Mount Lavinia Beach at dusk
Seaside cities do not always have the luxury of a quality beach and pleasing associated resort within their suburbs, but Colombo is fortunate in having Mount Lavinia, whose history is interwoven with the splendid colonial era hotel that bears this name, the focal point of a destination that apparently began with an exotic romance.
Words Richard Boyle Photography Damith Wickramasinghe
In the early 19th Century, the shore-hugging road south of the Fort area of Colombo was "finely shaded by groves of coconut, areca, tamarind, lime, Portia, banyan, and other trees, entwined and interwoven with a rich variety of shrubs" (James Cordiner, 1806). The second British Governor of the newly-acquired colony, Sir Thomas Maitland (1805-1811), took this paradisiacal road one day early in his tenure and travelled 13km before encountering an imposing headland, which divided a lengthy, idyllic golden beach and overlooked a more dramatic rock-strewn and choppy bay.
Maitland was searching for a location to build a new Governor's residence, and no more perfect a place could be found within tolerable distance of the capital. Thus, in late 1805, he began to build his single-storeyed house - employing the characteristic classical mode of architecture of the colonial era - on the promontory and surrounding area known to Sinhala-speakers, then and now, as "Galkissa".
Legend has it that Maitland became entranced by a half-Portuguese half-Sinhalese dancer, Lovina Aponsuwa, who resided in the village of Galkissa. Soon the local dance troupe to which she belonged gave frequent performances for Maitland. They became lovers and in early 1806 he named his residence "Mount Lavinia House" in her honour, and the name of the location became known as "Mount Lavinia" by the colonisers. An underground passage was dug from a disused well near Lovina's house in the village to the cellars of the residence so that their potentially scandalous romance remained clandestine. However, there was a heartbreaking end to the relationship, for in 1811 Maitland fell ill and returned to England, and they never met again.
Legend has it that Maitland became entranced by a half-Portuguese half-Sinhalese dancer, Lovina Aponsuwa, who resided in the village of Galkissa.
There are other theories regarding the origin of "Mount Lavinia". Most prevalent is that "Lavinia" derives from a former name for Galkissa, Lihiniyagala, or "seagull rock". A more obscure theory is that it is derived from a perennial herb, known to the Sinhalese as lavenia (Adenostemma viscosum). But this small plant prefers shady localities, so would be unsuited to Mount Lavinia.
After Maitland's departure the subsequent Governors - Sir Robert Brownrigg (1812-1820), Sir Edward Paget (1822), and Sir Edward Barnes (1824-1831) - resided at Mount Lavinia House. Barnes rebuilt and extended it from 1824. Abandoned as a Governor's residence, it became a boarding house in the 1860s. From the late 19th Century, when Colombo replaced Galle as the island's passenger port, Mount Lavinia became not just the place passed through during the stagecoach or train journey from Galle to the capital, but a fashionable destination for a short sojourn or day excursion for passengers and residents due to its proximity to Ceylon's focal point. Proper accommodation became available from 1877 at the former Governor's residence, initially named The Mount Lavinia Grand Hotel.
The journey from Colombo to Mount Lavinia was made using Galle Road or the railway, both of which run parallel to the sea. The hire of a carriage to Mount Lavinia in 1914 was Rs 7.50, a rickshaw Rs 3.00, but the train, which cost Rs 8.70, was faster and more comfortable, and passengers could disembark at Mount Lavinia station, a stone's throw from the hotel.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, made the journey in 1921 by car, and remarked that Galle Road "has all the colour and life and variety of the East for every inch of the way . . . in that glorious sun, under the blue arch of such a sky, and with the tropical trees and flowers around."
Inevitably this scenario has largely changed in the past 90 years, yet today's visitor, immediately after turning off the Galle Road down Hotel Road or any of the quiet lanes that network Mount Lavinia, will experience the transition to a quiet, pleasant, leafy suburb, with bougainvillea providing a splash of colour. Down these lanes can be found unobtrusive small hotels and guesthouses, ideal for the average budget and within walking distance of the beach and its restaurants.
Those who opt to stay at the Mount Lavinia Hotel or just make a visit to experience the cuisine, will discover, when they pass through an avenue lined with imposing royal palms (Roystonea regia), the gleaming white façade of the old, beautifully maintained part of the building. At the entrance witness the statue of Lovina (now often referred to as "Lady Lavinia") rising from a pool and serenaded by the falling waters of encircling fountains. Make sure you explore the steeply rising staircase that was the original entry to the Governor's residence, to the side of which is the lovers' tunnel, bricked up in 1920. Appreciate the voluminous corridors, the marble floors, and abundance of wood panelling. Then step onto the terrace and take in the stunning views of a gently curving beach and a hazy Colombo in the distance.
Many of the hotel's rooms have an elevated and close-up view of the ocean, such as that experienced on a passenger liner. Indeed one 19th Century wag commented: "Staying at Mount Lavinia has all the advantages of a sea trip without the discomforts." Nevertheless, you cannot enjoy the pleasures of a tropical beach on an ocean voyage! Fortunately, to the south of the promontory the hotel has a pristine 200m-long private beach. (When swimming at Mount Lavinia always beware of undertows that run parallel to the shore).
North of the hotel, past the rocky bay, is the popular public stretch of beach - the "Mount Lavinia Beach" - with its many neighbouring restaurants that meet the sand, similar to resorts such as Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna. These restaurants are predominantly of wooden construction and the facilities often basic. But what relief they provide from the glitzy alternatives in Colombo!
The menus are fairly limited, this is because the restaurants naturally specialise in dishes made from fresh local seafood of every variety imaginable.
Daytime is when these restaurants provide an ideal break from the beach and a means of sustenance. During the weekends especially, Colombo's residents, usually in family clusters, descend on Mount Lavinia Beach. However, Mount Lavinia is most renowned for its relaxed nighttime atmosphere, when the restaurants are full of exuberant tourists and Sri Lankans, the distinctive lighting of each establishment compete with each other, and music prevails, sometimes live. Furthermore, visitors to Mount Lavinia can also explore the Dehiwela Zoo and the Bellanvila Temple, which are a short distance away.
During the weekends especially, Colombo’s residents, usually in family clusters, descend on Mount Lavinia Beach
Mount Lavinia allows you to enjoy the attractions of Colombo while living in a nearby quality beach resort. Just 54km from the Bandaranaike International Airport, it makes for a worthwhile post-arrival or pre-departure destination, especially in August, when visitors travel to Sri Lanka to experience the Kandy Esala Perahera.