Juliet Coombe discovers a colourful lifestyle historic house/hotel concept ANTIC with stunningly vibrant rooms, highlighting how the historic buildings were made with coral and shells, ranging up to regal suites overlooking the magnificent rampart walls.

Mohamed Irfan Ismail, creator of ANTIC, a hotel brand that celebrates the history and the living artistry of Galle Fort’s merchant life, was himself born in this ancient citadel four decades ago; the love for it has never left him. Ismail spent his early childhood years exploring the old colonial houses where family and friends lived and would share wonderful stories over mouth-watering food and spice-tea. And, as the sun set, he would play cricket on the rampart walls near his historic home, 68 Leyn Baan, and it was in these halcyon years that he realised the true importance of the four hundred year old Fort Galle. However, the thirty-year civil war forced his family to look overseas for work opportunities and education, something which Ismail hugely appreciates, as he knows how much this has taught him from learning French to business skills and, most importantly of all, the true value of his historic home.

A surprise element

Ismail, over tea, will wax lyrical, ‘the fort is so special, with its mystique and magical charms that are something you can’t really explain; it’s something you have to experience.’ It was out of this that his wish to share ANTIC was born and he combined all his skills as a designer and salesman, ‘I am a passionate gemologist by profession,’ and one can see this in his ANTIC jewellery collection, which mixes the artistry of history with vibrant interior designs that form the ANTIC Galle Fort jewellery collection that captures the iconic spirit of the fort. Even his light fittings set into a boat helm are made from different coloured bottles and to tell the story of the fort, instead of being in pictures inside, he has made the exterior frame work of the building his gallery space, to depict the colourful story of colonial history, trade and tradition, for the world and all that walk past. Ismail explains, ‘They might not stay this time…but they will remember the art which is full of stories and return and that is all any hotelier wants.’

As an entrepreneur with a love of the French language and the golden age of trade, when the Dutch East Company ruled the waves, Ismail is not frightened to wave the rules to create truly special experiences for his clients from a dream wedding, complete with ox cart procession, to celebrations with a surprise element, including cooking classes that dare to be different, teaching you the art of making ‘short eats’ and throwing roti like a professional. For him, the client is king or queen as he puts it, with a twinkle in his eyes and he would rather everyone remembered the city and the kindness of its people than have to put their credit card on life support. Why? Well, its simple; Ismail wants you to tell everyone, as nothing, not even Google, is as powerful as word-of-mouth. His long term ambition, being a modern day merchant with vision and a love of the high seas, is to create ANTIC as a global brand so he can show the world how important historically his island Sri Lanka is, and in the process share its rare qualities of hospitality that you will have to search the world hard to match.

The ancient citadel

Ask him why this is so important and he will explain that Muslims are highly respected here and part of a community made up of all religions. Muslims are proud to take part in organising Sinhalese festival sports, contributing to cultural events and being part of the annual Buddhist Vesak festival, feeding all that visit the ancient citadel over the two-day religious holidays. It is a place where people, young and old, matter and the ancient wisdom of sharing is more important than what you gain in this lifetime; people have the wisdom in their souls that tells them it is not what you tweet or post on Facebook that matters, but the knowledge you leave behind for future generations.

Ismail, in a bid to save these historical houses, this season, has opened the stunning ANTIC 64 and also the ANTIC Shaheen Falcon House, where the author of ‘Around The Galle Fort in 80 Lives’ once lived, with the best positioned four-bedroom villa property, with en suite bathroom overlooking the walls and old working Lighthouse that can be enjoyed in the heart of the old city. A place where, through her many books and typed notes, you will discover the true voodoo of this fascinating spot. A place she says is ‘An area populated by traditions, inherited and invented, inverted and subverted.’ As the rays cross over the walls and then light up the rooms of this delightful four-bedroom villa, one can sit outside on tea planters’ chairs and watch the lighthouse guide the fishermen and occasional cruise vessels safely back into the harbour.

An extraordinary place

Staying in one of ANTIC’s portfolio of historic houses is like living poetry, full of old worldly opulence and all the colours of a rainbow, shrouded not by water but by men and women, spanning the entire genealogy of genes and a race whose story is spun on a mosaic-like pastiche and fabric, composed of architecture consisting of a fragile beauty and robust synthesis. A naturally agile environment, tamed by its dwellers, left over from the golden age of trade, untamed by its possibilities and a language astutely and acutely coloured by comical humour and laconic intelligence.

Galle Fort, in truth, is a heaving behemoth of idyll and irony, a haunting paean and lusty song that inspires the Fairway Galle Literary Festival of writing, gourmet food events and other important cultural shows. ANTIC now lets you share this quirky paradise; a simple world with incredible historic sites, where people still matter more than anything else, and the only noise is the seagulls and crows, mixed with the rickety racket of the fish sellers on singer bikes, and the musical din of the daily street food vendors blended with the call to prayer five times a day, the clatter of church bells and the Buddhist daily chants. An extraordinary place where curses become accursed, cupid rests in potions and religion is why the spirit of the place lives on in everyone who visits, staying in one of ANTIC’S fabulous collection of properties, from the Artist House, which is beyond fabulous at 3/1 new lane 1, Fort Galle, to number 64 on Leyn Baan Street and now 42, Hospital Street, opposite the lighthouse and by the Meran mosque; there is truly something here for everyone who wants to experience life the way the people of the old quarter have done for generations and in stunning interiors that are playful, fun as well as theatrical, which will make every stay truly memorable.

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