Amangalla Sri Lanka GM Karen Merrick talks about seeing the South Asian island country through new eyes

She recommends places to visit for first timers.

Merrick: Amangalla not only embodies the peace after which it takes its name, but also authenticity and immersions that are simply good for the soul (All photos: Amangalla)

Options: It has been about six months since you took up your current position at Amangalla in Galle, Sri Lanka. What have been some key moments to date?
Karen Merrick:
Coming in to run a property with so much history, moreover an Aman resort, has its own rewards. Personally, it is always about seeing the potential and realigning things with its original concept.

Which elements of Galle or Sri Lanka as a whole proved most attractive in making the decision to move?
While Galle itself is charming and a must-visit, Amangalla is like a museum. You can feel the history at every turn and, being the tallest building in the historic Galle Fort, we also have unparalleled views looking out to sea. You could almost see old galleons or steam ships in your mind’s eye. On to Galle, most people you speak to would say spending one night here is enough. However, after moving here and seeing what there is to do inside and outside of the fort, coupled with guest feedback, two to three nights seem about right, especially if you are on a curated island-wide journey. I have also had the pleasure of visiting Colombo several times over the past 20 years and I can safely say Sri Lanka is a complete destination, overwhelmingly diverse and it offers everything from culture to wildlife, highlands to beaches …  Add to that historic sites like Galle and, of course, the 340-year-old Amangalla.

You mentioned a penchant for working at boutique properties. Tell us more.
It is my passion! I love their feel and how they are created. At the start of my career, I was lucky enough to have been involved in the UK’s first group of boutique hotels. It was avant-garde, daring to be different. Now, as I speak to you sitting in another remarkable, bijou property, Amangalla not only embodies the peace after which it takes its name, but also authenticity and immersions that are simply good for the soul — oftentimes without the guests realising it. I consider myself lucky to have been custodian of several types of boutique hotels, from a very modern 12-suiter in Jakarta to a high-end private island in Cambodia whose ethos was sustainability, a few beautiful properties in the Maldives as well as a Scottish castle.


Amangalla lies within the ramparts of Sri Lanka’s 17th-century Galle Fort, a Unesco World Heritage Site

You were also based in Malaysia before, were you not?
My role on Redang Island, from around 2009 to 2013, was wonderful. I was tasked to re-energise a very large property that catered to different guest types and offerings. Of course, it had the most beautiful beach on earth and I was fortunate to have enjoyed carte blanche in many areas. The owner’s family was very gracious with my ideas.

What do you miss most about the country?
Every time I wrap up a role, my husband and I would quickly sneak over and make it our base for a few months. We both love Malaysia for its shopping, culture, to-die-for food and the nicest people. I have had family living in Malaysia since 2005 — in fact, my nephew and niece were born there — although they recently moved to the Middle East. Food-wise, I dream of the char kway teow, even after all this time. The best, in my opinion, was one fried by an aunty at her roadside stall in Terengganu. I also like Serai at Pavilion KL. The food is great and the portions are big, so we’d always end up sharing.

Sri Lanka has had a tumultuous past. What advice would you give the wary traveller?
There have been some unlucky incidents, but I can safely say there is new energy and I can see how hard everyone is trying to be supportive — of both the people and the returning international tourists. Now is really the perfect time to come. If it is your first time, you must visit the tea country and the interiors (Udawalawa or Yala National Parks), then head south along the coast to Tangalle, where we have our breathtaking beachfront sister property, Amanwella, and then to Galle Fort for culture, history, museums and shopping.

And what about when you go home to Edinburgh?
I am predictable. After a long absence, I like to realign by sitting in a coffee shop to understand the pace and also what everyone is saying — the result of living in Asia for too long. I then go to see the castles, museums and galleries. Immersions are so important, regardless of where you live. I have lived in both Edinburgh and Glasgow equally but am originally from the Scottish highlands, so travel is definitely in my blood.


Reflecting Galle Fort’s rich colonial legacy, Amangalla’s serene rooms are housed within the historic hotel that has welcomed guests for over 150 years

Would you then have a favourite whisky to match with Sri Lankan food?
Amangalla does good rice and curries, and I would say their prawn curry with coconut would pair perfectly with a Glenmorangie 10 Year Old, allowing the flavours of the seafood to shine through, accented with the light sweetness of the dram. And contrary to our forefathers’ belief, please add a splash of water to soften the balance between prawn, coconut and whisky.

What are you reading right now?
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje. It was recommended by one of our long-staying Amangalla guests and offers a wonderful take on family life in Ceylon. I have been quite busy, so the reading has been a bit stop-and-start, but it’s a firm recommendation nonetheless. My next read is Galle As Quiet as Asleep by Norah Roberts, which highlights the city’s history through her eyes.

What are you listening to right now?
I love music and jazz, especially if it’s by Oscar Peterson, a personal favourite. I have it on in one ear while working to kick-start those little grey cells. I am also drawn to vibrational frequencies. To unwind, I use Solfeggio frequencies or meditational sounds, which also serve as a brain detox.

Describe your idea of a perfect weekend.
My spiritual home is Cambodia, having lived there for three years. I can think of nowhere better to spend a weekend than Siem Reap. But since Sri Lanka is now home, a weekend in Colombo is always nice or a night in Tangalle just for the beach. I am also a resident of the Maldives and call it my other home, but you would want to stay for more than a weekend — four days at least.


This article first appeared on May 6, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.

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