There’s never been a better time to visit the tropical island of Sri Lanka, located just off the southern coast of India. The country spent much of the past 30 years in civil war, but, since 2009, when the government defeated the insurgent Tamil Tigers, the peace has held.
Despite its relatively tiny size—Sri Lanka is about the same size as Ireland or West Virginia—the country boasts extraordinary geographic, meteorological and cultural contrasts. A fifteen-minute walk can take you from the beating sun of the salt pans to the breezy respite of the cinnamon hills. You can wake up sweltering on the coast and go to bed in the mountains, fervently wishing you had packed an extra pair of socks.
It is also a diverse and tolerant place where Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists share the island. Unlike many parts of India, it’s fine for women to wear bikinis on the beach.
But it is the villas that really elevate the holiday experience in Sri Lanka to another level. These luxurious pleasure domes boast a full retinue of staff, amazing chefs and astonishing locations.
This villa, designed by Geoffrey Bawa, the most celebrated Sri Lankan architect of all time, perches on the cliffs above Dikwella beach near the town of Tangalle and is one of the most remarkable houses in Sri Lanka.
Claughton House, which Bawa originally built in 1984 as a guest house, is now privately owned by the American financial services executive, Brian Brille. Inexplicably, Claughton is barely mentioned in many of the official histories of Sri Lankan architecture, and it remains something of an undiscovered gem, but it is a masterclass in Bawa’s contextual modernism, which set the stage for so much of what was to follow in Sri Lanka.
Rolling down the side of a steep hill towards the sea, Claughton does what all Sri Lanka’s finest houses do, and skillfully blurs the line between outside and inside. At Claughton, you get all the benefits of being outside when you are inside (namely a cool natural breeze) and all the advantages of being inside when you are outside (namely shelter from the beating sun). The main living space;€“ furnished with immovable concrete sofas, table and benches which are actually cast into the polished concrete floor – is built on three different levels, connected by steps and covered over by a giant pavilion. The levels, each a little more exposed to the elements than the last, cascade down the hillside, which itself rolls towards the original Bawa pool, before land surrenders to the cliffs and the sea.
Because the humid climate and salty air wreaks havoc on all structures great and small there are very few old houses in Sri Lanka. But, at 170 years old, Bethany 101, located on the outskirts of the small town of Puttalam, is still standing. Built by a family of rich Muslim merchants, the extraordinarily ornate villa;€“ which was painstakingly restored in 2013;€” boasts an incredible array of original furniture. This is not to say there are no mod-cons; the villa has probably the best audio-visual equipment in Sri Lanka, but you may find you prefer the natural noises in the oasis-like garden filled with frangipani trees. Next door;€“ but part of the same original building and owned by a member of the same family;€” is the Monsoon villa (which also has wonderful original furniture), the turret of which towers like an ambitious wedding cake above the surrounding buildings.
The Mountbatten Villa at the Wallawwa
The word “wallawwa€” means something approximating “€˜manor house”€™ in Sinhala, one of the Sri Lankan national tongues, and the Wallawwa hotel, located in bucolic countryside just 20 minutes from Sri Lanka’€™s only international airport of Colombo, is an old colonial home that was owned by the Dias-Abeysinghe family, “€˜Maha Mudaliyar” (Head Chieftain), of Galle. The property was occupied by the Royal Air Force during the period 1939-1945, when the Queen’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was Commander-in-Chief of the South-East Asian command, the headquarters of which were in Ceylon. Today his€™ apartments have been transformed into a standalone, two-bedroom villa at this extremely comfortable, full-service hotel. A private pool and room service, complete with fruit and vegetables from the Wallawwa’s 5-acre garden, means celebrities and other demanding types can enjoy complete privacy from the other guests.
Talaramba Reef, Mirissa
One of the largest villas in Sri Lanka, able to sleep 16 in comfort in eight double bedrooms, Talaramba Reef is understandably popular for big parties. The reason for its enormous capacity is that villa actually comprises two similar villas —Villa Sulanga and Villa Vatura each of which has its own pool —built side by side and connected with a stunning art-filled colonnade which recalls classic Sri Lankan colonial design. The two expatriate owners, Oonagh Toner and Sarah Pringle, are best friends and avid art collectors. They make a habit of choosing new and exciting artworks by local and street artists. The local beach, which you can hear crashing on the shore just yards away, is suitable for walking and rock-hopping, and gorgeous Mirissa beach, with its amazing waves for surfing and swimming is just a few minutes away by tuk-tuk, or for those really in search of local color, an exhilarating 20-cent bus ride.
For one of the most indulgent Raj-style villa experiences in Sri Lanka, check in to Indisch, which boasts a staff of 16 full time cooks, cleaners, gardeners and drivers which means you will never have to lift a finger, unless you want to, in which case the masterful chef, one of Sri Lanka’€™s finest, will happily teach you how to make his signature curries. The large and elegant beach side Dutch colonial style house, owned by Indonesia-based expatriate Australians David and Elizabeth Dawborn, and managed by their Sri Lankan friend Wije, has five large superbly appointed bedrooms, a vast, sweeping staircase which recalls a British stately home, large living and dining rooms and an oversized verandah overlooking the ocean, ideal for taking afternoon tea and cake. The home is decorated with the owner’s extensive collection of colonial era antiques, Buddhist statues and modern art from around Asia. The garden boasts a free-standing separate curry house for enjoying wonderful wood-fired Sri Lankan curries.
