Why, I wondered with a growing sense of disenchantment as we bounced over potholes ever deeper into the hinterland of Beliatta eight km inland from Tangalle, would anyone want to stay here? I glanced again at the directions I had downloaded from the website.
Yes, it seemed we were on the right road for there ahead of us, was a big cinnamon stick fence beside a temple. Although there was no name on the black wooden gate in the middle of the fence, this was indeed Aranwella Walauwa, blessed now with the new name of Maya.
Maya is one of those century-old places that has been rescued from dilapidation by foreign fans of Sri Lanka and turned with charm and ingenuity into a hotel; in this case a destination in itself. I could imagine guests spending a few nights here while on a tour of Sri Lanka, or deciding to stay for a couple of weeks to unwind and relish the countryside of the deep south.
Maya is Sanskrit for ‘illusion’ or ‘dream’ and the wonderfully simple way this old property has been transformed into comfortable and contemporary elegance, is dreamlike in itself. Entrance is by a short walk across a lawn from the visitors’ cars park, up to the old latticed portico.
We were greeted with the most delicious, freshly squeezed passion fruit juice and this immediately put me in the mood to appreciate Maya’s attractions. The old house has been transformed with smooth cement floors and artistically placed pieces of modern furniture into two luxurious bedroom suites.
The side doors of the corner suite open onto an irresistibly blue swimming pool and then I realised the pool is at the other side of the room as well. It flows around the old house with access from both bedrooms, linking the old part with the new.
The new section comprises three suites, each with a different inner courtyard garden giving complete privacy. Beds are huge and plump. The bathroom arrangement is especially unusual; there is no door. Entrance is between two clothes closets; behind one is the shower and behind the other is the lavatory. The rooms are cool with fans and, mercifully, no polluting air conditioning units.
While two sides of the pool link the rooms, the third side is formed by the dining and lounge pavilion, which is open to the rolling view across a lawn down to paddy fields of ever-changing visual beauty. Buffaloes toiled in the distance and, while we had lunch, wild peacocks mewed loudly.
Meals are taken at a terrazzo cement table moulded in an art-deco hollow shape, with places set for 10, the maximum number of resident guests. The reputation of the Asian-fusion inspired cooking by a young Sri Lankan chef has resulted in guests from coastal hotels occasionally and by advance reservation driving inland to Maya for lunch or dinner.
The homemade bread was rich and our potato and spring onion soup very reviving after the journey. Our main course of chicken and mango salad struck the right note of rustic flavour. The ice cream with cinnamon and chilli chocolate pudding that my companion tried was sensational.
Since it has accommodation only for 10, with extra beds for children if necessary, Maya is ideal for family or friends who want to holiday together. They could swim from one room to the other, laze in hammocks in the 2-acre garden or explore the southern planes.
Maya’s theme is simple sophistication in a rural setting; an utter surprise after the drive through chaotic villages to get there. Interior designer Niki Fairchild working with local architect Pradeep Kodikara have combined their talents to create an impressive modern space in an ancient setting.
The room price, starting from US$170 for a double (or US$750 for the whole place), not only includes breakfast but also driver’s accommodation and his meals. The privacy and peace are a bonus.
Maya Old House, Aranwella, Beliatta; tel: 047 567902; for directions see the website: www.mayatangallesrilanka.com