The spirit of St. Andrews | Daily News

The spirit of St. Andrews


Juliet Coombe walked back in time on a historic tour of heritage gem Jetwing St. Andrews infamous for its popular Road Hole bar and superb old world hospitality.

As I stand at the road entrance to Jetwing St Andrews in the heart of historic Nuwara Eliya, looking up across pristine gardens and at the grand façade of this colonial styled building, with the wonderfully long covered grand staircase to reception, I can imagine how it must have felt, back in the heydays of tea-growing, to visit such establishments where perfection was an excellent cup of tea, taken at precisely 4.30pm, amongst perfectly presented gardens, with people dressed largely in white going about the leisurely business of practising their tennis, observing plant and tree life, chatting gaily with each other and occasionally saddling the horses or jumping into a Bentley for a thrilling ride up the high hills surrounding this beautiful hotel in its breath-taking setting.

The property was originally just a plot of land given by the Crown to a faithful civil servant in 1875 who seems to have sold off bits of it and built the original house that later became the Scots Club. Ishanda, my historic guide and well known naturalist now world famous for his frog watching tours, tells me, “We don’t know for sure but the name, St Andrews, may come from a combination of the Scots Club and the golf course just beyond the bottom of the garden where the 9th hole has been named St Andrews and where the owner swapped a strip of land elsewhere in exchange for what is now the 10th tee.” Looking across the golf course I have never seen so many huge eucalyptus trees in my life and reckon, probably erroneously that some must be 100 metres high.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s when the house became a hotel and over the course of time bits have been added on here and there, which might make it seem hotchpotch but doesn’t actually detract from it in any way as all the additions look stunning and make for a very interesting looking and feeling hotel. As we walk along the corridors Ishanda points out the mainly red tiled floor and tells me, “It is 127 years old.” I try to imagine all the feet that have fallen upon these tiles, they do look really old but I wonder why they aren’t more worn in the middle but I’m quickly distracted by other rich features in the hotel such as the pictures of antique invoices on the wall and a menu, the simplest I’ve ever seen that really is just a schedule of courses; soup, fish, entrees, joints, vegetables, savoury, sweets, cheese, dessert and finally coffee. During the years before the Great War, the hotel hosted mostly people connected with horse riding and racing and stables were built for some famous champion horses of the time such as ‘Orange William’. The other remarkable fact is that the farm workers were given free accommodation, presumably in lieu of the food they provided directly to the hotel and a good way of keeping them in this vital job, as a hotel without food is, well, not really much of a hotel! Racing was then abolished and the stabling was turned into the ‘cot’ and ‘crib’ accommodation rooms, which are on the northwestern hill beside the hotel.

The now 40 bedroom hotel, bought by a syndicate headed by Arthur Ephraums, was managed by the De Zilwa family from 1919 to 1924 when they left to set up their own hotel, only to return again in 1933 after the Great Depression had left the hotel closed. The family bought it and went on to enrich the place for the next 43 years to 1976, working through two generations and having a 60th wedding anniversary, though sadly in Australia where they all ended up living. They provided many facilities and fun things to do for their guests, including a very grand full size 117 year old billiards table from Calcutta that still remains in what was formerly the Dance room fairly central to the hotel, in a magnificent high sided, wood panelled squarish and bright room. We then moved onto the old dining room where Ishanda pointed out to me the extraordinary looking red ceiling, “They originally though it was made of copper but no-one seems to know what metal it is actually made from,” he tells me.

The hotel played its part in WW2 by looking after oil-soaked British servicemen that were rescued from the Japanese, who sunk their ship HMS Hermes off the east coast of Sri Lanka. Another charitable act carried out by the hotel was performed when the Tamil labourers in Sri Lanka were declared stateless on independence in 1948, forcing the government into the position of processing a mass of applications for citizenship, which they couldn’t cope with; a second government office, kachcheri, was set up in the hotel.

The hotel was sold to Gerald Earnstchft Milhuisen, after whom the most deluxe suite in the hotel is named, GEM, who after a further ten years sold it to Jetwing, which has since added a new main kitchen, a fascinating show kitchen, a neat little walk-in wine cellar, another accommodation wing and upgrades to the staff wings, which have helped turn the hotel into the top class five star establishment it is today, along with the visionary practise of training local staff in a special way to run it. I found the staff unfailingly polite yet easy going and in many cases they enhance your experience with their enthusiasm and cheerfulness.

As I say farewell and thank you to Ishanda I walk back down the extended staircase; apparently this was created in the past to accommodate coaches that lacked the horsepower necessary to climb the steep incline; perhaps it is time to roll out Orange William again for old times sake and now that racing is back in fashion and causes the whole town in April to be a total sell out.

I then walk back down the immaculate gardens, pausing to marvel at Dharshan Kumar’s prowess with topiary; a teacup, a teapot, an elephant, a peacock and even a fisherman fishing out of the pond number amongst his many finer trimmings. As I leave to return to the Cottage by Jetwing I look back longingly at the hotel one more time wishing I could stay much longer, as the light is dimming towards evening before I again get lost in the hustle and bustle of Nuwara Eliya where lots of exciting street food is being sold.

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