Beyond the obvious trials in renovating a 200-year-old property, living 1,000 miles away has brought its own set of complications for designer Niki Fairchild. "You can hear what’s going on, but don’t have any eyes with which to see – I end up calling way too much, saying ‘Have you done this? Is that taken care of?’." Residing in Poona, a three-hour drive from Mumbai, Niki is the owner of dainty boutique hotel Maya in Tangalle, Sri Lanka. Since it opened in 2010, the resort has appealed to travellers looking for an authentic slice of Sri Lanka coupled with stylish surroundings. An hour-and-a-half’s drive from historic Galle, the property is fringed by paddy fields and nestles beside an ancient Buddhist temple – a vantage point that continues to ensure its popularity.
A huge part of Maya’s charm lies, undeniably, in its distinctive decor. Niki’s credentials as a commercial and residential interior designer can be felt in every room, from the airy dining pavilion to the five beautifully appointed bedrooms. "One of my goals was to ensure that Maya didn’t become a typical colonial house. I tried to do something a bit different, to bring a freshness and lightness to the property and although it isn’t to everyone’s taste, the response we get time and again is how special it feels."
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Niki has spent her entire life in Asia, working and living in Thailand, Singapore, India, Laos and Vietnam. By her own admission she was used to "invasive clutter" so her first priority was to offer a total departure from the dark woods and overly ornate objects that she had grown up with. "By placing fewer objects around the property, not only do you offer guests a greater sense of space, but you also allow those items to stand out and be admired. You actually get to see them," she says.
Sourcing hand-carved furniture and stand-out pieces was not difficult for Niki, who had amassed a fairly impressive collection of her own over the years. She juxtaposed these with a slightly warmer colour palette than might be expected in a Sri Lankan property, substituting the traditional grey floor for a woody green that subtly blends the interior of the property with the two acres of garden that surround it.
Niki is clearly smitten with the 100-year-old trees that offer shade and shelter, despite
the fact that when she first found the property it was more of an unruly jungle than
a tropical paradise.
A frequent traveller to Sri Lanka since the late 1980s, Niki only came across the rundown estate of Aranwella Walauwa, as it was then called, after a childhood friend stumbled on it. Despite the condition of the main house she was instantly enamoured, although it took a further five years before Niki hired local architect Pradeep Kodikara to renovate it.
Niki and Pradeep added on a building, which now contains three bedrooms and a dining pavilion, cunningly blending the old with the new by way of a matching roof and flooring. The final touch was transforming the original courtyard into a swimming pool, offering a central cooling-off point on warmer days. Every couple of months, Niki finds herself retracing the now familiar route between Poona and Tangalle in a bid to ensure that her vision for Maya is being adhered to. "I’m an interior designer, so running a hotel is a whole new ball game! We’re getting there but I feel I’ve got a way to go before I can contemplate a new project. I sound like I’m complaining, but really I love it. I feel I owe it to the Walauwa – it’s up to me to look after her now.