Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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From 'Living in Sri Lanka' by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2006)

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Chapter 2: Coastal Villas

In the Sinhalese legends, the sea is hailed for its celestial powers. It is given a prominent role in the hierarchy of elements, perhaps as the engine room of nature, perhaps as the inspiration for creative thought or perhaps as the prophet of a great and terrible sorrow. That the voice of the sea speaks to the soul is accepted by one and all. In Sri Lanka, an island encircled by Ocean, the soul cannot help but respond to such overwhelming power with serene ambivalence.

From the Portuguese villas of Jaffna in the north to the Dutch fort of Galle on the southwest, the Sri Lankan coastline wends its way around more than a thousand miles of sandy beaches, mangrove swamps, bird-filled wetlands, ambling peninsulas and turquoise bays. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean, sometimes inhospitable, sometimes at ease, rumble into the interminable beyond. In the south, the shore is fringed with coral reefs and small islands; sunken merchant ships from long-gone days rest deep beneath the surface. Majestic ocean liners and tankards ply the distant waters, their colossal bulks silhouetted as the sun sinks to sleep. Surfers speed upon the white-crested barrel waves of Arugum Bay. In Galle, stilt fishermen clamber upon poles securely set into the bedrock of the water and cast a hopeful line.

The south west coast has become so popular in the past twenty years it is now known as the ‘Serendib Riviera’. Hotels and guesthouses run the course of the strip, some bold and demanding, others discreet and intimate.

At Bentota, two hours south of Colombo, one of the most enchanting beaches in Asia provides the setting for two distinguished villas – one an imaginatively renovated 18th century complex by Geoffrey Bawa, the other a contemporary boutique hotel by one of Colombo’s foremost designers. The beach at Thalpe plays host to two striking modern villas – Victoria and Apa Villa while closer to Galle, Bawa’s Lighthouse Hotel is surely one of Sri Lanka’s greatest 20th century architectural triumphs. Many of Sri Lanka’s coastal villas are designed as virtual extensions of the ocean. At the Lighthouse, Bawa goes so far as to specifically employ the ocean as a principal feature of the design, insisting guests confront the temperamental waters crashing beneath. Elsewhere, infinity pools appear to plunge directly into the frothy surf while, hung between misshapen coconut trees, hammocks tease the ocean with their gentle sway.

Further east at Weligama Bay, an enigmatic 1920s folly makes for an eccentric yet endearing island retreat. Bawa’s influence again makes itself felt along the white sandy beaches of Tangalla – at the late American artist Douglas Johnson’s hideaway and at Mahawella, the last private house Bawa designed before his death.

1. The Beach House.

2. Taprobane Island.

3. Mahawella (Tim Jacobson)

4. Apa Villa Thalpe.

5. Victoria.

6. 87 Bentota (Rohan Jayakody).

7. Taru Villas (aka Taprobana).

8. The Lighthouse Hotel.

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