by Harriet Whiting
, Circumnavigating scribe
If the sight of two dusty backpackers standing at the polished threshold of his tranquil haven surprises house manager Ananda, he certainly doesn’t show it. Without hesitation, he grasps our hands in greeting and pulls our filthy backpacks from our bodies. It has been a long bus ride from Arugam Bay (A-Bay to those in the know) on the east coast of Sri Lanka, where we’ve spent a week s...
If the sight of two dusty backpackers standing at the polished threshold of his tranquil haven surprises house manager Ananda, he certainly doesn’t show it. Without hesitation, he grasps our hands in greeting and pulls our filthy backpacks from our bodies. It has been a long bus ride from Arugam Bay (A-Bay to those in the know) on the east coast of Sri Lanka, where we’ve spent a week surfing the demanding point breaks. Mr Smith’s hair, blond from the sun, stands on end; my nose is slightly swollen from a recent board collision. In short, we are ready for some serious down time.
We are in luck because, as we are ushered past a serene courtyard with a jade-green swimming pool to a loggia open to the sea breeze, I can instantly feel the calming and restorative effects of the Last House. It’s aptly named, as this villa was local architect Geoffrey Bawa’s final project before his death in 2003.
The setting also seems to be having a rejuvenating effect on Mr Smith, an architect and Bawa fan. He declares the design considered: there’s the play of light and ventilation through open-sided rooms, the simplicity of the cool cement flooring and the stylishly pillared, wraparound verandas. He’s intrigued by the unusual rainwater drainage system that eschews guttering for a gravel channel beneath the terracotta-tiled eaves into which water falls directly.
Before he can get too technical, I agree that gutters are awfully ugly. ‘Anyway,’ I say, ‘shouldn’t we see our room?’ Just as I knew they would, these magic words get Mr Smith’s attention.
Upstairs, on the first floor of the main house, our vast boudoir – the Master Suite – does not disappoint. What strikes me immediately is the incredible sense of openness. Doors and windows, painted in distressed copper hues and topped with ornate latticework, are open wide to the environment. Like some sort of interactive art gallery, they seem to double as picture frames to nature’s perfect compositions beyond. Behind us, a sliding door reveals a cinema-size panorama of a close-enough-to-touch frangipani tree.
Mr Smith reveals this was a typical Bawa trademark in his Tropical Modernist movement: to dissolve boundaries between the outside and inside, and to fuse natural elements with the structure of the building. For me it simply means ludicrously pretty views. The large antique four-poster bed, elegantly placed in the centre of the vast room, is the perfect place to enjoy this concept.
The bathroom is equally expansive, with more sigh-inducing scenes: a tricolour of sky, sand and sea to the front and an exotic Gauguin-esque tropical tableau to the rear. The claw-foot tub, freestanding in the middle of the space, is clearly another ideal venue from where to test Bawa’s theories. Mr Smith reaches out for a handful of frangipani flowers to sprinkle in our bath.
Back on the ground floor, we discover more ‘artwork’ framed by arches and doorways, along with plenty of conveniently placed day-beds and antique loungers. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into the planning of this house, yet the overall impression is of effortlessness. The muted ochre walls punctuated with faded green shutters, deep verandas and weathered wooden furniture give it an understated elegance. Even our natural surroundings – bendy coconut trees and bushy plants in oversized pots – have just the right amount of cultivated charm.
It’s exactly how you would build your own tropical holiday home, Mr Smith muses, as he holds open a peeling green gate, our private entrance to the beach. It does feel like our own place – with only six rooms, other guests are few. In fact, for the moment at least, we are alone. We wander along the rugged but beautiful beach, with its soft, pale sand, towards a rocky headland. Banked behind are thickets of pandan trees. Gentle, surf-crested waves, just the right size for a frolic and the perfect antidote to A-Bay’s monster swells, roll in one after another.
By dinner, our environment is beginning to rub off and we have restored ourselves to a respectable couple, not that there is anyone else around to care. In fact, Mr Smith remarks how lovely it is to have my full attention. Much to his embarrassment, I’m a renowned rubbernecker, especially when it comes to other people’s food. The evening’s menu has been created for us after a casual conversation at lunchtime. My recurring fantasy is to have my own staff and this is a rare glimpse into what that might be like. Mr Smith loves gossiping with Ananda about what Geoffrey Bawa was really like, and is reassured to hear he was a perfectionist to the end.
Over grilled prawns and, later, home-made banana ice-cream, we decide this would be a fabulous place to hire out exclusively for a big get-together. Our friends would adore the relaxed, luxurious style and alfresco dinners by flickering candlelight, our late-night chatter mingling with the crashing of the waves. Passing off Ananda’s cooking as my own might be a stretch, but his culinary skills could guarantee us the most decadent of feasts. We let the thought linger then, like the whoosh of a wave onto the shore and back, the idea gently retreats in the darkness. Above us, stars twinkle in the inky sky, and as Mr Smith takes my hand, I know that the best way to experience the Last House is exactly how it is right now – just the two of us.