A Sydney businessman has staked out his own little section of paradise near the seductive city of Galle, writes Saska Graville.
For a style-savvy insider's guide to the area in and around the southern Sri Lankan city of Galle, there can be few better-placed sources than Sydney business owner Tony Bannister.
The founder of fashion forecasting agency Scout, Tony fell in love with Sri Lanka while on holiday six years ago and has just put the finishing touches to his own slice of paradise, a deluxe holiday rental, Ivory House.
That Tony's partner happens to be the general manager of one of London's five-star hotels gives an indication of the level of luxury and attention to detail brought to the project.
Set in the middle of rice paddies, just a few kilometres outside Galle, Ivory House is the perfect base from which to tick off everything on Tony's local must-do list - although dragging yourself away from the house is a challenge.
No wonder Tony starts every day with laps in the 20-metre pool, followed by a pot of locally grown tea and a glass of coconut juice from one of the garden's king coconut trees.
Retreat with a book to the shaded garden daybed, and it's easy to spend the entire morning having taken only a few steps from your bedroom door. Monkeys play in the trees, wild peacocks stalk the paddy fields and a couple of mongoose scuttle across the lawn.
There is, however, plenty to see and do beyond the Ivory House grounds, starting with an exploration of historic Galle, Sri Lanka's fourth-largest city and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Tony's tip is to get there early (a tuk tuk is a cheap - and fun - way to make the trip) and join locals for a morning promenade around the fort ramparts, in the beautifully preserved port area of the town.
It's the ideal way to get your bearings, before you plunge into the maze of shopping streets.
This is where you really need local knowledge. Don't be put off by the overabundance of patchwork elephants. There are some stylish buys to be had in Galle, if you know where to look.
Several striking pieces of Ivory House furniture were found by Tony at Orlanda Furniture, a cavernous emporium of antique and reproduction colonial designs (olandafurniture.com).
It's the sort of place in which you can easily lose a couple of hours. Tony is also a fan of lifestyle emporium the KK Collection (36 Church Street), the shopping outpost of nearby boutique hotel Kahanda Kanda (more on that later). Perfect souvenir buys include the chic polished steel Sri Lankan cutlery and butter dishes - they beat a patchwork elephant any day.
Other shops worth a visit: Mimimango (joedenmimimango.com) for pricey but exquisite kaftans, the Church Street Gallery (vintagepostersandpostcards.com) for vintage Ceylon posters and Laksana (30 Hospital Street) for a bewildering array of gemstones and jewellery.
Of course, if what you really want is a patchwork elephant, you'll be spoilt for choice.
Your holiday budget might not stretch to a night at the exquisite Amangalla hotel (amanresorts.com), but do not leave Galle without having a drink in the elegant bar, and, if you have time, the decadent Sri Lankan curry feast dinner out on the verandah (another Tony must-do).
The hotel's executive assistant manager is Sutherland Shire-native Kavita Devi Faiella.
If she is on duty as you sip your mango bellini, she is happy to share her Galle tips: coconut ice-cream from Pedlar's Inn Gelateria (61 Pedlar's Street), gift shopping at Souk 58 (souk58.com) and a yoga class with Lara Baumann at Quantum Yoga (quantumyoga.com).
Both Tony and Kavita agree that, away from Galle, no Sri Lankan holiday is complete without a swim and sunset drink at Wijaya Beach.
An expat hangout, the setting is postcard-pretty, with palm trees bent over the white sand and a tranquil lagoon created by a close-to-shore coral reef.
The beachside "feet-in-the-sand" bar is rustic, rather than elegant, but it is hard to think of a better spot to sip a beer as the sun goes down. For a more sophisticated experience, Tony heads for lunch and a swim at Why Beach (whybeach.com), an ocean-front restaurant and boutique hotel.
Run by an Italian mother-and-son team (Mama keeps a strict eye on the kitchen), it's an understated oasis of dark wood, cream stone and uninterrupted Indian Ocean views. Out on the busy road, you would never know such elegance is hidden behind the high walls, but inside, it is serene. And the Italian food? Out of this world.
There is one other chic outing that should be on your holiday plan. Just five minutes down the road from Ivory House, Kahanda Kanda (kahandakanda.com), or KK as the locals call it, is a hilltop boutique hotel, with breathtaking views over tea plantations, palm trees and across to nearby Lake Koggala.
Non-residents can swim in the azure infinity pool if the hotel isn't too crowded, so book lunch, get there early, and make a day of it. Away from Ivory House, it's hard to think of a more spectacular setting.
The magic of Ivory House itself, however, is pretty unbeatable. As dusk settles, the sunset glows on the rice paddies and the fireflies hover, it's one of those "wow" settings that have to be treasured.
No wonder Tony was so smitten when he first saw the spot - he's found the holiday love of his life.
The writer was a guest of Ivory House.
edenvillasmanagement.com for booking inquiries.
Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Colombo daily; see emirates.com.
With four double bedrooms, rates are from $US450 ($500) a night in low season and $US900 in high season. The villa sleeps eight and includes Wi-Fi, a sound system, airconditioning and a DVD library.
The house comes with a team of attentive staff (chef, cleaner, gardener and night watchman), who do everything from shimmying up trees for coconuts to mixing gin and tonics. Chef Sunil consults guests about their catering needs (his repertoire of cookery books includes ones by Bill Granger) and shops for fresh produce daily.