ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 42

Soothe your soul at this riverine retreat

The best way to arrive at Madu Ganga Villa is by boat, ferried gently from the Galle Road at Balapitya up the broad sweep of the river through lurking vegetation. The change of pace from road to river, from dense traffic to deep mangroves, from scurrying pedestrians to watchful cormorants, prepares the mind for this peaceful riverine retreat.

Two floating bedrooms on catamaran base

The approach is signalled by a frieze of white fretwork trimming the green roof of a floating restaurant. Access to what turns out to be a whimsical garden of antiques, tall umbrageous trees, herbal plants and modern accommodation units, is by a slip of a jetty. Visitors step ashore in awe to discover an eclectic combination of old and new, such as air-conditioned rooms on a base of catamarans and a brick house shored up by ancient drain pipes.

Neat narrow paths meander through the well-swept undergrowth yielding surprises amongst the trees: a racing bullock cart parked by a cannon, Victorian lamp posts, a suite of priceless Dutch cast iron garden chairs, a quartet of granite mile posts, two statues of grazing deer. An antique sitting Buddha statue and an old coconut oil lamp stand at the beginning of a path headed by two guard stones, with a colonial cast iron water pump as a garden ornament at the side. The passion of the owner of Madu Ganga Villa for using odd antiques to make a striking design statement gives the two-acre garden intrigue and charm.

Interior of the old villa bathroom showing antique bowl

In the midst of the foliage, where jak and kitul trees grow, colourful exotic flowers bloom and coucal birds forage, a swimming pool soars above the river, its glimmering translucence a contrast to the dull ebony ebb and flow of the water below. The steps leading to it come from an 18th century village headman's house.

The nearby building of natural, unplastered clay brick with black-painted Victorian metal drain pipes instead of colonial columns, has two rooms for guests. These are called jungle cabanas because the pruned forest overlaps the veranda and balcony, and the morning wake up call is by piping squirrels and chortling monkeys. Each room has a four poster bed over 100 years old, a fan, and an ambience of romantic calm.

Tranquil vista: The swimming pool overlooking the river

There are another two rooms built on a raft on the river supported by the hulls of catamarans. These have an extravagant veranda where guests relax and watch cormorants fishing and villagers paddling past in small canoes. In contrast, the interior of these floating rooms and of the two by the jetty and the two above the restaurant, are designed to keep nature at bay. They have air-conditioning and television, attached shower rooms, and seem more appropriate to a city hotel than a paradise at peace with nature.

However, Madu Ganga Villa caters for all tastes. Traditional accommodation with fans and shuttered windows and antique knick-knacks is available in the original 150-year-old bungalow. The entrance gates of the property, which is about three kilometres down country lanes from the Galle Road, open into a compound of spreading breadfruit trees in front of the bungalow.

Fresh river crab and prawns for dinner

The bungalow's façade is ornamented by leaping traceries, each window frame crowned by a cap of decorative patterns cut in wood. The effect is stunning, an introduction to the antiquity of the interior. There is one single and two double bedrooms; a shower room is open to the sky as part of the small central courtyard, complete with pond. Dramatic features like the village headman's washbasin bright with painted flowers and a delicate ebony table inlaid with ivory, add a sense of period style.

Visitors directed by boatmen to the riverside restaurant for lunch or dinner dine sumptuously on freshly-caught crab and prawns. The open sided pavilion full of solid wooden furniture is flanked with old kitchen screens painted antique green and period coach lamps. A sign with the restaurant's name bears the British royal crest, adapted from a memorial board over 60 years old.

The extensive menu is traditional Sri Lankan with dishes blessed with a sensible use of herbs and spices, prepared on demand. Visitors soon fall under the garden's spell of rustic dignity and long to stay longer, which is what inspired the owner to add new accommodation when he bought and landscaped the property some five years ago.

The result is an unusual and unpretentious place to stay, unashamedly dedicated to soothing the soul.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.