A deliciously large T-shaped pool juts out onto one of the most beautiful beaches for miles around. You can walk on the soft sand and admire the sight of Sri Lanka’s famous stick fishermen, balancing on poles driven into the sand a few dozen yards out at sea, dropping their rods into the water from the comfort of their dry perches.
Ulagalla Villas Anaradhapura
The amazing ancient cities of Anaradhupura and Siguria form two sides of the “€˜cultural triangle”€™ in the north of the country, and indulgent Ulagalla is located equidistant between the two, making it a perfect base for exploring both sites. The hotel contains 20 fully private villas – all with their own plunge pools. Transport around the car-free 58-acre site is either by golf cart or bicycle. The vast majority of food consumed in the old manor house at the heart of Ulagalla is organically grown on the farm itself. A solar farm generates more than half the electricity used on site to help assuage any guilt pangs. As much as you know you really should be off exploring the historic sites, life around the Ulagalla estate with its astonishing array of bird life is so beguiling, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make it.
If you visit Sri Lanka you really should stay at least a night or two in the remarkable Galle Fort. Just as the aristocratic, arty, ex-public school boho set flocked to Marrakech (and then spread out into the surrounding hinterland) in the 50’s and 60s, a similar invasion is now taking place in the historic walled city of Galle. Described by one frequent visitor as being, “more socially exclusive than Gloucestershire,” Galle Fort is now home to a dizzying array of characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a novel by Nancy Mitford or Evelyn Waugh. Prime houses regularly change hands in Galle Fort for upwards of $5 million these days— an unthinkable figure even five years ago. We suggest you stay at Malabar House, an immaculately restored double height Dutch traders house dating from the eighteenth century. Owners David and Katrina Salt have given the four-bedroom house a Moorish feel, with thick, whitewashed stone walls, a light and airy reception hall and a stunning courtyard with a bijou plunge pool for cooling off. Outside space is at a premium in Galle Fort, so all available flat roofs have been converted into outside sitting and lounging areas.
The Bawa Pavillion at Jetwing Lagoon
The revered architect Geoffrey Bawa’s very first hotel project was initially known as the Blue Lagoon, and it was located in the beach town of Negombo, a stone’s throw from the capital Colombo. In its day it was the epitome of Sri Lankan glamour. After falling into disrepair and being used as a hotel school, the property was acquired by the Jetwing group a few years back, and has now been immaculately restored and reborn as one of the best hotels in Sri Lanka. It is also the only one featuring a 100-metre swimming pool. Much of the original Bawa architecture has been retained and in some cases rebuilt, including the striking water tower and this raised “studio villa” now know as the Bawa Pavilion. It is effectively one single room, with a large bathroom and tub screened off from the main living space with translucent glass. Romantic and deeply impractical for anything other than lounging around in with your loved one all day, which could explain why these days it is marketed as the Jetwing Lagoon’s Honeymoon Suite.
The Ivory House
Owned by a jet set couple, one of whom is the manager of a luxury hotel in London’€™s West End and the other of whom runs his own global trend forecasting company, the Ivory House is utter perfection. A few miles inland from the madness of the beach, surrounded by rice paddy fields and palm trees, this former colonial house has been lovingly rebuilt by the pair. The colonial feel still pervades. For instance, witness the perfectly shaded nine foot-wide veranda for dining. But it is also layered with a contemporary modern aesthetic. The coolness of the cavernous sitting room, polished concrete floors and white walls is cleverly offset with the warmth of several European antique pieces, such as the dresser in the kitchen and the old chest of drawers in the sitting room. The garden is simple and clean in keeping with the aesthetic of the house—a gravel drive, an azure pool and palm trees with a family of wild monkeys.
If you yearn for a Robinson Crusoe experience, then head for Taprobane Island, just off the beach of stunning Weligama Bay. The island is the sultanate of Anglo-Irish businessman and philanthropist Geoffrey Dobbs, who has spent millions creating some of the best boutique hotels in Sri Lanka. Everyone arrives there by foot, wading through the ocean which can be waist-high, until you reach steps which connect to a small bridge which extends into the sea from the gate of the island. On arrival at most Sri Lankan villas you are handed a cool drink. Here you also get a fresh, fluffy towel to dry your feet. The neo-Palladian mansion peeks out above the jungle and palms which sprout all over the island. It was built in the 1920s by a roguish French philanderer named Maurice de Mauny, who promptly restyled himself Count de Mauny when he arrived in Ceylon at the beginning of the Great War. The Count memorably described the sea as “turquoise blue, streaked with amethyst-purple,” with “nothing between me and the South Pole.” (Courtesy Yahoo Travel)