“There is a lotus pond in the garden and a swimming pool too, although that is now no more than an empty tank,” I wrote about Thotalagala in “The Plantation Home” series in this newspaper in 1997.
Then the bungalow was used for visiting tea company directors, having previously been a planter’s residence.
Now, like many bungalows in the hill country, Thotalagala has been transformed into a holiday home available for renting in its entirety. And the “empty tank” – I hasten to add – is now a neatly tiled swimming pool sparkling in the sunlight. It is divine for hardy guests who want to defy the elements by swimming 5,000 feet above sea level.
The bungalow is set into the hillside with soaring views of the plains below where, on a clear day – so they say – you can see the south coast. Located just over two miles from Haputale, on the road to the Dambatenne Tea Factory, the bungalow shares that town’s ever-changing climate, where bright sunshine can suddenly dissolve into chilly mist.
Thotalagala has changed little in the 13 years since I last stayed there, although now it is considerably smarter and better run. Fortunately it has not had a fortune thrown at it to transform it into a boutique property with titanium cement bathtubs and fancy candelabra. It is the real thing: an unreconstructed plantation bungalow with simple, sturdy beds, frilly lampshades, and deep, comfortable sofas you sink into gratefully.
Actually, the bathrooms have been spruced up and now have glass screens around the shower, and marble floors and tiles. There are seven bedrooms, some with attached bathrooms, in a rather complicated layout. However, since the bungalow is let only to one party at a time (and honeymooners love to have the whole place to themselves) guests are free to wander around and use all the rooms.
|Tea with a view: The front lawn
My favourite is the teak-panelled and teak-floored smokers’ room where a steward happily lights a log fire, making this a cosy retreat. There is another lounge with a fireplace, and a photograph of Sir Thomas Lipton above it, forming the reception entrance to the bungalow. The modern essentials of satellite television and a DVD player have been allowed to intrude here, but surely more appropriate is a meditative stroll along paths through the ferny glade surrounding the lotus pond, or a hearty hike through the tea gardens.
Ferguson’s Directory shows the redoubtable F. H. (Sam) Popham, creator of the arboretum at Kandalama, planted at Thotalagala in the early 1970s. The bungalow’s gardens doubtless owe much to his efforts, complementing the bungalow’s unusual exterior. Its walls are not grey granite blocks but have been pebble-dashed and painted white. It is built as a trio of pavilions with the main one fronted with chubby Doric columns, complementing the mock Tudor beams embedded in the facade of the dining hall.
Access to this dining hall is from the corridor linking the two wings. Broad French windows open on to the garden on one side with arched entrances to the dining hall on the other. An experienced, resident chef, who is also an avid birdwatcher and nature lover, is on hand to discuss meals with guests in advance. He also delights in answering questions about the birds and butterflies to be seen in the gardens.
Meals are billed separately and the bungalow’s nightly rental, when shared between 14 guests who could all be accommodated at the same time, is remarkably reasonable. The management of the bungalow is by Sherwood Holidays Ltd with a resident manager looking after this and the company's other bungalow properties in the hill country. The company is associated with the operators of Sigiriya Village and The Palms, Beruwela.
I was gratified to see that not only has Thotalagala Bungalow survived and been improved, it is now open to guests (not just privileged tea company executives) who appreciate plantation traditions.
(Reservations, tel 011 2381644; www.forthotels.lk)