feathers in their caps, picket fence lines…And everywhere secret nooks with table and chair, perfectly positioned to view the garden and the pages of a great novel.
And the Clubhouse… The outside is all blue-stone and griffin crests, and the inside is a shrine to fading colonialism. The telephones still have dials on them, mahogany and teak abounds, de-bodied elk and boar stare menacingly down through glass eyes. First a rest in the reading room to eat warmed cashew nuts and sip Kir while thumbing the pages of back issues of the New Yorker. Next, the serpentine bar for a Bloody Mary – and although I cannot imagine the likes of Somerset Maughn slumped over it dreaming of something epically prosaic, I do see the need to compose something in the stuffy grandeur of this room. Maybe a poem? Or at least a condescending letter to imaginary children in a hoity toity boarding school back in the old country (Or maybe a blog post…) After, a Cognac in the Billiard room, where it is a struggle to reach half the shots due to the gargantuan table, and the staff stand by to compliment your shots and give the occasional golf-clap.
I find the need to start speaking with a lisp on my “th” sounds and a plum in my mouth, and the persona arriving upon me also demands a horseriding gait and a problem with gin and tonics. We snigger at the place, but secretly enjoy the old-school experience. We roll our eyes at the poor service, but marvel at the effort. We stumble back down the gently sloping lawn to the Chalet to relieve Mary of her babysitting duty and cuddle up with the kids in bunk beds with “hot botties” and then retiring to our own bed after sleep has taken them, dream that we are part of the British East India Company, pioneers in this mysterious outpost, and in on one of the greatest secrets in the world.
My advice for anyone booking in Sri Lanka, use a booking company. It is not Europe, or even Thailand. You will need a driver to navigate the treacherous and unsignposted roads, and someone who speaks the language to sort out the inevitable issues. Tourism is only just restarting after years of war and a Tsunami, and you will not find many large hotel chains out of Colombo, but instead guesthouses and B & Bs and boutique hotels. They take weeks to respond to emails, if at all, and if in fact they even have an email address. The images on the websites are often misleading, and you may come across hidden rules such as we did at the Hill Club (which is in fact a “club” and not a hotel). Instead, call a booking agency, and double-check their prices with hotel booking engines, and bargain if they try to overcharge you. I would recommend Red Dot Tours to anybody (Jonah was my email contact, and Hasantha was our driver).
There are other placed to stay in the Nuwara Eliya area if “old-and-crusty” is not your cup of ceylon-tea (personally I kind of like it). We had a lovely dinner at the Grand Hotel, and it is a shinier and less squeaky wheel than the Hill Club. We have been told the Tea Factory is the best in the area, but is quite some distance out of town. Glendower was also very sweet, and had the most incredible mahogany bar I would have liked to warm my throat in if there had been time (although Mary’s room did smell a bit damp and musty).