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  • Writer's pictureJen Rodrigo

It’s like coming home: Taru Villas – Leela Walauwwa

Think sitting in a tastefully furnished hall overlooking a beautiful pool and garden with a cup of coffee in your hand, or laying in the most comfortable of beds and getting lost in a book with the songs of birds keeping you company. Picture taking a mid-afternoon dip in the pool with friends and family scattered across the gardens nearby, or sitting down for an intimate meal with people you love and enjoying food prepared with so much attention to detail. Imagine gathering at a table for a friendly game of cards, or sitting back on a couch ready to get lost in a good movie.

Taru Villas – Leela Walauwwa embodies this sense of intimacy when it houses its guests.

From the moment you climb up the path flanked by lush greenery – gardens kept so immaculate – you are almost accosted by the feeling of visiting someone’s beautiful home, and by the first few hours of your stay, this home becomes your home too.

It was love at first sight for Nayantara Fonseka, fondly referred to as Taru. Taru is the Founder and Chairman of Taru Villas – a collection of 14 properties in the island – and it is hard to miss her distinct touch and sense of style in all of them – architecture and interior design-wise.

“I was always looking for something inland; everything of ours was on the beach. I wanted something for my own,” shared Taru, referring to the property which dates back to the 18th Century. She fell in love with the “dilapidated house” and the old gates in the front. “I loved the approach.”

“The idea was for me to retire here one day,” she laughed, adding, however, that she doesn’t see retirement around the corner.

Leela Walauwwa is located in Induruwa, in a secluded luxury private villa setting. Everything about its original architecture has been well preserved and this is palpable as soon as you set foot in the property. From the old gates at the entrance to the open courtyard adjoining the main living area, great care has been taken to conserve the rich heritage of the venue, and this is something Taru believes in doing with all of her properties.

The villa has four stylish air-conditioned double rooms that can comfortably accommodate up to nine guests. The king-size beds, colonial-themed photographs and paintings on the wall – all give the rooms a sense of being surrounded by history, surrounded by a story.

Adjoining the open courtyard is the main living area with the dining space on the right. Again decorated with paintings that each tell a story, the space houses a large glass-top table with coffee table books and jars filled with sweets, which I found to be a unique touch. Each of the common rooms – the TV room and the game room – has the same feature.

From the living area, you’re looking directly at the gracefully placed pool in a lush green garden that also houses a gazebo where one can either read a book or enjoy a cup of evening tea. Over to the left of the gardens, a short flight of stairs leads you to an elevated garden space that houses an outdoor spa area. I was told by Taru that the property has valuable trees called “vallapatta trees”. The tree’s sap can be used to make perfumes and is something the Japanese pay great money for, I was told.

The villa’s rustic tones are reflected in the meals as well. In keeping with the rural village surroundings of Induruwa, exotic Sri Lankan flavours are combined with international cuisine and presented at the dining table with utmost care. It’s hard to miss Taru’s architecture evident in the food – cuisine inspired by her cosmopolitan worldview, wide travels, old family recipes, and enthusiasm for creating excitement on the palate. Signature dishes to try out would be their Jaffna crab curry, dukkah spiced prawns, and Eton mess.

Other properties

One evening of our stay was taken up by a short visit to Taru Villas – Rock Villa in Bentota, a short distance from Leela Walauwwa. From the moment we got off our car and walked down its long corridor towards the pool to when we got on the beautifully kept garden and turned around to view the villa in all its glory at sunset, I was bewitched. Taru had done it again: Preserved a home, heritage, history, and story within a luxury hotel setting.

We went a little further and outside the property, crossing a single-track railway line to dip our toes in the sand and sea of a seemingly untouched golden beach, and were lucky enough to catch the most glorious sunset in quiet serenity. The beach, maintained by Rock Villa, was again pristine and peaceful.

Breakfast the next morning was graciously arranged at Taru Villas – Rampart Street. Turning into the Fort and a little away from all the hubbub was Rampart Street which offers tuk tuk rides to its guests in a black trishaw bearing its name. By now, our party had come to expect this “sense of Taru” within all her properties and we were quite accurately awed by the placing of furniture, paintings, general interior décor, and uniquely curated rooms.

Taru: A woman who cannot be contained in words

Taru herself is a woman you can’t “unmeet”. She arrived at Leela Walauwwa late one evening and was instantly concerned with taking good care of her guests, offering us drinks and more hospitality. Refusing to be the centre of attention, she pulled up a chair in the corner of the room, overlooking the pool, and told me her story in the most unpretentious way. I was both entertained and intrigued.

“My life story is about my staff and nothing else,” she shared candidly, referring to how she was moved for days when the pandemic hit and 78% of her staff had asked her to just feed them and nothing else.

Empowering people is at the core of why she does what she does, and this was evident in how ardently she spoke of them and their many talents, which she is keen to notice and bring out. The boys that make up her staff come from families where their fathers are fishermen, vegetable sellers, and mason basses. They were picked – raw – by Taru and taught the ropes of the hospitality industry – every little thing from serving a guest well to preparing exotic dishes. Her passion for training was evident as her staff seemed to move about the walauwwa unseen, but ever available to meet our every need. The food was perfectly prepared and splendidly presented.

“When you go to their homes, no matter how small they are, you see the legacy that you’ve taught them. Their bathrooms are spotless and dry. There are hand towels or toilet paper,” said Taru, talking about her unscheduled visits. “Most often, I don’t inform them that I’m coming to see their children and their wives. I barge in,” she laughed.

“If you don’t teach them how to take care of their spaces, how can they serve a guest? If they live in a pigsty, if they go to the bathroom and don’t wash their hands or clean the toilet before somebody else comes in and uses it, why should they be doing up a guest room perfectly and not live like that?” she queried.

Cleanliness and a general sense of care for one’s own environment, according to Taru, translate into a person going above and beyond in the hospitality industry, and I couldn’t have agreed more. All one had to do was look around and observe her own staff in action at Leela Walauwwa.

Article originally published in The Morning

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