At the heart of Sri Lanka - those magnificent old-world hotels beside the lake

Kandy Hotels

Where the foothills rise in emerald ranks to the rugged crags of the highlands; where a jade valley lies skirted by the island's longest river; where the paddies are gently terraced, is the royal city of Kandy, now a bustling, lively city grown out of ancient will and hoary splendour.

Kandy has been immortalised in prose and song by many and here, like a mist-drenched sapphire, is a gently rippling lake. It is beside this lake that the two best-known hotels of this region proudly stand: The Hotel Suisse, and the Queen's Hotel.

Today, as we look across the lake from the Queen's Hotel and the graceful Hotel Suisse, history shouts at us to see the city and the sacred precincts of the Temple of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha. We see the old Royal Audience Hall built in 1784 where the story goes that the ghost of its architect still rises from the waters of the lake on the nights of the full moon in deference to the great temple. It is said that in his hands he holds the silver measuring rod which he used in building the upper chamber of the temple. It was in this chamber 182 years ago that the treaty conceding the historic kingdom of Kandy to the British was signed.

There were no roads around the lake then but two buildings did stand: one beside the southern boundary, the other along the north. The first was to become the charming Queen's Hotel; the other, the Hotel Suisse. So much lies at the doorsteps of these hotels. A striking Kandyan Art Museum was built in 1774 and there is always the soothing call of the temple.

And so to the famous hotels beside the lake, each embracing with a fervent spirit an old-fashioned love or even reverence, for the Kandy of both past and present. They are proud of their quiet charm, their feet planted in times long past, their heads turned towards the future. It is right that we should consider them together, for they are both the prime properties of a single company today - the Kandy Hotels Company (1938) Limited.

The British once quartered their troops in the Queen's Hotel building; the Hotel Suisse building was the residence of the Chief Minister of the old Kandyan Court in charge of the granaries. Let us first look at the Suisse, as it was and is today.

With the fall of Kandy to the British, an officer of the colonial army occupied it, calling it 'Haramby House'. He later sold to a Swiss gentleman who made it a guest house, the Suisse Hotel. Later he gave it over to a group, the Hotel Suisse (Kandy) Limited. Then came the years of the Second World War and the arrival of the British South-East Asia Command in Kandy. Again, the army moved in to the Suisse, making it an administration and pay office under Lord Louis Mountbatten.

When the war ended, it took time to renovate and refurbish the hotel, but it came back into its own. It stands today on more than two acres of land in one of the best developed and finest residential areas of the city: very modern and luxurious, it is pervaded by an atmosphere of rare gentility, still keeping touch with the past. There is a King Rajasinghe suite and a Mountbatten suite, three floors of well-appointed rooms, a helipad, conference facilities, a shopping centre, open lounge bars and a nightclub maintained as a parkland around the pool. It is one of Kandy's finest chunks of real estate. Why, just five years ago, its market value was above US$4 million!

Across the lake the southern building, strong and functional, began to serve as a mess for the officers of the British Rifles Regiment in the 1820s. This same mess hall can still be traced within the complex where the present Queen's dining and banquet hall now lies. A less significant part became a royal boarding house with its arches and timbered floors; it is now part of the hotel's central wing. It was in 1895 that the complex was transferred to the Kandy Hotels Company Limited. Genesis and growth have been the hallmarks of these magnificent hotels, reminding the visitor of the days of royal grandeur, of the turbulence of war and the ease of peace. The Queen's Hotel grew like a strong tree and remains the finest and grandest architectural building of its kind today. The past touches your spirit and stays with you - from the old two-gated lift to the broad staircase, bannisters gleaming warmly. Set deep in the foyer is the old brass-topped letterbox, the reception counter of warm buffed mahogany, the panelled ceilings, the cosy feel of slatted floors and the vastness of the foyer's columns and arches.

Of added significance is the way the life of the city swirls around: the colourful bazaars, the shops, the markets overflowing with the wares of the east and the kerbside stalls with a range of goods. You step out and you are in the arms of a modern Kandy; you retreat to the poolside and there, beneath spreading champak trees and with the sun smiling down a benediction, you feel that the bustle of Kandy is a hundred miles away.

It was on 20 December 1937 that the newspapers announced the amalgamation of these two hotels. What has followed over these past 60 years is a record of breathtaking improvement, most markedly under the present management of the Kandy Hotels Company (1938) Limited. The Queen's and Suisse Hotels have not changed: they will always remain hotels one would be privileged to stay in. They are old, handsome and elegant. Taking advantage of their city locations, many welcome features have been added, particularly at the Queen's Hotel. Today, this hotel has three spanking new outlets that are the city's hottest favourites - firstly, a truly authentic Chinese restaurant where Chinese chefs offer you the marvels of the Chinese kitchen and the unforgettable dishes of Canton, Peking, Szechuan and Shanghai. Secondly, there is a pastry shop with melt-in-the-mouth savouries and, finally, the only genuine British pub in the Central Province, indeed the entire island, where that old colonial flavour remains with every foaming tankard of beer.

So the Queen's and the Suisse Hotels are not ultra-modern and are not crazy about overly smart people. There is a caring atmosphere, genuine warmth, a feeling of solidarity that is surely as old as time itself where the sincere smiles of truly heart-warming welcome begin with the eyes.

So often has it been said: 'What would Kandy be without these hotels beside the lake?' What indeed? Kandy, for sure, will still be the proud heart of Sri Lanka but there will always be this added garland, or should we say, these laurels it wears so well. As the present Chairman of the hotels company, Kithsiri Wanigasekera, says, he is "holding fast to a vision". It is a vision that will take these hotels into the next millennium - ever tied to the future but bolstered by the past!

For more information, contact Kandy Hotels, Sinhaputhia Building, 11 Hill Street, Kandy, Sri Lanka. Tel: 0094 822 2637 Fax: 0094 823 2721