Helga's Folly: A Review Of The Famed 'Anti-Hotel'

A uniquely kitsch Sri Lankan hotel that has housed everyone from The Stereophonics and Ghandi to Paula Yates and Laurence Olivier.
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A uniquely kitsch Sri Lankan hotel that has housed everyone from The Stereophonics and Ghandi to Paula Yates and Laurence Olivier.

It was touch and go. We’d worked through all but one on our list of hotels in Kandy and none of them had vacancies around New Year’s Eve. The last, Helga’s Folly, sounded a bit self-consciously kitsch and eccentric, but when I phoned, the guy on the other end said they had rooms, and I jumped at them without even bothering to ask the price. A piece of advice – don’t ever do that.

At least we knew we weren’t going to be sleeping in the street. And though it lacked some of the little things we were used to, like a telly in our room, it was supposed to make up for this with charm, character and great views from its hillside location above the town.

When our driver finally found the multicoloured mansion poking out of the jungle flora and we ditched up at reception, there seemed to be no record of our reservation. Oh-oh, touch and go time again. We waited in a sitting room that was open to the garden outside and decked out and overstuffed with antique furniture, art deco lampshades, Hammer horror-style dripping candelabra and avant-garde murals straight out of the Psychedelic Sixties, until a house boy served us fruit cocktails and the concierge confirmed that we were in. This was a great and immediate relief to us, until he said it was $190 a night. At this point we didn’t care. What were we gonna to do, tell him to stuff it, we’d sleep in the street after all? We waved away the clothes moths and let them lead us to our rooms.

We got number 2, the room where Kelly Jones was inspired to write the song ‘Madame Helga’. This information was splashed in garish paint across the balcony wall. The room was done out in playground black and yellow, with a painting of a tiger’s head that might have been executed by a primary school kid. I didn’t know the Stereophonics song in question. For its pedigree of association, it had some way to go to compete with the Anton Chekhov suite that we’d stayed in in Colombo.

Nonetheless, it’s probably the roll call of the good and the great that makes Helga’s Folly the hotel of choice for a certain class of visitor. Its grandly named owner, Helga de Silva Blow Perera, married into money while working as a model in London in the Sixties (her daughter, Selina Blow, is a fashion designer with a Sloane Street outlet) but inherited the mansion from her mother, whose home it previously was. Over the years it played host to guests ranging from Gandhi to Paula Yates, and its unique, individually appointed rooms witnessed a three-way love spat between Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Peter Finch when the last two were filming and fornicating in Sri Lanka in the early Sixties. A fuller history is available from the press cuttings that festoon the halls and staircases. Nowadays, the old place does a neat little trade in Hello! style weddings complete with elaborately dressed elephants and lots of Kandyan dancing and drumming.

There is certainly a special feeling to it all when you’re sitting with a gin and tonic on the veranda listening to the nostalgic stylings of Nat King Cole, and the somewhat Morticia-like Madame Helga herself comes out of her hallowed cloisters to greet you in person. In addition, its reputation for dining is high, in an atmosphere that is shamelessly intimate and couply.

But the glamour may be just a little faded, the swimming pool, with its acid-flashback statuary, in need of a good clean, the mosquito net with holes and ceiling fan over the bed that doesn’t work more irksome than quirky, the rooms kept not quite clean enough, the service not quite up to scratch, for the amount you’re expected to shell out for the privilege.

Helga’s Folly is trading on its past glory, for sure, but it remains an unforgettable experience.

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