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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Taru Villas

Bentota, Sri Lanka

Situated two hours’ drive south of Colombo, the town of Bentota is widely considered to possess the finest beach on Sri Lanka’s west coast. For many years, the Sri Lankan designer Nayantara Fonseka and her friends visited Bentota and stayed at a modest guesthouse called Taprobana. By 2001, Fonseka, aka “Taru”, was a well-established interiors and fashion designer in Colombo, running a successful event management company on the side. That same year, Taprobana came on the market. “Perhaps it was because of its odd size and shape or maybe because of the countless memories I have of that particular stretch of beach, but I loved the property and could always see its potential”. The property was in a miserable condition when Taru duly took on the lease but, by her own admission, “the challenge of converting it into a fantastic small hotel was far too exciting” for her to think of any possible pitfalls. She has since converted the 200 metre long, 25 metre wide beachside strip into “Taru Villas”, one of Bentota’s most prestigious boutique hotels.

Built in the late 1980s, the two-storey villa is reached by a small track leading off the main Colombo - Galle Road. The principal block consists of a well-proportioned dining room, kitchen and living area on the ground floor with a polished cement staircase leading to three bedrooms above. A series of open double-doors lead from the main living area directly to the turquoise waters of the swimming pool. Fragrant frangipani and thumbergia blossoms roll along either side of the pool, culminating in an open-sided pavilion with wooden seating arranged for the evening sun. The pavilion serves as an informal border between the pool and the separate “garden bedrooms” on the beach side of the property. At the end of the garden, a modest white gate leads directly over the single track Colombo – Galle railway line to the coconut-fringed sands of Bentota Beach.

What sets Taru Villas apart is the sophistication of the interior. Taru designed many of the interior fixtures and furnishings herself, such as the sleek steel and teak dining chairs, oversized coffee sets, cutlery, menu holders, cement soap dishes and cushion covers. These combine with first-rate reproduction furniture and a floor of cement and cobblestone to create a stylish yet serene ambience. The exterior is painted an almost Tuscan shade of adobe pink, which provides a sensual blush to the poolside area by night. The pink sits comfortably with the more earthy colours of the furniture and floor. Boddhistava sculptures, Hindu statuettes and large batik paintings acknowledge the influence of Sri Lanka’s ancient past. As such, the villa slowly reveals itself as a significant and successful collage of contemporary and antiquity, unafraid of the past, open to the future.

Taru Villas is ideal for the honeymoon couples who make up so many of Sri Lanka’s overseas visitors. As such, the staff have evolved an almost Zen-like canny for discretion. They materialize and vanish with grace and decorum. As one dines, looking out to the white-tipped ocean waves, inhaling the aromas of the feast ahead, one’s bedroom is subtly converted into a romantic retreat. A deep orange lantern glows softly on either side of the bed, itself a seductive combination of carefully turned cotton sheets, silk cushions and buxom pillows. On the polished cement floor, scattered hints of emerald and slate, flower petals in a waterbowl, a scented candle’s flame flirting with the evening breeze that wafts through the open doors of the private verandah.

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