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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The River House

Balapitiya, Sri Lanka

The River House stands on the southern banks of the Madhu Estuary. Here the great waters of the Madhu Ganga make their final surge into the Indian Ocean. In the 18th century, such a fertile location proved invaluable to Dutch merchants who planted the estuarine landscape with cinnamon, a species native to Sri Lanka. By the 1960s, the country’s cinnamon trade was in decline and the Madhu estates were abandoned.

In 2002 Colombo-based interior designer Nayantara Fonseka acquired a seven-acre site amid the once flourishing cinnamon belt. The property included a dilapidated wattle and daub bungalow from the 1950s. Between August 2003 and July 2004, she orchestrated the conversion of the bungalow into a spectacular riverside guest house. It was a laborious process, commencing with the reconstruction of the original termite and dry rot riddled walls. A new Romanesque villa was then constructed around these walls, consisting of a main living area and four separate suites. Each suite comprises a generously proportioned bedroom and spacious bathroom. The latter takes full advantage of Sri Lanka’s prime weather pattern and allow for both indoor and outdoor bathing. Likewise, each suite has its own shaded courtyard enabling guests to enjoy the sounds of nature in private.

The River House stands on a raised hillock looking north to the river. When Fonseka began the reconstruction, the river was out of sight, submerged in a rampant wilderness that had taken over the former cinnamon estate. A dozen men from the nearby villages of Balapitiya and Ambalangoda were recruited to clear the unruly jungle. In gratitude, a large number of hitherto neglected fruit trees – olive, goraka, mango, coconut and lime – began to bear fruit again. The land was then replanted with vegetables, spices, rice and further fruits that now adorn the River House’s acclaimed dinner menu. A swimming pool and pavilion were subsequently set into the garden, and a fifth completely detached honeymoon suite built a short distance from the river bank. The latter additions are connected to the main house by a series of interweaving paths, each beholding an alternative view of the river marsh, paddy fields and rejuvenated garden.

In furnishing the property, Fonseka took a similar approach to that which she had successfully employed at “Taru Villas” (qv) in Bentota. She travelled Sri Lanka from the northern Jaffna peninsula to Galle, selecting specific pieces of furniture from antique shops and traders along the way. Some of the “Jaffna” doors and windows originally belonged to houses in the north and east destroyed in the civil war. She also ventured to Thailand and India where she sourced many of the various fabrics and decorative features. Where she could, Fonseka stylized the property with custom-built sofas, tables and box lamps.

The River House stands as a major testament to Fonseka’s creative prowess and considerable energy. In the short time since it’s official opening it has climbed to the uppermost ranks of Sri Lanka’s most exceptional places to stay. The essence is peace – guided by the sound of the river and ocean, shaped by the beauty of the surrounding land.

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