For a sun-starved Brit like me it’s difficult, nigh on impossible even, to tear myself away from Sri Lanka’s palm-fringed, white-sand beaches. So when Mr Smith announces that he’s booked us two nights at Maya – a country house 45 minutes from the Tangalle coast – I’m at first less than grateful. ‘Give all this up,’ I say, lower lip trembling as I point at the fine sand, the softly rustling palm trees, the waves tumbling in. ‘Trust me,’ he says, ‘you won’t regret it.’
So we go. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s right. I don’t regret it. In fact, I love every single minute of it. Maybe it’s the location – at the edge of a peaceful village, surrounded by rice fields, where the only noise you’ll hear is the soft tchk tchk call of cicadas.
Maybe it’s the tree-filled garden with colourful birds flitting about and exotic, tropical flowers blooming from hidden corners. Maybe it’s the house itself, open-plan with wooden shutters and cool concrete floors and interesting touches such as the vintage fans and copper water jug on the bedside table. Whatever it is, the moment I arrive I lie across the vast bed, let the cool breeze wash over me, listen to the silence and feel instantly calm.
Maya is the kind of place where the biggest decision you have to make each day is whether to read your book on the sun-lounger by the pool or swinging in the hammock under the trees. Oh, and you will have to decide what to eat. Regularly and often. Dinesh, the charming house manager, appears at our shoulders with surprising frequency, suggesting that it might, perhaps, be time to eat something. The food from chef Darshana is so good that we never turn him down. Breakfast is a feast of fresh fruit followed by porridge with syrup, toast with local jam and egg hoppers – a Sri Lankan-style pancake with a fried egg in the middle and a spicy onion chutney on the side.
After a busy morning lazing by the pool, it’s time for lunch: a salad one day; a Sri Lankan curry banquet the next. Nothing is prescribed. Dinesh wanders out, tells us what’s been freshly bought at the market, what Darshana thinks he might be able to rustle up for us and we choose.
Wrapped in sarongs, we eat in the shade by the poolside, barefoot. The trees around us are filled with feathered friends. Mr Smith finds a book on Sri Lankan birds in the house library and becomes a veritable twitcher. We spot brightly hued parrots, woodpeckers, kingfishers and peacocks, which are native to Sri Lanka. One lunchtime a troupe of monkeys swings into the garden, flinging themselves from tree to tree, impossibly acrobatic.
Bikes beckon in the late afternoon, and we ride down country lanes through deep green rice fields. We visit the neighbourhood temple, tiny and unpretentious. I decide to go for a jog (all that eating is taking its toll) and run through the village in my Lycra leggings and acid-pink T-shirt. Two teenage boys escort me on their bikes, proprietarily fending off interest from others. Women laugh and then hide their faces behind the corners of their saris. A rickshaw driver slows. ‘Are you exercising?’ he asks, mystified. ‘I am,’ I tell him, breathing hard, my face redder than my T-shirt. I don’t go far, as I’m not used to the tropical heat, but I’m sure my short run is still the talk of the town.
Come evening, in the softly lit garden, we lounge on sofas on the terrace beside the pool. Dinesh brings us roasted cashews with garlic and chilli and his speciality cocktail, the Arrak Sour, which is icy, sharp and deliciously refreshing. There’s soothing music playing on the stereo and the haunting nocturnal cries of the peacocks blend in so well it feels as if they’ve been specially mixed with the tunes to give the beats a truly Sri Lankan vibe. Of course we eat again: cuttlefish salad, fresh tuna with mashed squash, and steamed date pudding.
The scent of cinnamon oil warming in a burner welcomes us back to our room when we call it a night – the staff burn it to keep mosquitoes at bay, but it’s such a warm, sensual fragrance I wish I could bottle it for home. We light a candle and enjoy the luxury of a four-poster bed.
When it’s time to depart I realise how truly fickle I am. ‘Go back to the beach,’ I say, my lower lip trembling. ‘Leave all this?’ Mr Smith just sighs and nods. It’s hard to drive away but at least we have the memories of a magic two days to take home with us. Back in wintry London, I urge friends to make a beeline for Maya. ‘Trust me,’ I say, ‘you won’t regret it’…