Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Lunuganga, Sri Lanka

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Why book Lunuganga?

To immerse yourself in the exquisite eye of the late Sri Lankan star architect Geoffrey Bawa at his jungle home on the southwest coast.

Set the scene

A two-hour easy drive from Colombo, Lunuganga, fantastically tucked away down a rural track, seduces from the get-go. Set on 12 acres, peeking out from the jungle on the banks of glistening Dedduwa Lake; this white 1930s bungalow is tropical modernism design at its most potent – think clean lines meets colonial, coupled with the late architect’s signature inside-outside spaces.

It’s the kind of place which doesn’t feel like a hotel. Furnished to the rafters with Burgher antiques and eclectic objets from Bawa’s travels, it’s cosier, with everything in place exactly as he left it. Even the handsome Roman sculpture of Emperor Augustus greeting you at the door has stayed put.

However, it’s the show-stopping garden which will stop you in your tracks – a wonderland of Italian Renaissance, English country house and Japanese design. Stumble across emerald rice paddies abutting the lagoon, butterfly-shaped ponds, magical follies and rolling lawns lined with moss-covered Ming pots. Don’t miss the particularly British-looking windmill too.

However, there’s no feeling of being trapped in the past at Lunuganga. Now run by the brilliant Teardrop Hotels, in partnership with the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, they have nailed the balance of honouring history yet not forgetting all of today’s comforts. And Teardrop continues to impress – most recently, throwing open the doors of Bawa’s bedroom for guests to stay in and adding a spanking new hilltop swimming pool (in the exact location Bawa planned).

The backstory

‘The father of tropical modernism’ Geoffrey Bawa spearheaded a new type of architecture in Sri Lanka. A style which hailed the country’s new dawn (he designed the parliament building, numerous hotels, homes and even a railway station) after the teardrop island gained independence in 1948. The same year, Bawa snapped up Lunuganga, then an abandoned rubber plantation. It was unremarkable, with no garden and drowning in jungle. But Bawa saw potential.

Bit by bit, Bawa transformed the estate. The rubber trees were cleared, and the hill lowered to unveil sensational views. The garden was turned into a series of outdoor rooms, planting cinnamon, tamarind and every exotic plant possible, creating hidden follies, carving water features… Even the small pavilions, built to house Bawa’s architectural students, blended perfectly with the planting.

Bawa died in 2003, leaving his ‘self-portrait’ to the Geoffrey Bawa Trust. Run by Channa Daswatte, Bawa’s last architectural partner and great friend, the trust offered residences while conservationists worked their magic. In 2020, Teardrop Hotels – already triumphing with their impeccable boutique hotels across the country – took over management, bringing a solid dose of luxury to the party.

The rooms

There are 10 super spacious bedrooms spread across the main house, garden pavilions, and batik artist Ena de Silva’s villa, another Bawa work of art, on the edge of the estate. Each has a king-size bed and wonderfully unique features: the Gatehouse Suite, with its bathroom framed by a salvaged antique column; the Glass House, completely walled in glass and framed by trees; and the Gallery Room, once a cowshed, with an antique four-poster bed and private courtyard with weathered ochre walls and Miss Havisham-worthy gothic notes. Just be prepared that there are no TVs, iPads or tech.

The food and drink

The food is terrific, with the kitchen serving up flavour-packed plates (a mix of Sri Lankan and continental), created out of local produce (the coconut and mustard fish curry is particularly good). Bawa’s meticulously thought-out settings take meals to another level. The veranda charms with its sweeping views of Dedduwa Lake and two frangipani trees carefully crafted together. The breakfast table looks out over Cinnamon Hill where the cattle graze; the jackfruit tree, with a salvaged temple bell dangling above, is Bawa’s place for lunch, then there’s a Roman pavilion for afternoon tea and the architect’s G&T spot overlooking the lake at sunset.

The spa

There is no spa at Lunuganga. It’s more forest bathing here, with the wellbeing focused on spending time in nature. And, with such an overwhelmingly beautiful garden and deep tranquillity, you soon find yourself disconnecting from daily life.

The neighbourhood/area

It’s easy to forget that there is a world outside Lunuganga. But venture out and explore Bawa’s brother Bevis’ house, Brief (known for its fantastic garden), a half hour’s drive away. Or mosey down Madhu Ganga in a small boat at dawn, soaking up the sunrise and visiting a cinnamon grove. The 18th-century Dutch walled town Galle makes for a thrilling day trip, with its boho-chic shops, great restaurants and lovely beaches.

The service

Teardrop is celebrated for its excellent service. So, it’s no surprise that Lunuganga has a top team. The super smart staff are full of knowledge, brimming with local tips, historical facts and ideas. For a real treat, ask for one of Bawa’s original staff to show you around the garden (Krishna, one of his carers, is a fount of anecdotes).

For families

The garden is perfect for little ones to let off steam – plus the new swimming pool is fabulous, dotted with sun loungers. There’s also kite-making, cookery lessons, mask painting and a kid’s menu. Older children will enjoy boat rides down the river. The Cinnamon Hill room has extra beds available.

Eco effort

Lunuganga has eliminated single-use plastics (glass bottles with filtered water are in the bedrooms). There is recycling across the site. Bathrooms are stocked with locally-sourced products plus the estate donates excess rice from its small paddy field to the local village through nearby Dedduwa Temple.

Community initiatives are also a big thing. Teardrop’s charitable foundation CARE provides food, medicines and reading glasses for low-income families. They also make regular donations to local orphanages, villages and temple events. In addition, Teardrop have set up a programme to employ young people who are keen to take their first steps in the hotel industry.

Accessibility for those with mobility impairments

Lunuganga is a major challenge for the mobility impaired. There are a couple of ground floor bedrooms however all require steps to reach them. The other bedrooms are upstairs or in the garden on raised platforms.

Anything left to mention?

Sri Lanka’s southwest is awash with wonders to be explored, including an abundance of stunning beaches. Lunuganga makes for the perfect stop off for a few nights before continuing down the coast.

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