Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The following story is extracted from 'Living in Sri Lanka' by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2006)

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Apa Villa

Thalpe, Sri Lanka

Thalpe beach lies five miles south of Galle Fort on Sri Lanka’s coral-strewn southern coast. It is a small and intimate beach; golden sands, palm fringed, turquoise waters, and virtually empty of people. The white-capped waves of the Indian Ocean rumble inwards from an interminable distance, the occasional hulk of a liner silhouetted against the skyline. Halfway along the beach, three steps point the way to Apa Villa, an innovative beach-front villa built by Insight Guides publisher Hans Hoefer in 1996.

The site was previously occupied by a small, rather unseemly Sri Lankan run guest house built in the early 1970s. The original terracotta roof bungalow has now been extensively converted and extended to incorporate four distinct suites, equally distributed between the Cardoman and Saffron Villas. Each suite consists of a generous bedroom with a spacious bathroom to the rear and two sets of double doors leading to a verandah supported by coconut pillars and jakwood beams. Meals are served here throughout the day, many of the ingredients hailing from Hoefer’s organic garden at the Illuketia Estate some eight miles inland. The verandah looks directly out across Apa’s coconut groves to the sandy beach and ocean beyond. The air is scented with the aroma of heliconia, frangipani and other flowers and spices brought down from Illuketia.

In 1997 Hoefer commissioned Singapore architect Sonny Chan to design a separate courtyard villa on the west side of the Cardoman Villa. This latter building, known as the Saffron Villa, was completed in 1999 with assistance from the Australian architect Bruce Fell-Smith. Chan went on to design the acclaimed Tupai House in Bali (not Singapore) the following year. Saffron Villa, the largest of the three, stands at the north end of Apa’s swimming pool, a rather magical rectangle that always mirrors the colour of the ocean beyond, irrespective of weather or time of day.

It is somewhat exhilarating to know that Hans Hoefer, whose travel series covers more than a hundred countries worldwide, has taken such a keen interest in Sri Lanka. Moreover, he has played an intimate role in the decoration of Apa Villa’s interiors. Artifacts collected on his global travels now adorn furniture and walls throughout the three villas. In certain areas one can even behold some of his own small, understated works. A complete collection of the series is displayed in a library cupboard, surmounted by a catamaran from nearby Koggala Lake.

Hoefer was assisted in his design by the prolific Swiss carpenter, Rico, who runs the Bentota Workshop on the west coast. He produced a series of steel frame deckchairs and teak sun loungers that now run through the garden towards the sea. Apa Villa’s manager, Nikki Harrison, was also on hand to offer her own advice, collected from nearly thirty years in the fashion and textile industry. She created the cool blue and white striped cushions that adorn the various chairs and lounges. She also secured local seamstress Damyanthi Fernando to create cotton bedspreads for the three main bedrooms, each one hand-painted with the spices for which the rooms were named.

Click here to view James Fennell's Sri Lanka photographs.